SANTA BARBARA – One year after the end of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in California, adolescents reported an increase in feeling disconnected from their communities and negative thoughts about society in general, according to a UCSB study on adolescent “social well-being.” The research found pervasive decreases in social well-being, and a significant portion of the students surveyed did not recover to their pre-COVID level by 2022.

Social well-being, which measures how individuals feel about their interpersonal relationships and connections within a larger society, is essential to overall youth mental health and can be diminished even without symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the researchers.

“It was especially disheartening to learn that after the restriction phase of the pandemic, less than 20% of students expressed the belief that society was a good place or becoming a better place, [as opposed to the 33% who expressed optimism in 2019] raising concerns for possible future cynicism and civic disengagement,” said Michael Furlong, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of School Psychology at the UCSB Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

From 2019 to 2022, Furlong, fellow UCSB professors Erin Dowdy and Karen Nylund-Gibson, and Utah State University Assistant Professor Mei Ki Chan collected and analyzed student wellness surveys through a partnership with a California school district. Beginning in October 2019 (as part of a separate study initiated before the pandemic), students from grades 7-12 had the opportunity to participate in a survey that measured their social well-being, and they were offered to participate in the same survey for four years.

Social well-being was explored by asking questions about five broad topics: belonging to a community, recognizing people as basically good, contributing to society, understanding society, and feeling like society was a good space. For example, a question on community engagement asked students to rate the statement, “I feel close to people at this school.” Students could select a response on a scale of one to five, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” 

The study found extensive decreases in social well-being, and a significant portion of the students failed to rebound to their pre-COVID level by 2022: In 2019, 45% of survey respondents said that they contributed to society daily or more often, compared to 31% who reported this sentiment in 2022. 

Students with the strongest negative responses of not feeling engaged with society (“languishing” on the social well-being scale) comprised 42% of the total in 2019. The languishing group increased to over 60% in 2020, 2021, and 2022. 

Mental health professionals should be aware of the pandemic’s effects on the social well-being of adolescents, UCSB researchers said. Even without symptoms of depression and anxiety, adolescents with lower levels of social well-being may be at risk for developing jaded attitudes about their social relationships, and for diminishing their potential engagement with sources of social support.

“Expanding positive service learning opportunities can help counter adolescents’ exposure to the toxic social dynamics they experienced during the pandemic,” said Dr. Furlong. 

Schools that emphasize community service activities as part of graduation requirements might provide students an opportunity to experience being active contributors to their community and to feel appreciated by society, the study stated. 

"These results emphasize how important it is for students to feel like they belong and are making valuable contributions to society,” said Dr. Dowdy from the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the Gevirtz School. “I'm hopeful that educators will stop and think about how to help students feel valued and that they matter, and to continue to work towards building a sense of community within their schools and classrooms.”

Learn more about the study here: Furlong, M. J., Chan, M-K., Dowdy, E., & Nylund-Gibson, K. (2024). Diminished Adolescent Social Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Child Indicators Research.

PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Perko, UC Santa Barbara