After a year of living with and “in” the coronavirus pandemic, younger people in the U.S. have had to deal with over twelve months of quarantine and lockdown, going to school remotely from home, and distancing from friends. For most young people, the public health crisis has been more about that social distancing from friends, a collective sense of isolation, and mental and behavioral health impacts.

These dynamics and these young health citizens’ coping mechanisms are captured in the report, Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health.

Three organizations collaborated to conduct and consider this important research: Common Sense, California Healthcare Foundation, and Hopelab. Authors of the report were Victoria Rideout, longtime expert on families, youth, and media; Susannah Fox, “Internet Geologist” well-known for her work on peer-to-peer health care and the origins of the Internet in health care (and in full disclosure, my close friend); and Alanna Peebles and Michael Robb, researchers at Common Sense.

The research findings come out of a survey conducted among 1,513 14-to-22-year-old’s in the U.S. fielded between September and November 2020. Demographics collected included age, gender, race/ethnicity, and LGBTQ+ identity.

The first chart details what younger people, ages 14 to 22, searched online in 2018 compared with 2020.

Some 8 in 10 younger people in the U.S. sought health information online in 2020, a slight decline from 2018. More young women than young men looked for health info online, as well as more Hispanic/Latinx and White youngers compared with Blacks.

Compared with 2018, all online health search topics fell in engagement except for smoking/vaping. However, there were demographic differences in specific topics for which younger people sought insights online. Generally, the older-youngers, age 18-22-year-olds, were more likely to search across all health categories online. More young women tend so search across more categories — especially for mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and depression, along with diet and nutrition, birth control and pregnancy, and eating disorders.

By race, younger Blacks index much lower in terms of searching for information on all health issues (except for heart disease), especially mental health conditions whether anxiety, stress or depression.

For younger people, it may be that online search is less impactful than other digital tools and workflows, such as joining up with social networks and using mobile apps to track personal health issues. But for younger people dealing with symptoms of depression, seeking information online can be fruitful and supportive.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges have indeed adversely impacted more younger people than people 25 and older. The bar chart from Kaiser Family Foundation’s look into mental health in 2020, illustrates that pandemic mental health reality, that over one-half of people between 18 and 24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the public health crisis, with the incidence of feeling anxious or depressed declining with age.

The Common Sense-CHCF-Hopelab study confirmed that health information seeking was a coping strategy for many younger people in 2020 — especially intense for younger folks who had moderate to severe depression, shown in the right column of the chart. Compared with young adults who were not dealing with depression at all, peers with moderate to severe depression indexed much higher across all health seeking categories — especially for the mental health conditions, along with sleep disorders, smoking/vaping, eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, and STDs.

More younger people dealing with depression also went online to connect with health providers across all platforms (video, text messaging, online messaging, or via apps) and also used mobile apps related to health.

Focusing in on the younger people dealing with depression, more LGBTQ+ youth reported moderate to severe levels of depression than non-LGBTQ+ youth in 2020, at a rate of over 2 to 1. That is, 65% of LGBTQ+ youth said they had moderate to severe depression compared with 31% of non-LGBTQ+ peers.

Furthermore, more LGBTQ+ younger people sought health information online compared with others, as well as used mobile health apps, connected with providers online, and sought to connect with other people “like me” online.

A new mental health risk arose in 2020 in the U.S. as our collective COVID-19 experience proliferated across the nation: one-half of young people who saw a coronavirus infection in their family also reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression. Compare that to 36% of young people who did not have COVID-19 touch their family.

Note that this study was conducted between September and November 2020: the report wants us to realize that the infection rate in the U.S. is much higher now, in March 2021, affecting Black and Latinx young people disproportionately.

“For those most directly affected by COVID-19, the internet was an even more important lifeline,” the report concludes. With depression increasing among young people in the U.S., for those who also lost family members and friends due to the coronavirus, social media and online/digital tools have been what the rapporteurs coined, “a safety net in a time of need.”

While some experts have argued that young people’s use of social media has exacerbated depression, this new research points to a third space: that is, that many young people who experience depression, whatever the source, are “purposely and proactively using social media and other digital tools to protect and promote their own well-being,” the report asserts.

This last line chart illustrates that for the 14-to-22-year-old population, the percent of those for whom the effect of social media on their depression felt better significantly grew compared with those who felt worse — a proportion that remained relatively flat compared with the 2018 survey data.

In his introduction to the report, James Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense, wrote, “It’s up to all of us to create a healthy digital ecosystem for young people….to ensure all kids are ready for a post-pandemic world.”

Margaret Laws, President and CEO of Hopelab (and like Susannah, another close friend), echoes Jim’s vision, pointing to, “the need for even greater investment in the digital mental health space to support the development and equitable distribution of more evidence-based tools and therapies…to preserve the promise of adolescence and the well-being of future generations.”

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  If you have kids in your life, or you’ve been one in the past twenty years, you will know the toy company called Melissa & Doug. “Melissa and Doug” are Melissa and Doug Bernstein, a couple who built one of the most successful child-targeted enterprises in the world, now valued at over $1 billion.

Melissa told David Pogue on CBS Sunday Morning’s program on 14th March, “I can certainly admit that I have enjoyed the material trappings that come from being successful, all those material rewards that make us feel that we’ve ‘made it.'”

Yet in the midst of building up her professional success with her husband, and raising six children (seven, if you include Doug, she jokes), Melissa had a secret: she had suffered what she terms “existential anxiety and depression” since childhood.

As part of her “coming out” with her story, Melissa published a book, LifeLines, containing her life-long portfolio of poems and writings describing her feelings she kept closely held, all these years.

Here’s a snippet of Melissa and David’s insightful conversation…in the context of a project Melissa & Doug launched called LifeLines, a multi-media and -platform program based on Melissa’s very personal learnings.

Pogue: “You would call it a mental health hub?”

Melissa: “Yes, it’s a place to explore everything; explore things that most people don’t wanna talk about.”

Pogue: “But what you’re saying is a little radical. The American way is that consumption makes you happy, money makes you happy.”

Melissa: “And yet, what is the next pandemic? Depression. I mean, we are at our highest rates of depression in this world ever.”

And here is another mainstream media take on Melissa’s “secret battle with depression” in People magazine, 22nd March 2021. As Melissa explained in the magazine, those rhyming verses that, “plagued her first 50 years are now one with the ‘mantras keeping me safe and sane.'”

The point is that claiming our mental health now IS mainstream….whatever your age or stage.

You can watch Melissa’s interview on Sunday Morning here: