The increased time spent on screens and away from friends during the pandemic has impacted young people’s well-being and made them more susceptible to online bullying, which could explain why 15 per cent of older students reported thoughts of self-harm, according to experts.

The figure emerged from the preliminary findings of a study carried out by the Lisa Marie Foundation and published last week. 

In the study, it was also found that eight in 10 students were spending more time online.

While about half said they were generally happy socialising with friends online, seven in 10 said they had stopped sports activities because of the pandemic.

The foundation is an NGO focused on safeguarding children from harm. Its survey was carried out among 1,951 children and young people between the ages of seven and 16 in 29 schools, asking students about the impact of the global pandemic on their wellbeing. 

Key findings, to be published next month, also showed that 87 per cent expressed concern about their family’s health due to COVID-19 and 61 per cent felt uneasy and afraid about the future. 

What the experts say

Professor Marilyn Clark, from the Department of Psychology within the University of Malta, said the study underscored the importance of maintaining healthy peer relationships in both childhood and adolescence.

This, however, was a “developmental task” that may have been more difficult to negotiate during the pandemic.“

Children and young people have resorted to socialising and learning online and this study indicates that a large majority are spending more time online than they have done previously,” she said.

“While the internet has certainly ‘saved the day’ during these last two years and allowed people to stay connected, there has been some concern over the negative physical and psychological impact of spending long hours on a screen, as well as risks children and young people face online, including cyberbullying. 

“Children may find themselves increasingly exposed to exploitation and bullying online.” 

All this, Clark added, may explain why 15 per cent of the older students reported that they had thought about harming themselves. 

“The period of adolescence is a heightened period of sociability. Young people start to spend increasing time with their peers and less time with their parents... 

“The vehicle of the peer group is crucial in this regard. Disrupted peer relationships during the virus pandemic may, therefore, have served to negatively impact the wellbeing of the adolescents in the sample, exacerbated by disruption in sport and other extracurricular activities,” she said. 

Children’s Commissioner Pauline Miceli agreed. 

Apart from contracting the virus and getting unwell, many children and young people’s social, emotional and mental well-being was affected by the coronavirus outbreak. 

“Trauma experienced at one’s developmental stage can have a compounding effect across their lifetime,” she said. 

“We have seen an increase in online child violence and sexual abuse, so awareness aimed at prevention is still very much needed. 

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of children meeting and playing with their peers, enjoying the outdoors and practising sport to support a healthy mental well-being and curb fears, feelings of anxiety and insecurity,” she added.

If you need emotional support, you can call Richmond Malta’s helpline on 1770. In case of an emergency, call Mater Dei Hospital’s Crisis Intervention Service on 2545 3950. Alternatively,  type OLLI.Chat on your desktop, mobile or tablet browser to chat with a professional 24/7.

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