Social Connectedness, Sleep, and Physical Activity Associated with Better Mental Health Among Youth

*The following is excerpted from an online article posted by the National Institutes of Health.

Longitudinal survey data of more than 3,000 adolescents ages 11-14 recorded before and during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 found that supportive relationships with family and friends and healthy behaviors, like engaging in physical activity and better sleep, appeared to shield against the harmful effects of the pandemic on adolescents’ mental health.

The research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other entities at the National Institutes of Health. The research is based on data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study(link is external), the largest long-term study of brain development and child health ever conducted in the United States.

Researchers also explored predictors of perceived stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, and found that girls were more likely than boys to experience psychological distress during the pandemic. Psychosocial factors, including poorer quality and functioning of family relationships, more screen time, and witnessing discrimination in relation to the pandemic, also predicted youth distress.

n this study, investigators analyzed data from a longitudinal cohort of over 3,000 ABCD Study participants ages 11 to 14-years-old and their families. These young adolescents and their parents completed pre-pandemic assessments by February 2020, which documented baseline parent/caregiver reports of externalizing problems (e.g., acting aggressively, breaking rules) and sleep disturbances (e.g., sleep duration), and youth reports of internalizing problems (e.g., feeling anxious or depressed). Participating parents and youth then separately completed three online COVID-19 surveys, conducted between May and August 2020, which featured more than 200 items across psychosocial and lifestyle domains.

Researchers used machine learning methods to look for patterns of positive affect, anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms across the surveys. They then interpreted the results through an algorithm to provide an overall ranking of variables according to their importance for predicting youth mental health outcomes. The top variables were categorized into eight domains: demographics; coping behaviors (e.g., having a regular mealtime); physical activities; relationships; resources (e.g., unable to afford food), screen time, sleep (e.g., pre-pandemic sleep disturbances), and other (e.g., pre-pandemic psychological problems).

Out of all the possible predictors considered, positive relationship variables, such as talking about plans for the coming day with parents, participating in family activities, and those related to healthy behaviors like physical activities and better sleep were among the top predictors of high positive affect and were also protective against stress, anxiety, and depression. Conversely, more screen time activities, including social media and video games, as well as witnessing racism or discrimination in relation to the coronavirus, emerged as important predictors for negative affect. The study also found that girls, and those who entered the pandemic with existing mental health or sleep problems, appeared to be particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: National Institutes of Health

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[reposted by] Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for HomeWord. Jim has 40 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord culture blog also appears on and Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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