Teens combat loneliness with pot, booze during COVID lockdown: study

A man smokes a joint during 4/20 at London's Victoria Park, April 20, 2016. (Photo by Kirk Dickinson)

Teens spent their time smoking and drinking more frequently to cope with the high levels of stress and loneliness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two recent London-based studies.

Researchers from Huron and King’s University College examined the habits of 1,000 Ontario teenagers during the early days of the pandemic, to look at how young people were adjusting to the restrictions surrounding COVID-19 and the required social distancing practices. The studies began in early April with researchers collecting data through online surveys.

Researchers found that the frequency of teens’ alcohol and cannabis use increased with 49.3 per cent smoking or drinking alone, 31.6 per cent doing so virtually, and 23.6 per cent breaking social distancing rules to drink and smoke face-to-face with friends.

However, researchers found that the frequency of binge drinking or cannabis use among teenagers did not increase.

“Life during social isolation is so vastly different than what teens typically experience. They have lost out on interacting with friends and in peer contexts,” said Dr. Tara Dumas, a Huron professor and developmental psychologist. “Also, beyond the more general stressors that came with the pandemic including finances and fears about contracting the virus, teens also have unique stressors revolving around school, graduation, future plans and their social lives.”

The data collected showed that 43 per cent of teens were “very concerned” about the pandemic and 72 per cent reported being “very concerned” about the impact on their school year.  As well, over 40 per cent were “very worried” about feeling connected to their friends.

Following the closure of schools due to the pandemic, 48 per cent of teens said they spent more than five hours per day on social media, while 12 per cent reported spending more than 10 hours per day.  As well, around half of teens said they spent one to two hours a day texting or video chatting with friends.

“These findings highlight promising ways to ameliorate feelings of loneliness among teenagers during social isolation, for example, spending time with family, time connecting to friends and engaging in physical activity,” said Dr. Wendy Ellis, a developmental psychologist at King’s University College. “At the same time, it is important to be mindful of teen’s online activities, including social media use and the supportiveness of virtual connections, especially in relation to depressive symptoms.”

Researchers said the data gathered in the two studies has the potential to shape how families support teens.

“It’s important, I think, for parents to be aware if their teens are using substances alone, it may be a sign they are struggling with COVID-related fears or depressive symptoms,” Dr. Dumas said.

The findings of the two local studies were recently published in the Canadian Journal of Behaviour Science and in the Journal of Adolescent Health.