The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been hard on everyone. For young people, in particular, it could have a long-lasting impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Missing school and exams, not being able to see friends, losing jobs and apprenticeships... Many teenagers and young adults have had their lives turned upside down.

By April 2020, more than 1.5 billion young people around the world were staying at home as part of lockdowns and the situation has been described by youth organisations as “an eerie world, full of uncertainty”. In a recent UK study, almost half (42%) of 16 to 29-year-olds said the COVID-19 lockdown was having a negative impact on their mental health and, in the US, young people reported being bored (52%), worried (49%) and scared (34%). All this at a time when they would normally be developing their social skills, connecting and socialising with others and building a sense of identity.

“There has been a huge disruption to daily routines,” comments Dr Richard Graham, Consultant Psychiatrist, Clinical Director of Good Thinking and member of the Yubo safety board. “Many of the anchors that support young people’s mental health, like school, friends and exercise, have been removed and this has created a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety.”

As lockdowns are eased around the world, the concerns don’t go away. Young people continue to be worried about their health (Might I or someone I know get sick?), their education (When will I go back to school/college and how will the disruption to exams affect my grades?), their finances (What if I lose my job or can’t get a job?) and their future (Will I be able to travel, work, socialise and have the kind of life I want?). So, how have members of the Yubo community supported each other in recent months and how has the Yubo team helped?

Social media provides vital connection

As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, human beings have social needs, such as acceptance and belonging. With physical distancing in place, many young people have found that online communities are helping them to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. Research shows that connecting with family and friends online and going on social media are popular coping strategies.

As one Forbes journalist put it, “... in order to socialize, entertain themselves, or even plainly put, kill time, many [teenagers] have turned to their good old friend: their smartphone.” We have certainly seen this at Yubo. In 2020, we have doubled our daily active users and the time our users spend in live streams has increased by more than 350%.

Digital spaces were already deeply embedded in young people’s lives and are often used to support their health and wellbeing. Health and technology advisor Susannah Fox notes that many young people go online for peer support on health issues, for example. She describes this as having a “just-in-time- someone-like-you”. COVID-19 has amplified the need for human connection and trusted relationships and, if you can’t get these face-to-face, online is a great alternative.

“Over the last few months, young people seem to have been looking for meaningful interactions on social media rather than just passive scrolling or superficial rewards such as ‘likes’,” says Dr Graham. “Live streams allow you to be yourself and share your thoughts with a small group of friends, rather than posting filtered images for thousands of people to see. They are a less pressured and more authentic way of communicating.”

With screen time increasing, however, so too might some of the risks. As well as being concerned that the online/offline balance might have become skewed, young people and their families might have to deal with fake news, misinformation, online bullying and sexual exploitation. That’s why we continue to support younger members of the Yubo community with safety advice and innovative tools, such as age checks, pop-up alerts and real-time interventions.

Promoting good mental health

Recognising the potential impact of COVID-19 on our users’ mental health, we recently partnered with NHS-approved digital mental wellbeing service Good Thinking to raise awareness of support resources available in the UK. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week and help the Yubo community fight anxiety and stress during lockdown, we created this in-App campaign, which has had more than 300 000 views.

“Our focus at Good Thinking is on encouraging good self-care. We offer tips, expert advice and NHS-approved apps to help reduce stress, anxiety and low mood and improve sleep,” explains Dr Graham. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have created an advice hub that includes tips to help young people and their families deal with any concerns they have and become more resilient.”

COVID-19 has emphasised the many benefits of digital technology – for example, an article in The Lancet notes that social media might help to make up for some negative effects of social distancing among young people – but the pandemic has also highlighted there are limitations. Could fake news and unhealthy opinions go unchallenged in online chats? When a live stream comes to an end, might the participants feel lonely?

As a responsible platform, we need to be aware of the mental health challenges our users might face and help them to deal with them. “The Yubo x Good Thinking video is a great example of how you can nudge your audience to take action,” comments Dr Graham. “It caught Yubo users’ attention while they interacted with the app, reminding them that they should focus on their wellbeing at this difficult time and reassuring them that support is available.”

The video provided a template for other campaigns on issues that matter to our community, such as Pride Month. With so much uncertainty in young people’s lives right now, our strategy here at Yubo remains the same: protect, support, educate.

Read Good Thinking’s advice about five ways to good mental wellbeing and listen to the Good Thinking podcasts about online communities, healthy screen/life balance and how to thrive in our digital present and future.

Useful websites to support your mental health:

Good Thinking (UK)

NAMI (US)

Fil Santé Jeunes (France)

Beyond Blue (Australia)

Kids Help Phone (Canada)