In a new study just released, researchers show that children’s mental health and wellbeing have gradually worsened over the past six years, particular during and post the pandemic.

While COVID-19 lockdowns are no longer mandated, the stress and anxiety of the pandemic still lingers, especially among young South Australians, say health experts at the University of South Australia.

Examining measures of wellbeing – life satisfaction, optimism, happiness, cognitive engagement, emotional regulation, perseverance, worry and sadness – among more than 56,000 South Australian school children (in grades four to nine and aged 9-14) the study found that most wellbeing measures declined over time, consistently worsening from 2020 onwards which correlated with COVID-19.

It also found that female students, children in higher year levels, and students from lower socio-economic cohorts were more likely to have poor wellbeing than their counterparts.

Wellbeing covers various dimensions of psychological, physical, emotional, cognitive, and social experiences. Higher wellbeing is associated with healthy lifestyle behaviours like exercise, healthy eating, and self-esteem; and lower wellbeing is associated with smoking, alcohol, and drug use.

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Dot Dumuid, says the COVID-19 pandemic has had long-lasting disruptions for Australian children.

“During the pandemic, children had to change the way they learn, play and socialise, all the while living in an environment of widespread uncertainty and anxiety,” Dr Dumuid says.

“Children and young people have dealt with school closures, isolation, social distancing and cancelled extracurricular activities, and this has led to decreased levels of physical activity and increased sedentary time.

“Now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted, life has not necessarily gone back to how it was pre-pandemic. And when we assessed how children have fared in terms of wellbeing across this period, the news was not good.

“Wellbeing clearly dropped during the pandemic and has shown little signs of improvement since then. But certain groups were more affected than others, with worsening wellbeing particularly worrying for female students, students in later school grades, and students with a socioeconomic disadvantage.”

The analysis was conducted on cross-sectional annual data between 2017-2022 from data in the South Australian Wellbeing and Engagement Collective census. Children self-reported responses.

Co researcher, Prof Carol Maher, says that while the data originates from South Australia, the implications are likely to be globally relevant.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, sweeping changes in children’s lifestyles – from physical activity and screen time to sleep and diet – and the pervasive influence of social media aren’t regional anomalies. They’re global phenomena likely impacting children’s wellbeing worldwide.”

Dr Dumuid says now is a particularly critical time to support young people’s wellbeing.

“There is a clear indication that urgent and equitable support is needed to improve the wellbeing of all young people, particularly those facing disparity,” she says. “This is not only important for children’s present experiences, but also their future potential.

“Of particular concern is that the data shows worsening of wellbeing in children of the same age, which indicates that children aged 9-14 are at-risk age groups for poor mental health.”

“While there are suggestions that reduced physical activity and increased use of social media and screens may be contributing to poor wellbeing, more research in this area is needed.”

Initiatives such as the Federal Government’s release of a new National Wellbeing Framework, and the South Australian Department for Education’s School Mental Health Service are welcomed, Dr Dumuid says.

“Managing wellbeing and mental health in young people requires a whole-of-community approach, Dr Dumuid says.

“Government and school wellbeing programs are certainly a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done to ensure this young group of Australians does not slip through the cracks.”

“Everyone has a responsibility to look out for the next generation. We all play a role in the overall wellbeing of our kids.”