19 October 2020

How Covid-19 safety measures will impact addiction in students



a-photo-of-students-in-class
We have all been adjusting to change amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Following lockdown, social restrictions have led to a technology boom which is changing the we way we connect now and into the future. More people currently work remotely, socialise via social media, shop online and even date via apps.

Of all the industries that have had to adapt, the education sector has seen the biggest shift. Classrooms are now virtual, and students of all ages are expected to use a range of technology to engage with learning. Many developers suggest advances in education technology will improve learning outcomes for young people, as use of digital classrooms has been shown to increase engagement and retention of learning content. Schools and universities can save time and money whilst keeping students safe and potentially helping them to get better grades. The flip side of this, however, is that research also tells us increased screen time can be bad for student’s mental health. That is, without a balance of technology and outdoor, social activity, students are more likely to become anxious and depressed. We already know that poor mental health can make people more likely to engage in coping behaviours which leads to addiction. So, what are the risks students need to be aware of?

University students are well known for championing binge drinking culture, from freshers’ week and society socials to themed club nights with discount booze. Excessive drinking is a high-risk behaviour which may be cause for concern in the long term; however, drug and alcohol dependence is not the greatest addiction risk posed to students. Research has shown that the risk of internet addiction is of much greater concern. Whether characterised through disproportionate use of social media or online gaming, ‘internet addiction disorder’ can cause significant anxiety, such as agoraphobia or obsessive behaviour, and subsequently damage educational performance. Social distancing may have cancelled the club nights, but increased use of technology is pushing students towards an environment they are far more likely to get addicted to.

Social connection theory suggests that lack of community or social bonding can cause emotional dysfunction, often triggering high-risk behaviour like drinking or drug use, as people find ways to cope. Feeling isolated alongside high stress or pressure, which is common during exam time, further increases the risk of problem behaviour and subsequent addiction. Without feeling connected to others, students are at risk of being psychologically vulnerable as they try to find ways to cope with the pressures of education. Having just moved out of home for the first time, many are nervous about starting university until they meet a fellow student at the freshers’ fair. They are encouraged to join societies which revolve around subjects or sports, giving them not only the opportunity to make friends but also a community to belong to. Peer support is essential as students learn to manage their time, health and finances, often making the same mistakes together for the first time.

Although many believe communities can be created online through social media apps, establishing a social connection using technology is only effective if actual contact is made, otherwise it serves to further isolate users. ‘Actual contact’ includes sending and receiving a message, yet there is still a loss in the social capital which can be gained through non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions.

It is also important to remember that not everyone has the confidence or social skills to join in an online discussion, and there is an increased risk of social exclusion or cyber-bullying for people who do not fit in. By this logic, lack of real-life opportunity for students to bond is likely to increase risk of mental illness, limit the opportunity for peer-learning and increase the probability of coping behaviours which could end up becoming problematic.

So, what is the solution? Finding ways to help students socialise safely is vital to protect this at-risk group. Moderated forums with compulsory posting, socially distanced meetups or buddy systems can all be helpful. Peer support groups, counselling and therapy can be effective online as well as in person, for anyone who may be struggling. Technology has advanced to enable social distancing. However, finding responsible ways to ensure people stay connected is essential for the future.

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*Please contact your chosen centre for availability

Our paitents' health & safety remains top priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. UKAT's strong safety measures have kept doors open throughout.
They will continue to do so despite a 2nd national lock-down (November). To learn more, click here!