Study looks to understand impact of physical distancing on young people

by Alexandra Burza

After weeks of staying at home, Canadians are slowly beginning to see the impact of physical distancing on decelerating the spread of COVID-19. However, our collective commitment to protecting public health comes at a personal cost; and for some, prolonged social isolation amplifies feelings of disconnection and can result in negative psychological effects and disorders.

Technology, and specifically social media, has been touted as a convenient, adaptable alternative to in-person socialization. After all, shouldn’t eating takeout with friends over a Zoom call be just as socially fulfilling as a dinner party?

Health Studies professor Shauna Burke hopes to answer that question. As the principal investigator of the “iBelong” research study, Burke along with a team of researchers across Western and at Lakehead University, will examine social media use and social connectedness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the individual impact on all aspects of health and well-being. Their study focuses on adolescents and young adults, a demographic that are simultaneously social media natives and particularly susceptible to the impacts of social isolation.

“Their well-being depends largely on everyday social interactions with, and validation by, peers. Because these in-person interactions are no longer possible due to ongoing school closures and physical distancing requirements, identifying effective ways to maintain social contact is critical,” Burke explained.

Phase 1 of the study, which concluded in April 2020, captured young people’s attitudes and perceptions around social media use, physical distancing as well as health and well-being. Moving forward, Burke and her team plans to investigate the ways in which social media helps and hinders in overcoming the various limitations and health impacts currently faced by young people.

“Our findings about the influence of social media on the wellbeing of young people, including their feelings about belonging and connectedness, are important and can be used to promote overall social and psychological wellbeing among young people now and in the future,” she said.

This includes young Canadians’ feelings toward physical distancing, as well as how and why they’re complying with public health measures. The “iBelong” team hopes that the information they collect will help inform future outreach and intervention initiatives directed at adolescents and young adults.

“We might be able identify tangible, evidence-based strategies that can be used to promote physical distancing adherence, and overall health and well-being in this population,” Burke said. “Keeping young people safe and healthy at home not only protects them, but it could help to protect the healthcare system and those most vulnerable by reducing the spread of the virus.”