Navigating the COVID-19 world has increased stress, anxiety and uncertainty among Australia’s young people, impacting their ability to cope

SYDNEY, Sunday 17 May 2020 – The proportion of young people in Australia (aged 13 to 17 years) who feel their ability to cope well with life has almost halved from 81% to 45% since before the national COVID-19 pandemic response was implemented in late March, and is likely to plummet even further to 31% if the same pressures continue into mid-year, new national research by UNICEF Australia has found.

At the same time, as a stakeholder group in this national pandemic response, one quarter (26%) of young people in Australia consider that they have not been afforded the same importance as other groups. Over four in ten (44%) feel that there has been little recognition that many young people are either on the front line as workers in retail and food stores or services that remained open. Significantly, four in ten (40%) young people see many of the discussions about children and young people (e.g. school closures) as not really being about them, but more about impact on parents, carers and the economy.

“We have found that young people are being affected in a myriad of ways – they have been struggling with the mental health and wellbeing implications of continuing their education and social interaction in relative isolation, relying on intense, prolonged screen time in online video for both, while a quarter (26%) feel they have no way to contribute to the national discussion and are not really being seen as an important part of the overall picture,” said UNICEF Australia Program and Advocacy Manager, Juliet Attenborough.

“Many are worrying about its implications for the future they will inherit when the pandemic is over – concerned not only about the health and welfare of those close to them, but for community members who have become vulnerable during the response. They are experiencing high levels of uncertainty about the impacts if will have on their senior studies and graduation from high school and a sense of being relatively overlooked stakeholders in public discussions.”

In the early stages of the national response, within a month of the March 20 commencement date, UNICEF Australia conducted a national survey of 1007 young people aged 13-17 through YouGov Galaxy. Over the following three weeks, UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors conducted consultations with young people in regional New South Wales and Tasmania (in an outbreak hotspot area), as well as Perth and Sydney.

Almost three quarters (70%) of young people in Australia said the pandemic response had negatively impacted their social connectedness, and six in ten (61%) their day-to-day life. The vast majority experienced having to stop physically seeing their friends (88%) and having their education disrupted or stopped entirely (86%). Over a quarter (28%) have had their parent/s or carer lose income, while one in five work in a job that could put them at risk of contracting the virus (21%). Psychologically, almost half (47%) say it has negatively impacted their levels of stress and anxiety, and a third (34%) their level of hope.

“Young people told us that when sitting and concentrating on a screen for a long period of time, it becomes intensely draining - many have lost the ability to immediately ask their teachers questions or to clarify understanding with their friends.” said 17-year-old UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador, Daphne Fong. “Learning processes have slowed down. Many have felt that they can’t go back online for after school activities or to socialise with peers. They highlighted inconsistency in the way screen time is managed between schools, as well as problems of inequity in internet access, speed and reliability.” 

On this front, two thirds (67%) of young people are worried about their education being disrupted or held back as a result of the changes being made to schooling as part of federal, state and territory government pandemic responses. At the same time, over half are worried about isolation from their friends and schoolmates (57%) and the health and wellbeing of their friends and family members (55%).

“We heard, particularly among young people from regional areas, that not only is their education and social connectedness being disrupted, but the experience is highlighting the importance of other school-related milestones, such as whether high school formals and inter-school swimming carnivals will take place – rites of passage events and end of school markers,” Ms Attenborough said.

Underlying many of these concerns, sits communication and information sharing about the pandemic and national and state/territory responses – from the media, governments and the community.

While over two thirds (69%) of young people feel they have a good understanding of what is happening through reading and watching the news and other announcements, half (51%) consider that there hasn’t been enough effort put into communicating with children and young people in a manner that is effective for them. One quarter (26%) can see no clear way for children and young people to feed into the discussion about who has been affected and how the virus, its impact and responses are being communicated.

When it comes to psychological support through the pandemic, the majority of young people have felt confident to turn to their family/carers (58%) or their friends (55%). While one in four (38%) say they have a good idea of where to turn for support outside of their family, a further quarter (24%) say they feel isolated and unsure about such support options. Almost a third (30%) say social distancing has impacted their ability to effectively access support options outside their family.

“As they have done in our previous national consultations, young people told us once again that they have a strong sense of inheriting a problematic picture that will significantly shape their future, making things much harder for them,” Ms Attenborough said. “That said, they are articulate about their concerns, the factors they see as contributing causes and are enthusiastic to contribute their thinking to solutions. Their message is that clearer, more effective communication with young people is important as this pandemic progresses.”

A comprehensive overview of findings is available in the Living in Limbo Fact Sheet here, including suggested considerations for decision-makers going forward.

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About UNICEF

Children’s charity, UNICEF Australia, has been a champion of children since 1966. We fund life-changing programs for children and work with governments and civil society partners to protect and provide a fair chance for children.

UNICEF Australia works for every child – in Australia, the Asia Pacific region, and around the world.

During COVID-19, UNICEF Australia is providing immediate relief and advocating for children to help them recover, rebound, reimagine and create a stronger future. UNICEF Australia’s COVID-19 Children’s Response Appeal will support the health, safety, wellbeing and education of children throughout the pandemic and beyond.

For more information, please contact:

Brinsley Marlay, UNICEF Australia, 0403 604 182, bmarlay@unicef.org.au