New Study Examines Long-Term Negative Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Well-Being of Young People

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A study led by education professor Martin Neugebauer of Freie Universität Berlin and published in the European Sociological Review shows that young people’s life satisfaction significantly declined during the pandemic

Young people faced particularly difficult challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of this experience is the subject of a new study by Martin Neugebauer, an expert on education at Freie Universität Berlin, in collaboration with Alexander Patzina from the University of Bamberg, Hans Dietrich from the Institute of Employment Research, and Malte Sandner from the Nuremberg Institute of Technology. Their study is available to read here:­sr/jcad077 . In the study, the researchers examined the effects of the pandemic on the life satisfaction of high school students in their last year of secondary education between the start of the pandemic in early 2020 and early 2022.

Defining one’s identity, first love, big life decisions: Teenagers between the ages of sixteen and nineteen face plenty of challenges during this period of their lives even under "normal" circumstances. But for this age group, 2020 and 2021 were exceptionally hard years given that young people were subjected to multiple quarantines, social isolation, and frequent interruptions to their regular schooling and extracurricular activities. As a result, there has been significant concern about the long-term negative effects that the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing restrictions and anxieties might have on adolescents and young adults. However, previous studies frequently focused solely on the effects of the first wave of the pandemic, meaning that long-term impacts went unreported. Most studies also lacked a control group to compare how life satisfaction was faring among people who were not impacted by a pandemic. "We were able to fill this knowledge gap by looking at how life satisfaction developed among youths during the two years of the pandemic and comparing that to trends among youths at the same development stage, but who did not experience the pandemic. The study also describes which restrictions these young people found to be particularly burdensome," Neugebauer explains.

The researchers compared data regarding life satisfaction from 2,698 teenagers who were affected by the pandemic and compared them with data from 4,834 teenagers at the same stage of development, but who did not experience the pandemic. The data on the "corona cohort" come from a longitudinal study carried out by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) on teenagers completing their last year of high school in Germany before the pandemic in fall 2019 as well as over the following two years during winter of 2020/2021 and winter 2021/2022. The data on the "pre-pandemic" cohort came from the National Educational Study Panel (NEPS) and covered graduating high school students in Germany from 2014 to 2018.

The results of the study titled "Two Pandemic years Greatly Reduced Young People’s Life Satisfaction: Evidence from a Comparison with Pre-Covid-19 Panel Data" demonstrated a significant reduction in life satisfaction by a scale value of about 0.8 on the life satisfaction scale (corresponding to an effect size of d = 0.4) that has persisted at least two years after the pandemic first began. This indicates that young people’s drop in life satisfaction was three times stronger than in the overall population, which had a scale value of 0.24. "A decrease in life satisfaction of this magnitude is highly unusual. Typically we only see a decline of this nature following a handful of devastating life events, such as after becoming unemployed or the death of a spouse," says Neugebauer.

The study not only details the consequences of the pandemic, but also indicates which hygiene and social distancing regulations young people found the most taxing. In the winter of 2021/2022 fifty-four percent of the respondents, who would have been eighteen to nineteen years old at the time, said that they felt impacted or strongly impacted by restrictions on freedom of movement, such as festivals and cultural events being prohibited (forty-seven percent) and bars and clubs being closed (forty-four percent). Fewer respondents were bothered by the obligation to wear a face mask, the closure of schools and universities, and the restrictions on sporting events, with a mere third of all those surveyed feeling impacted or strongly impacted by such measures. "Many people got used to the masks, but found not being able to move freely or socialize harder to bear," says Neugebauer.

The study highlights that specific support measures are urgently needed for young people so that they are better able to handle the psychological consequences they face in the midst and in the wake of emergencies. Its authors say that these findings will be essential for future political decisions and for devising measures in similar crisis situations. One question left unanswered by the study is whether the situation of young adults has improved since the end of the pandemic and the conclusion of containment measures. "We are currently in the process of shedding light on this issue," says Neugebauer.

The Latin words veritas, justitia, and libertas, which frame the seal of Freie Universität Berlin, stand for the values that have defined the academic ethos of Freie Universität since its founding in December 1948.