How the COVID-19 pandemic and machine learning delivered insights into adolescent mental health

View from behind of person in hoodie with head on desk with pile of papers next to them
View from behind of person in hoodie with head on desk with pile of papers next to them

A paper from SRI and the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study® delivers important insights into the pandemic’s impact on adolescents

“The (published) paper works within a broad picture of the pandemic to inform people about certain lifestyle and psychosocial behaviors. It is well-known that in terms of mental health, the pandemic put a large burden on adults, but it impacted adolescents too; as such, some adolescents are at greater risk to mental health issues than ever before.” — Orsolya Kiss, Post-Doctoral Fellow, SRI International

Many adults remember what it is like to be a sensitive adolescent; physical and emotional changes, as well as societal pressures during adolescence, often result in dark moods and other psychological problems.

A multiauthor collaborative paper from SRI and the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study® has delivered important insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescents.

The ABCD of adolescent brains

The ABCD Study® is a large, long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. Funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allows researchers to focus on adolescent development and neuroscience. The ABCD Research Consortium works across 21 research sites, one of which is based at SRI International. Researchers look at biological and behavioral development throughout adolescence and into young adulthood.

The research uses state-of-the-art technology such as machine learning (ML) to explore how various activities and events shape brain development and impact social, behavioral, academic and health outcomes, among others. The results of the ABCD Study® offer practical help to promote child and adolescent well-being across society.

The COVID-19 supplemental study on adolescent mental health

“The Pandemic’s Toll on Young Adolescents…” stated “maintenance of daily routines, healthy behaviors and engaging in social exchange are advocated to help adolescents cope with stress during the pandemic but there is little research showing what behaviors are most effective.”

SRI has worked alongside others in the ABCD consortium on the long-term ABCD Study® involving over 10,000 adolescents since 2018, pre-pandemic. Being a longitudinal study, researchers could ask pre-pandemic participants to take part in a supplemental project about the effects of the pandemic. That project resulted in a key paper, “The Pandemic’s Toll on Young Adolescents: Prevention and Intervention Targets to Preserve Their Mental Health”; SRI scientists Orsolya Kiss, Fiona Baker and Massimiliano de Zambotti were among the co-authors.

The ABCD Study® was already underway when the pandemic hit, allowing researchers to add valuable data to the study. Around 3,000 individuals participated in the supplemental study to gather their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. While this sampling was not as representative demographically as the main ABCD study, it provided diverse data from 21 sites across the United States on both before and during the pandemic.

The paper’s purpose was to deliver insights to the public, parents and clinicians on the impact of COVID-19 on adolescent mental health. These insights could then be used to shape advice and programs of aid to families, as well as wider support structures to help adolescents cope during this challenging period. The study highlights “healthy behaviors” such as good sleep patterns.

It was evident that the results, although based on the mental state of the participants during the pandemic, could also be applied to other stressful or traumatic events. It also provided valuable information on behavioral and environmental factors associated with adolescent mood states during the pandemic. In other times of crisis, it is likely that similar patterns will arise.

Machine learning models for adolescent participant data analysis

Information was gathered from parents and guardians as well, and the data collected was holistic enough to build an accurate picture of the family. The completed surveys were then collated by the research group for analysis.

The data obtained from the large sample and their parents or guardians was ideally suited for analysis using machine learning models. Those tools offer an integrative approach to identifying the independent risk and protective factors that can be used for early recognition and treatment for high-risk groups. The ML model was used to identify any modifiable psychosocial and lifestyle risk factors that may have an impact on the mental state of the adolescent sample.

Sleep perchance to stay healthy

“We really believe that studying sleep and providing information on healthy sleep to the public is crucial for health; we spend a huge amount of our time sleeping and our brain is actively working during sleep, helping our immune system and working in many different ways to improve both physical and mental health,” commented Kiss.

Sleep disturbance was one of the variables used in the study. The Sleep Disturbance Scale for Children was used to understand the participants’ sleep patterns, including difficulty in initiating and maintaining sleep as well as any sleep breathing disorders. Variables include sleep timing, duration, sleep onset latency, sleep inertia (time taken to get out of bed) on school and free days and a chronotype proxy (inclination to sleep at a certain time).

SRI’s Human Sleep Lab explores how sleep relates to behavior. Adolescence is a transitional life period. Kiss told SRI that “healthy sleep can act like a shield that protects them (adolescents) from the deleterious effects of, for example, the pandemic or during other times of crisis.”

Important study insights

The supplemental study paper delivered several important insights about the effects of the pandemic on mood in adolescents:

  • Social relationships are important to maintain well-being during the pandemic.
  • Healthy sleep is very important for protecting positive mood and for reducing risk of negative mood states.
  • Paying attention to other health behaviors like physical activities is very helpful.
  • Girls have a higher likelihood of getting depressed or having high levels of anxiety.
  • Adolescents with preexisting internalizing problems are at a higher risk of poor mood during the pandemic.

The SRI Sleep Lab team is hopeful that the study participants will give consent to continue to track them to see how they cope with the pandemic in the longer term. Kiss told SRI that “I expect that many of the participants will go back to their pre-pandemic lifestyle behaviors; perhaps this will be to spend more time outside and spend more time with friends as we come out of this challenging period. The SRI Sleep Lab team hopes to continue to track these long-term effects.”

A final thought

Summing up the study, Kiss said, “I’m very interested in the recovery process from the depression and distress that started at the beginning of the pandemic. This paper focuses more on the early stages of the pandemic. I hope that as we progress, we will see more recovery trajectories. However, the pandemic is not over and there are very few studies covering longer periods of the pandemic. The next step would be to process all the data that was collected during the study and look for recovery effects as opposed to just risk effects: people are resilient, and youth are very resilient. The SRI Sleep Lab team along with ABCD want to highlight the sources of resilience, not just the risks.”

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