More sleep may be key to why mental health didn’t deteriorate among teenage students during the COVID crisis, according to BYU and San Diego State University researchers who looked at how students and parents felt about the unusual class schedules created in the COVID-19 pandemic.

A school’s pandemic-related format, including variations of virtual and in-person classes, made a big difference to students and parents, research sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University found.

The pandemic offered a “natural experiment” in how students fared on mental health and in teen and parental satisfaction, said Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and one of the survey’s designers. Kids were already either going to school, taking classes online or some combination of both. In the case of virtual classes, some were live and others asynchronous, meaning they were prerecorded with no opportunity to interact, said Twenge, author of several books, including “iGen.”

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Dissatisfaction was highest among students who had asynchronous classes and among those on a hybrid schedule of in-person and online instruction, sometimes on tricky schedules for working parents.

“The only group that really stood out in terms of being more satisfied with the school experience was those attending full-time, in-person. In other words, a normal schedule,” Twenge said.

“I was particularly struck by the level of dissatisfaction among the parents of virtual, asynchronous children,” said Spencer James, a study author and associate professor at BYU’s School of Family Life. “We found that almost twice as many parents with teens in virtual asynchronous schooling rated their school district’s implementation as ‘poor’ compared to parents of students attending in-person, full-time.”

They say the study offers insights for policymakers and school administrators to get the most out of teens in school in coming years:

  • Get kids back in classes.
  • Change start times to allow teens a bit more sleep, as will soon happen throughout California, courtesy of a new law. Research suggests 8:30 a.m. is a decent start time, said Twenge.
  • If you’re going to do classes online, make sure they’re live and students can ask questions.
  • And in-person school is best when it’s full-time or close to it.

“These lockdowns were absolutely public health inherited and it needed to be done. But I do think it’s important for school administrators and for policymakers to carefully consider other ramifications,” said James. “On the one hand, if you do virtual school, teens get more sleep and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, I was quite struck by that enormous gap in dissatisfaction and rating. School district implementation is poor, particularly among those who are asynchronous.”

He added, “I have great empathy, sympathy and compassion for our policymakers. They choose between difficult options. But to me, it comes down to which limitations are we most willing to live with.”

Students take notes in Mallory Record’s Advanced Placement government and comparative politics class at Jordan High School in Sandy on March 10, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Sleep and mental health

The study found 38% each of students attending part-time and students attending virtually but not in live sessions were dissatisfied with their experience. Those with a live component to virtual schooling were nearly as likely to be dissatisfied, at 37%. But fewer than one-fourth were dissatisfied if they attended full-time, in-person.

“However, teens in virtual classes were no more likely to be depressed, lonely or unhappy than those attending in person. Virtual students were also less likely to be sleep-deprived,” the report said.

The researchers think more sleep among kids who didn’t have to get up and get ready for school is one reason mental health hasn’t deteriorated for teens overall this past year. “Strong, clear and consistent” is how James describes research showing that making sure teens get adequate sleep has positive impact on their mental health and behavior.

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Johns Hopkins Medicine said teens need 9 to 9-1/2 hours sleep — a full hour more than needed at age 10 because teen brains are going through another maturing process developmentally. Adequate sleep helps prevent depression, anxiety and unhappiness. Teens who get enough sleep perform better academically and are less likely to have behavior issues.

Twenge said a 2018 national survey she was part of found about half of students reported getting enough sleep. The number jumped to 85% during the pandemic, she said.

She is quick to point out that while teen mental health didn’t get worse in the pandemic, as many had feared, it didn’t get better, either. Teen depression and anxiety were already at record high levels.

“We still have a huge problem with teen mental health, because those rates have doubled in the U.S.,” said Twenge, in terms of suicide, self-harm and depression. “I don’t want anybody to come to the conclusion that teens are just fine. They weren’t before this happened. And they’re showing remarkable resilience during the pandemic. But there were big, big problems even before the pandemic.”

James and Twenge agree that like any group of people, there are natural night owls and early risers among teens. But in general teens need more sleep and are best served by later school start times. Twenge tells of a psychiatrist who asks patients seeking help for depression to first get good sleep for a couple of weeks and come back and tell him if they need him. Half call and say they’re fine.

Twenge thinks early start times are designed for the kids who participate in school sports to make time for after-school practice. Doing that for a minority of kids can create “negative consequences for the majority of kids. That’s a problem.”

Amid all the compromises in life, sleep need not be one, she said. Policymakers can start school later. That’s been a movement for a while now.

Gap in satisfaction

Parents of school-age children K-12 were most likely to be dissatisfied with asynchronous classes or with a hybrid mix of in-person and online (29% each), compared to those who had live sessions online (25% dissatisfied) or completely in-person (18%).

Nearly half of parents whose children had the asynchronous virtual classes said their school district’s implementation of school changes in fall of 2020 was poor — twice the share of those whose children were in full-time, in-person classes.

The survey also found that teens in different school modes used social media differently. Those with asynchronous virtual school spent less time using social media and video chat than others. Study co-author Sarah M. Coyne, associate director of the BYU School of Family Life, and James, a Wheatley fellow, said that could be due to technology fatigue. “Even though these teens may be craving social connection, they may be becoming increasingly tired of looking at screens,” Coyne said of the report.

Neither parents nor students were fans of the hybrid model that has kids in school some of the time and home on the computer at other times. “I think it may be that they feel like they’re getting the worst of both worlds,” said Twenge. It was also apparent that a mixed schedule is very difficult for parents to manage with work obligations.

The nationally representative study conducted by Provo-based Qualtrics included teens in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades, as well as parents of children from kindergarten to high school. Researchers controlled for factors that could skew results, including demographics, political ideology and location, among others. They also controlled for how well the child was doing in school — high achievers tended to fare better regardless, while children who struggle need more help regardless, said James.

“One thing we know about health pandemics globally is that rather than bringing us all together, it actually tends to exacerbate existing inequality,” he said. “And I fear that part of what we’re seeing here is further evidence of that. Policymakers need to be cognizant of that as they think carefully about the best way forward.”

He said he’s especially concerned about the increasing inequality between kids who are doing fine and have resources and those who are “dropping off the bottom,” which shouldn’t be happening, he said.

“The time may be right, as vaccines are increasingly available, to think about best practices for making sure that the students with the fewest resources are the first ones considered in decision-making,” he said.

Work-school dilemma

Getting children physically back into their classrooms is key to providing women with the work opportunities they want and the tangible rewards needed for family well-being and stability. And it’s crucial for economic recovery, too, experts say.

The journal Gender and Society dedicated its April issue to the impact of the pandemic on women and work. The studies added to the growing clamor to open schools. As the Deseret News reported, that is “key to providing women with the work opportunities they want and the tangible rewards needed for family well-being and stability. And it’s crucial for economic recovery, too.”

The pandemic has particularly driven people of color and women with caregiving responsibilities from the workplace — a pattern that’s true not just in America, but globally.

“If you want to avoid the negative consequences of women being pushed out of the labor force, social policy ought to focus on getting schools open first, perhaps before bars and restaurants even,” said Barbara J. Risman, editor of the journal.