We have used data collected from several thousands of adolescents both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic to investigate the effect of the comprehensive infection control measures on subjective well-being. Despite the strict measures taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant majority reported fairly high scores on well-being. The findings nevertheless point to a strong decline in life satisfaction and other aspects of subjective well-being among both boys and girls. Most surprisingly, the social inequalities in life satisfaction were reduced. On the other hand, concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and increased quarrelling in the family during the pandemic were associated with lower life satisfaction.
We used identical questions in the surveys, a well-established indicator of life satisfaction, supplemented by questions that measured other aspects of subjective well-being. The difference can thus not be attributed to variation in the wording of questions. However, the study has some methodological limitations. In the context of home teaching during the COVID-19 restrictions, the students may have answered the questionnaire differently from the other surveys, which were conducted in schools. Moreover, the study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic has a lower response rate. We believe the reason is that some teachers were unable to implement the survey at relatively short notice. In addition, the context was less structured than it would have been in the classroom. Furthermore, the students came from different populations – Oslo versus three other Norwegian regions. We adjusted for key variables such as socioeconomic status and grade; however, other selection factors may have gone unmeasured. It is possible that participation was higher among vulnerable students than among other students, because the former may have been more concerned about the COVID-19 restrictions. On the other hand, the rate of attrition tends to be highest among persons with numerous ailments and poor well-being (9). On the whole, it appears unlikely that the marked decline in life satisfaction during the COVID-19 restrictions is only due to a selection effect.
Moreover, we only investigated students in lower secondary schools. Students at the upper secondary level normally report poorer well-being (5, 6), but they were not included. Nor did we include school drop-outs, who are likely to constitute an especially vulnerable group.
The social inequality in life satisfaction declined considerably during the restrictions. The results indicate that young people in families with a high level of resources were more negatively affected. This may be because they normally participate more frequently in organised sports and other stimulating leisure activities (8). The disappearance of activities that provide enjoyment and meaning in everyday life will therefore affect privileged adolescents in particular. The study may indicate that the marked social differences in life satisfaction that are normally observed can be reduced by including children and adolescents from less resourceful homes in such leisure activities.
In addition, lower life satisfaction is linked to concerns about infection risk as well as to negative changes in the family due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we have no comparable data from the time before the pandemic, and it remains unclear whether these factors have had a direct impact on life satisfaction. There is nevertheless good reason to keep an eye on adolescents who are thus affected.
The study indicates that the COVID-19 restrictions have led to a considerable decline in subjective well-being among adolescents. Many adolescents were afflicted by this, and we should therefore focus on young people who are struggling. Moreover, life satisfaction is correlated with mental health problems, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression (10). There is thus reason to assume that the prevalence of mental health problems also may have increased.
The pandemic will continue to affect us, even though schools have reopened. If the infection resurfaces, we will need effective restrictions that do not involve excessive costs in terms of well-being and mental health. To achieve this, we need solid evidence-based knowledge about this topic to be able to design appropriately dimensioned interventions.