Secondary school-aged pupils in Scotland - mental wellbeing, relationships and social media: report

This report outlines findings from a survey of 1,361 pupils from 50 secondary local authority schools in Scotland. The pupils completed the survey between 8th February and 2nd April 2021, and responded to questions about their mental wellbeing, relationships and social media use.

This document is part of a collection

1. Background

In response to COVID-19 and its impact on the population's mental health, the Scottish Government laid out its 'COVID-19: Mental Health – Transition and Recovery Plan' [1]. The mental health of children, young people and families is a central focus of this plan, which places importance on how good mental wellbeing is supported for these people, and how the correct help and support is provided to them. Emphasis is also put on understanding how wider factors, such as screen time and relationship issues, might affect the mental health of children, young people and families. The emphasis on children, young people and families in this plan reflects a similar focus on these people in the Scottish Government's 'Mental Health Strategy: 2017-2027' [2].

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey [SALSUS; 3] provided insights into the mental wellbeing of Scottish secondary school-aged pupils in 2018. The findings from this survey were compared with findings from the SALSUS conducted in 2015, which indicated that the mean mental wellbeing of these pupils was lower in 2018 than in 2015 (i.e., had decreased over time). A higher proportion of these pupils were also found to report emotional and behavioural problems in 2018 than in 2015.

Both the SALSUS and Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children [HBSC; 4] surveys conducted in 2018 enabled comparisons of Scottish secondary school-aged pupils to be made based on different characteristics. While the findings between these surveys were inconsistent, pupils who indicated poorer mental wellbeing and related factors (e.g., happiness, mood, confidence) were typically found to: be female (compared with male); older (pupils in S4 compared with S2); from more deprived backgrounds; had a physical or mental health condition; and had caring responsibilities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey of secondary school-aged pupils in Scotland found that, overall, pupils saw mitigation measures (e.g., physical distancing) as negatively impacting their mental health and relationships with family and friends [5]. In line with the pupils identified in the SALSUS and HBSC 2018 surveys as being most at risk of poor mental wellbeing, pupils who were most likely to report this perceived negative impact of the mitigation measures: were female; were older; and had a physical or mental health condition. As these findings indicate a potentially large impact of COVID-19 on pupils' mental wellbeing, as well as their relationships, it is important to understand more about pupils' experiences of these issues during the pandemic.

Other surveys concerning the mental health and wellbeing of Scottish secondary school-aged pupils have been conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic [6, 7]. However, these surveys have not used nationally representative samples or standard measures of mental health outcomes, which limits the strength of their conclusions. While this limitation should be kept in mind, the findings have tended to be similar to before the pandemic. Specifically, female and older participants tended to report poorer mental health outcomes (e.g., low mood or depression) compared with male and younger participants, respectively. Poorer mental health outcomes were also indicated for participants with a long-term illness or disability, with caring responsibilities, or who identified their gender as non-binary or in a different way.

Aims of study

The aim of the study reported here was to understand more about Scottish secondary school-aged pupils (11 to 18 years-old) in terms of their mental wellbeing and related issues (relationships and social media) during the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2021. The study also aimed to identify demographic differences between pupils in terms of their mental wellbeing, relationships and social media use.

Structure of report

Section 2 details the methodology used in the reported study, with the subsequent sections presenting the overall findings (section 3), and findings by demographic characteristics (section 4). Section 5 then outlines the conclusions drawn from this study.



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