Malaysian children, especially teenagers, are becoming anxious and depressed from spending too much time online with classes and socialising limited mostly there, a new study finds.
The “Life under Covid-19 for children online: Values & Challenges” survey by local telco Digi polled 1,746 students aged below 21 nationwide to measure their digital wellbeing and gauge how they were coping with the new normal.
Asked about their attitude towards online classes, three of the four top replies were negative: 39% said they were worried about grades and exams, 31% were stressed about not being able to follow online classes, and 26% felt demotivated to study.
Among the top four replies, “I like the flexibility of online classes” was the only positive sentiment, with 28% of respondents sharing this opinion.
The net sentiment – measured based on percentage of positive and negative sentiment – also varied based on age.
Children under 10 years of age were quite positive towards online classes, with a positive 24% net sentiment.
However, negative sentiments increased by age: 10- to 12-year-olds reported a lower positive net sentiment at 3%, 13- to 15-year-olds at -8%, 16- to 18-year-olds at -17%, and college-age kids (19-21 years of age) showing the worst opinion at -25%.
The study also found a link between age group and the amount of time they spent online, with younger children tending to spend less time there due to restrictions placed by their parents.
According to the survey, which was conducted from August to September 2021, a majority of respondents said they were spending more time online (71%) since the pandemic, while 22% felt they spent the same amount of time, while 7% felt they spent less time online.
The activities they spent most of that time on were online learning (74%), entertainment like streaming shows and YouTube videos (64%), while gaming and social media pursuits tied at 49%. Doing research (26%) and vlogging (3%) made up a minority.
Sunway University’s Medical and Life Sciences School associate professor Dr Ooi Pei Boon warned that this increase of usage could lead to feelings of depression and phone addiction.
The study included a Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS-21) assessment, conducted by Sunway University, to gauge if students were showing depressive symptoms.
Around 44% of respondents showed signs of mild to extremely severe perceived depressive symptoms, while 48% tested as “normal”.
Ooi added a disclaimer that the assessment was only indicative of depressive symptoms, and that a more extensive check by a psychologist was needed to diagnose a case of depression.
She said there were signs that parents should look out for, including too much or too little sleep, plus a loss of appetite and lack of interest in even typically fun activities like playing video games.
“These are clear signals that a conversation needs to take place (between parent and child), as sometimes kids don’t even realise their behaviours are changing,” she said, urging parents to consider counselling services.
Some of the causes for these negative experiences were not directly due to being online, but also due to what students felt they missed.
The study found offline negative experiences faced by respondents included missing time with their friends (44%), missing going to school (35%) and losing contact with friends (14%).
Some issues caused by being online included lacking self control and spending too much time online (29%) and arguing with parents over spending too much time on their devices (18%).
Nadiah Hanim Abdul Latif, the co-founder of child advocacy non-government organisation OpiS Inter-national, said the pandemic had created a “new poor”, people without smartphones or stable Internet connection, who were left disconnected from school and friends.
As for kids spending too much time online, she said parents too needed to walk the talk, as it was unconvincing to tell children to log-off when adults spend upwards of 35 hours a week online.
“In fact, kids at home are getting pulled into parents’ activities like making TikTok videos or helping sell stuff online. This also has a negative impact, forcing them to participate in things that might not be child friendly,” she said.
The study did note some positive experiences from being able to study online at home, which included being able to spend more time with family (64%), video calling friends and family (47%) and having more time for offline activities like reading, chores or exercise (34%).
One other positive development from online studies was a drop in cyberbullying. The study found a 3% drop in bullying compared to before March 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Eng Zhen Shen, a Form 4 student representative of public schools that took part in a round table discussing the study, explained that students were now more cautious about bullying others online, realising it was their main source of contact with others.
“They realise that being a bully or behaving negatively could cause them to be excluded or ignored on that touch point, whether in online classes or group chats,” he said.
Digi head of sustainability Philip Ling said after conducting the study for three years, this was the first time it had recorded a positive change where students understood cyberbullying better and were less likely to bully.
Around 42% of respondents said they had received some guidance on understanding what bullying was, and how to protect themselves.
Since the initial lockdown rules imposed during the first movement control order back in March 2020, students have been studying at home for nearly two years.