The number of teenage girls attending emergency departments with mental health issues rose during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Southampton research shows that more females aged 11-17 went to hospital with mental health issues than would be expected.
There was a large reduction in teenage boys attending with mental health issues in the same period.
Researchers say the figures highlight a need to better understand how to support teenage mental health, particularly around their exposure to digital media.
Findings have been published in BMJ Journals’ Archives of Disease in Childhood.
The study assessed the pandemic’s impact on medical, surgical, trauma and mental health conditions in children and young adults.
It was led by Graham Roberts, Professor in Paediatric Allergy and Respiratory Medicine at the University of Southampton.
Professor Roberts, a theme co-lead at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, said: “The impact of COVID-19 on older members of society is well-documented. But the impact of the pandemic on young people is less well-known.
“There were concerns about the negative impact on young people, so we looked at the number of young people attending hospital emergency departments during the first year of the pandemic. We compared it to the number we would have expected to see if the pandemic hadn’t happened.”
Five years of data
The study took place at the University Hospital Southampton (UHS) emergency department and regional major trauma centre.
Researchers analysed data from 166,459 presentations over five years from April 2016, focussing only on patients aged under 25.
Overall, there was a 38.1% reduction in young people using the emergency department during the pandemic with no variation by sex, age, deprivation or ethnicity.
However the research showed an increase in the number of 11-17-year-old females who attended with mental health issues during the first year of the pandemic. It also showed a large reduction in the number of males who attended with mental health issues.
Professor Roberts said: “This may have been due to young females having fewer face-to-face interactions with friends, resulting in loneliness and worsened mental health. There are big differences in digital use between adolescent males and females. Boys tend to spend more time gaming, while girls spend more time on smartphones, social media and texting.
“Greater digital media use can cause lower well-being, and loneliness is often associated with females and older adolescents.
“This increase in mental health in young females is concerning. We need to consider how we support these adolescents, especially with the increased exposure to digital media during the pandemic.”