Methods: Participants included students at a large Midwestern middle school; about 69% of students are from low-income households. 612 students completed at least one survey in-person during fall of 2019 (as sixth or seventh graders) or remotely during spring of 2021 (as seventh or eighth graders). Participants (50% female) were racially and ethnically diverse (32.1% Black/African American, 25.8% White, 21% Spanish). Assessments were collected on mental health, cyber-victimization, and social media use across waves. Repeated measures analysis of variance was conducted in Mplus to assess changes in mental health symptoms and cyber-victimization from before to during the pandemic. Also, we examined associations between social media use and cyber-victimization with mental health symptoms during the pandemic using path modeling.
Results: Among middle school students, approximately 52% indicated that they felt their mental health was not good during the pandemic. The average amount of depressive symptoms increased from the fall of 2019 (M = 54.77) to spring of 2021 (M = 67.12), χ2 = 15.06, p < .001. The average amount of anxiety symptoms also increased from fall of 2019 (M = 53.12) to spring of 2021 (M = 62.96), χ2 =31.38, p < .001. The average experiences of cyber-victimization decreased from fall 2019 (M = 2.68) to spring 2021 (M = 1.83), χ2 =14.32, p < .001. Path model results showed that higher levels of cyber-victimization before the pandemic was associated with an increased risk of depressive (β = .30) and anxiety (β = .21) symptoms during the pandemic. Finally, spending more time on social media during the pandemic was associated with an increased risk for depressive symptoms (β = .20).
Conclusions and Implications: These results highlighted significant increases in depressive and anxious symptoms among this sample of middle school students from fall 2019 to spring 2021. Experiencing more cyber-victimization before the pandemic, and using more social media during the pandemic, were associated with higher levels of negative mental health symptoms in the spring of 2021. These results suggest the importance of bolstering mental health supports, cyber-victimization prevention programs, and education around online safety for middle school students, especially as most of these students have returned to school in-person.