The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Wellbeing of South African Youth

As part of the YRU@BMR Youth Ambassador Research initiative, the Youth Research Unit (YRU) of the Bureau of Market Research (Pty) Ltd (BMR) at Unisa, conducted a study investigating the wellbeing of South African youth after the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pandemic has given rise to concerns about the increased vulnerability and well-being of youth, and in response the study investigated three challenges faced by the youth including substance use, online sexual exploitation, and cyber bullying.   A total of 1 124 young people between the ages of 12 to 20 years participated in the research study.

Substance Use and Abuse
The YRU@BMR study confirmed that young people find themselves in an environment where both legal and illegal substances are openly used and easily accessible.  The study confirmed the use of a variety of tobacco products among the youth, including cigarettes (50%), “Hubbly Bubbly” (Hookah) (48.0%) as well as ‘’vaping” (14%).  Together with the unsafe use of tobacco products especially during social events, the study identified high levels of alcohol consumption among youth.  According to Dr Antoinette Basson, who led the study, almost two-thirds of the participants (62.0%) confirmed that they consumed alcohol during the past 12 months, of which almost half (47.0%) who have consumed alcohol have been drunk.  These findings are consistent with previous YRU@BMR studies and confirm the irresponsible use of alcohol amongst young people with detrimental consequences.

The use of illicit substances is equally concerning, approximately 26% of the young participants confirmed that they are using illicit drugs, of which Cannabis “Dagga’’ (56%) and over the counter (OTC) 17% medication were most frequently used.  According to Dr Basson, further exploration into the possible impact of COVID-19 on substance use amongst the youth confirmed an increase, which was mainly ascribed to the national lockdown restrictions.  This finding confirms that spending more time in the household is not always a protective factor, specifically for young people who are exposed to dysfunctional family environments and unhealthy modeling behavior.  Basson further explained that the study identified high levels of stress and stressful parent-child relationships as key contributing factors to substance use during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
In addition to substance use and abuse, the YRU@BMR study investigated the online sexual exploitation and abuse of young people, more specifically the exposure to online sexually explicit images (pornographic images). The study confirmed high levels of access to the Internet and smart devices, which further increased during the COVID-19 pandemic especially due to the need for online education and communication.  Subsequently, this resulted in the increased vulnerability of young people to online sexual exploitation and abuse.

According to Dr Basson, the YRU@BMR study found that approximately 71.0% have seen disturbing images online, mostly sexual (75.0%) and violent (53.0%) images.   Further analyses revealed that of those young people who have seen sexual images, approximately 87.0% have been exposed to online pornographic images.  Basson further elaborated that comparing these results with previous YRU@BMR studies there has been a significant increase in exposure to pornographic images during the past 5 years.

The significant emotional and behavioural impact of exposure to online pornographic images cannot be ignored.   In this regard, young people experienced mixed feelings (40.0%), struggled to keep up with their schoolwork (8%), or became withdrawn or preoccupied (6%).  Concerningly, it also resulted in young people seeking more access to pornographic images online.  Despite these disturbing findings, young people remain reluctant to get support. According to Basson, the study emphasises the urgent need for increased awareness of the dangers of exposure to online pornographic images and access to appropriate support services dedicated to young people.

Cyberbullying remains a concern amongst South African youth, which has been likely to increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.  According to Dr Basson, approximately a third (35.0%) of young people who participated in the YRU@BMR study, reported that incidents of online bullying increased during the COVID-19 pandemic mainly due to an increase in online activity and lack of physical interaction.

Further exploration into incidents of cyberbullying found that most respondents experienced incidents of false statements made about them (60.0%) or threatening messages (32.0%), which were mainly motivated by peer pressure (58.0%) and family problems (31.0%).  Basson further elaborated that family problems came out strongly in the YRU@BMR study.  This resulted from several families been impacted financially due to unemployment which negatively impacted the security of families and affected children in the household.

Despite the identified psychological and social impact of cyberbullying including intense feelings of sadness (38.0%), embarrassment (36.0%), and anger (35.0%), it seems that there is still a lack in responding to reports of cyberbullying and providing appropriate assistance.  This often results in victims taking the matter into their own hands, by taking revenge and engaging in bullying behaviour.

Based on the YRU@BMR research findings there is no doubt that the South African youth are facing several challenges that have been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Considering the impact of the pandemic, on the wellbeing of the youth, there is an urgent need for creating awareness and providing dedicated support and adequate services focused on the youth.

AN EXPLORATORY NATIONAL STUDY ON YOUTH WELLBEING IN SOUTH AFRICA (Research Report No 524) was compiled by Dr Antoinette Basson (BMR Research Director).

Professional enquiries:
Dr Antoinette Basson
Head: Youth Research Unit

Other enquiries:
Ms Madeleine Goetz
Research Administration Manager

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