COVID-19 and the impact on young people
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2021) COVID-19 and the impact on young people, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 08 December 2023.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). COVID-19 and the impact on young people. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/covid-19-and-young-people
COVID-19 and the impact on young people. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 25 June 2021, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/covid-19-and-young-people
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. COVID-19 and the impact on young people [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2023 Dec. 8]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/covid-19-and-young-people
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2021, COVID-19 and the impact on young people, viewed 8 December 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/covid-19-and-young-people
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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected young people across several life domains, many of which are interrelated.
- During 2020, rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those aged 20–24 and those aged 25–29 (168 and 183 per 100,000 people, respectively) were higher than all other age groups, except 85 years and over (279 per 100,000). Between January and 16 June 2021, there were 187 cases among young people aged 15 to 24, making up 9.7% of the total 1,929 cases during this period. In 2021, across all 5-year age groups in the population, rates of confirmed cases have been highest among those aged 30–34, followed by those aged 35–39, and those aged 25–29.
- Of the 910 COVID-19-related deaths in Australia since the pandemic began 1 was in the 20–29 age group.
- In July–August 2020, among young people aged 13–17, 42% said the pandemic and response had negatively affected their social connectedness, a drop from 70% in April 2020. The proportion for young people in Melbourne was higher, at 55%, but still lower than April levels. The easing of restrictions across much of the country at the end of June 2020 brought more structure and connectedness to young people’s lives.
- Compared with February 2017, psychological distress worsened in April 2020 for those aged 18 to 24. In April 2021, psychological distress of young Australians was significantly below what it was in April 2020 but was still higher than in February 2017.
- The proportion of young people not in education or employment rose from 8.7% in May 2019 to 12% in May 2020 and has since decreased to 11% in February 2021, a similar rate to February 2020 (10%).
Between March 2020 and May 2020, the proportion of all young people aged 15–24 who were employed (the employment ratio) dropped by 10 percentage points (60% to 50%, a decrease of 329,000 young people). From May 2020, the employment ratio of young people aged 15–24 generally increased. As at April 2021, the employment ratio of young people was 61% compared with 60% in March 2020.
- The monthly unemployment rate for young people aged 15–24 rose from 12% in March 2020 to a peak of 16.4% in July 2020. The unemployment rate was 11% in April 2021.
- Of all employees who received the JobKeeper Payment in April 2020, 12% were aged 24 or under. Young people were under-represented in JobKeeper coverage, which may reflect their considerably higher receipt of income support payments than other age groups.
- In May 2020, just over 1 in 4 (28%) young people aged 18–24 reported not being able to pay their rent and/or mortgage on time in the previous 3 months. This compares with 15% of Australians aged 18 and over.
While some effects of COVID-19 on young people are emerging, it is important to note that the full impact is complex and not yet fully understood. The effect of COVID-19 can also be dynamic—outcomes change quickly (for instance, mental wellbeing and social connectedness) when conditions change (such as introducing or easing restrictions). Many of the effects of COVID-19 will be interrelated and could take some time to become apparent.
Many life trajectories are set in place during adolescence and young adulthood. Hence, there is a need for ongoing comprehensive monitoring of the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s wellbeing. Areas of particular interest for monitoring include:
- wellbeing, including mental wellbeing
- access to educational choices after secondary school, education attainment, achievement and outcomes
- longer term outcomes for young people; for example, the potential consequences of unemployment on their long-term employment prospects and finances, their access to secure housing, and their mental health
- the longer term impact of COVID-19 on child protection services
- experience of domestic violence
- variation in outcomes for different population groups.
Since early 2020, COVID-19 has emerged as a major health threat in 2020, substantially disrupting almost all parts of society worldwide. This section provides an overview of what is currently known (as at May 2021) about the impact of COVID-19 on Australian young people for selected topics where data are available. These topics are presented within the domains of the Australian Health and Welfare (AIHW) people-centred data model that underpin this report:
- Social support
- Education and skills
- Employment and work
- Income and Finance
- Justice and safety (for information on the AIHW people-centred data model, see Introduction).
COVID-19 is a disease caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It is predominantly a disease of the respiratory system, particularly in the early stages of the illness (AIHW 2020a). For more information on its key characteristics and its prevention, control and treatment, see Australia’s health 2020: data insights.
COVID-19 in Australia
The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia were recorded on 25 January 2020 (see Box 1 for more details). For simplicity, this report refers to the period from March 2020 as ‘during COVID-19’ as this is the point at which restrictions and other responses to the coronavirus began. It is recognised, though, that the pandemic continues, and that the impacts of COVID-19 have varied considerably across different parts of Australia and over time since March 2020.
In 2020, rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were higher among those aged 20–24 and 25–29 than most other age groups, except for those aged 85 and over, see Confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19. COVID-19-related deaths among young people have been much lower (see Infectious diseases for information on the vaccine roll-out and young people). While the direct impacts of COVID-19 on the physical health of young people has, to date, been limited, young people have been particularly affected by the associated restrictions on movement and the impacts on labour markets.
The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Australia on 25 January 2020 (Figure 1). As the disease spread, restrictions were put in place to control its impact. By the end of March 2020, restrictions had impacted all non-essential businesses and activities, with Australians urged to stay at home (Grattan Institute 2020). Restrictions started to ease from late April, although with state and territory differences.
In Victoria, COVID-19 cases began to rise again in June 2020, in what became known as the ‘second wave’. Various restrictions were introduced in July, with the highest level of restrictions introduced on 2 August (Melbourne to Stage 4 and regional Victoria to Stage 3). On 26 October, Victoria reached zero cases for the first time since June 2020 (Victorian DHHS 2020).
Clusters emerged in various parts of Australia at different times; for instance, a cluster emerged in South Australia in late November 2020, leading to a brief period of restrictions. Over the Christmas–New Year 2020 period, clusters emerged around the NSW Northern Beaches area, leading to restrictions in certain suburbs and widespread interstate cross-border closures. In 2021, clusters continue to emerge.
Figure 1: Overview of Australian COVID-19 timeline, January to December 2020
Source: World Health Organisation, as at February 2021.
Effects of COVID-19 on Australia’s young people
While COVID-19 affects people in different ways, the social and economic impacts on young people have been substantial. Compared with older age groups, young people have experienced high rates of psychological distress, loneliness, educational disruption, unemployment, housing stress and domestic violence.
COVID-19 is a major source of concern among young people. The 2020 Mission Australia Youth Survey of young people aged 15–19 (conducted between April and August 2020) identified, in response to a free text question, the top 3 biggest personal concerns of young people:
- education (34%)
- mental health (17%)
- COVID-19 (9.3%).
Of the 9.3% who reported COVID-19 to be a top concern, the top 3 related concerns were in respect to education (33%), COVID-19 in general (31%) and isolation (21%). Other COVID-19-related concerns reported were mental health (17%) and financial problems (7%) (Tiller et al. 2020). The 3 most important national issues in Australia today as identified by young people were equity and discrimination (40%), COVID-19 (39%) and mental health (31%) (Tiller et al. 2020).
Young people are also concerned about their lack of voice in decision making and in being negatively stereotyped (UNICEF Australia 2020). Findings from 2 of UNICEF Australia’s 3-phase national survey showed that, among young people aged 13–17, in July–August 2020, the proportion who think there is no clear way for children and young people to feed into the national discussion rose from 26% in April to 65% in July–August (UNICEF Australia 2020).
While some of the effects of COVID-19 on young people are emerging, it is important to note that the full impact on them is complex and not yet fully understood. The effect of COVID-19 can also be dynamic—outcomes can change quickly (for instance, for mental wellbeing and social connectedness) when conditions change (such as introducing or easing restrictions).
There may also be longer term outcomes for young people; for example:
- adverse effects from temporary disruption to education
- the potential consequences of unemployment on their long-term employment prospects and finances
- their access to secure housing
- their mental health.
The social determinants of health and wellbeing are all connected and interact on many different levels. This means that many of the effects of COVID-19 could take some time to become apparent.
An ecological approach
This report takes an ecological approach to youth reporting. This means it considers how factors that shape people’s health interact within and between different social and ecological ‘levels’. The specific approach taken is derived from existing frameworks for children and young people used in Australia (Victoria Department of Education and Training 2018; Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services 2018). The young person is at the centre and their development and wellbeing occurs within dynamic concentric circles of influence exerted by different settings (see also Introduction).
Availability and limitations of COVID-19-related data
Where data relating to the COVID-19 period are available in routine national collections used in this report, they are included. Since the pandemic began, a number of new surveys and data collections have been developed, specifically aimed at assessing the impact of COVID-19.
This section draws on relevant data sources with a national focus, which were considered the best available at the time. However, the nature of data collection during the pandemic means that there are some limitations for some surveys, including:
- differences in the age range used to define young people
- lack of national representativeness, due to non-random sampling
- limited sample sizes, particularly in relation to young people, which can limit the robustness of findings
- potential volatility in reporting over time.
Information about the data sources used, including the nature and size of the sample, is provided in the Technical notes.
This section includes the following comparisons where data are available:
- before and during COVID-19, noting that the time period compared varies depending on the availability and nature of data
- young people and other age groups during COVID-19
- experiences during COVID-19, including comparisons at different time points.
Disaggregation of data by sex are limited due to sample size issues. In most cases, disaggregation by specific population groups is not available.
While the focus of this section is on national data, consistent with the approach taken for the whole report, where data were readily available, some comparisons for young people in Victoria—which experienced a lengthy second period of restrictions (see Box 1)—were included. International comparisons, where available, could be included in future updates.
Child protection services
An analysis of child protection services data during the early stages of COVID-19 (March to September 2020) for children aged 0–17 showed that, in most jurisdictions, there was a drop in notifications in April 2020 (during the initial COVID-19 restrictions). This was followed by an increase in May or June 2020, coinciding with the easing of restrictions (AIHW 2021b).
The number of substantiations recorded each month remained relatively stable across March to August 2020 for all jurisdictions; data were not available for Tasmania. Compared with the same period in 2019, the number of substantiations were higher in South Australia; lower in Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory; and similar in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory (AIHW 2021b).
The number of children in out-of-home care remained relatively stable across March to September 2020. The overall change over this time was less than 3% across most jurisdictions; Queensland had a 5% increase. Compared with the previous year:
- in 4 jurisdictions (Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia), the number of children in out-of-home care was consistently higher than in the same months in 2019
- in New South Wales and the Northern Territory, the monthly numbers were consistently lower
- in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, numbers fluctuated.
The data reflect that, since January 2019, in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia, more children were admitted to out-of-home care than exited it, while New South Wales and the Northern Territory had fewer children admitted than exiting (AIHW 2021b).
It should be noted that the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on substantiations and out-of-home care may take time to manifest. The time taken for notifications to be investigated, and for the usual court processes to resume, may result in increases in substantiations and out-of-home care entries and exits (AIHW 2021b).
For more information on child protection services and risk factors for coming into contact with child protection services, see Child protection in the time of COVID-19.
Negative online behaviours
A notable change that resulted from COVID-19 social distancing and isolation measures has been the increased dependence on the internet across many aspects of life. While the internet is an important part of contemporary life, it has also brought some challenges, such as the increased risks of negative online experiences.
Negative online behaviours experienced by 12–17 year olds
Based on the eSafety Commissioner’s report The digital lives of Aussie teens (see Bullying and negative online behaviours for survey methodology), in the 6 months before September 2020, among young people aged 12–17, 2 in 5 (44%) had a negative online experience, with the proportion higher among girls than boys (47% and 41%, respectively) (eSafety Commissioner 2021). The proportion was also higher among those aged 14–17 than among those aged 12–13 (51% and 32%, respectively).
The top 3 negative experiences for young people aged 12 to 17 were:
- being contacted by a stranger or someone they did not know (30%)
- being sent inappropriate unwanted content, such as pornography or violent content (20%)
- being deliberately excluded from events/social groups (16%) (eSafety Commissioner 2021).
Girls were more likely than boys to be contacted by a stranger or someone they didn’t know (35% and 26%, respectively). Boys were slightly more likely than girls to receive online threats or abuse (18% compared with 11%) (eSafety Commissioner 2021) (For more information on actions taken by young people, see Bullying and negative online behaviours).
Negative online behaviours experienced by 18–24 year olds
A survey conducted by the eSafety Commissioner from 21 to 25 May 2020 found that the 3 most common negative online experiences for young people aged 18–24 during COVID-19 restrictions were:
- receiving repeated unwanted messages or contact, experienced by around a third (34%) of respondents. This compares with 37% for 25–34 year olds, and 26% of adults overall
- being sent unwanted inappropriate content, such as pornography or violent content, experienced by around 1 in 6 respondents (18%). This was the same proportion as for those aged 25–34 and compares with 12% for adults overall
- having things said online to provoke an argument, which was experienced by 16% of respondents. This compares with 14% for those aged 25–34 and 8% of adults overall (eSafety Commissioner 2020).
An Australian Institute of Criminology survey of 15,000 women aged 18 and over found that, in the 3 months before the survey (conducted between 6 May and 1 June 2020), more than 1 in 10 (13%) young women aged 18–24 experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner (see Technical notes for survey details). More than 1 in 4 (27%) experienced emotionally abusive, harassing and controlling behaviours, while just under 1 in 6 (16%) experienced coercive control (defined as experiencing 3 or more emotionally abusive, harassing or controlling behaviours in the 3 months before the survey).
Relative to other age groups, young women aged 18–24 had the highest rates across all types of domestic violence reported (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Prevalence of domestic violence, February–April 2020, by age group 2020
Note: Figure based on weighted data. See Technical Appendix to Boxall et al. 2020.
Source: AIC 2020
Among young women who experienced physical or sexual violence, for over 1 in 3 (36%) it was the first time their partner had been violent towards them. Among those who experienced coercive control, for over 1 in 4 young women (29%) it was the first time they had experienced emotionally abusive, harassing or controlling behaviours.
Among young women who had been in a relationship in the 12 months before the survey, the proportion who experienced domestic violence in the 3 months before the survey was higher among those who had been cohabitating with their partner compared with those who had not. This was true for all forms of domestic violence reported, with the largest difference for physical violence, which was 3 times as high (26% and 8.3%, respectively).
Among young women who had experienced physical or sexual violence within the relationship before February 2020, almost half (48%) reported an increase in frequency or severity of physical or sexual violence (relative to the 6-month period before February 2020). Further, more than 2 in 5 (44%) young women who had experienced coercive control before February 2020 reported that the behaviours had increased in frequency or severity.
Over half (53%) of all young women who experienced physical or sexual violence and almost half (47%) of those who experienced coercive control were unable to seek support on at least 1 occasion, due to safety concerns in the 3 months before the survey.
The increased risk of violence against women in current cohabiting relationships is most likely associated with increased economic stress and social isolation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (Morgan & Boxall 2020).
The focus of the survey was on women’s experiences of violence, as they are over-represented as victims of domestic violence (Boxall et al. 2020). However, it is acknowledged that this is a limitation of the data. Other limitations associated with the study are described in the Technical Appendix to Boxall et al. 2020.
Comparable data on domestic violence among young women pre-COVID-19 and since the pandemic began are not available. However, pre-COVID-19 data from the 2016 ABS Personal Safety Survey have also shown that young women aged 18 to 34 were more likely to experience intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence than women aged 35 and over in the 12 months before the survey (AIHW 2019b).
As at the end of December 2020, there had been 28,600 cases of COVID-19 in Australia. Young people aged 15 to 24 accounted for 15% of these (or 4,400 cases). Across all 5-year age groups in the population, rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 were highest among those aged 85 and over (279 per 100,000), followed by those aged 25–29 (183 per 100,000) and those aged 20–24 (168 per 100,000).
Among those aged 20–24, rates were higher for females than males (182 and 153 per 100,000, respectively) while there was little difference among those aged 15–19 (97 and 99 per 100,000, respectively) (Figure 2).
Between January and 16 June 2021, there were 187 cases among young people aged 15 to 24, making up 9.7% of the total 1,929 cases during this period. In 2021, across all 5-year age groups in the population, rates of confirmed cases have been highest among those aged 30–34 (16 per 100,000), followed by those aged 35–39 (14 per 100,000), and those aged 25–29 (14 per 100,000).
Figure 2: Confirmed cases of COVID-19, by age and sex during 2020
Source: National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS), as at 16 June 2021.
While the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has been high among young people, the number of deaths has been very low. Of the total 910 deaths as at 16 June 2021, 1 death was in the age group 20–29. There were no deaths among children and young people aged 0–19 (Department of Health 2021).
It is still too early to understand the long-term direct physical health effects of COVID-19. However, a prospective study has found that, at a median 69 days after diagnosis, a considerable proportion of adult patients experience persistent symptoms, including fatigue, chest pain and breathlessness (Darley et al. 2020).
For international comparisons, see WHO COVID-19 detailed surveillance data dashboard.
Health service use
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the provision and use of some health services for the whole Australian population.
- For example, the Australian Government introduced temporary telehealth items in the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) from March 2020. As a result, telephone consultations by all health professionals – general practitioners (GPs), medical specialists, obstetrics and allied health professionals – made up over one-quarter (26%) of all MBS consultations between March and August 2020. A small proportion (2%) were delivered via video conference, with the remaining 72% being face to face (AIHW 2020d).
The number of presentations to public hospital emergency departments (EDs) fell by 1.4% from 2018–19 to 2019–20. This compares with an average national 3.2% increase in the number of presentations between 2014–15 and 2018–19 (AIHW 2020c).
Among young people aged 15–24, there was a drop in ED presentations of 3.9% between 2018–19 and 2019–20. This compares with an average annual increase for young people of 1.7% between 2016–17 and 2018–19 (AIHW 2017, 2019a, 2020c).
The overall decrease in ED presentations was likely influenced by the restrictions on travel, business, social interaction and border control in place between February and the end of June 2020 (AIHW 2020c) (see Emergency department care for more information). For changes in the injury profile of ED presentations, see Box 2.
Box 2: Emergency department presentations in Victoria
A comparison of data on ED presentations in Victoria in October 2019 and October 2020 showed that, although there was little change in the number of ED presentations for injury and poisoning overall, there was a change in the injury profile.
- Unintentional home injuries increased across the whole population by 24%. Among young people aged 15–24, the increase for males was 39% (from 541 to 750) and for females, 45% (from 388 to 561).
- ED presentations for transport injuries across the whole population did not change significantly (2,012 and 1,921 in October 2019 and October 2020, respectively). Among young people aged 15–24, there was little change for males (296 and 293 in October 2019 and October 2020, respectively) and a 23% decrease for females (from 145 to 111).
- Self-harm injuries were higher across the whole population (an increase of 16%). Among young people aged 0–24, there was a 6.3% increase for males (from 111 to 118) but a 31% increase for females (from 241 to 315) (VISU 2020).
Screening mammograms through BreastScreen Australia also declined as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and tighter restrictions were put in place (AIHW 2020b). See Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia for more information.
A more immediate health consequence of the pandemic has been the adverse impact on young people’s mental wellbeing, including the ability to cope, worries, and levels of psychological distress. Results for some of these measures have varied at different times during the pandemic.
How have young people aged 13–17 been coping?
Comparable data on the ability of young people to cope pre- and post-pandemic are not available. However, since the pandemic began, UNICEF Australia has released findings from 2 of its 3-phase national surveys conducted in April and July–August 2020 (UNICEF Australia 2020).
Based on these surveys, in July–August 2020 among young people aged 13–17:
- 55% rated their ability to cope as good, an increase from 45% in April. However, there was no improvement for those in Victoria (which still had restrictions) at 44%. Results for July–August were still lower than in January 2020 before the pandemic (81%), based on retrospective recall in April
- 36% reported that COVID-19 had negatively affected their levels of stress and anxiety (41% of females and 31% of males). This was a drop from just under half (47%) in April. However, in Melbourne, the proportion was 43%
- 25% said that their level of hope had been adversely affected by the pandemic, a decrease from 34% in April (although remaining high in Victoria at 34%). Conversely, 36% said that the pandemic had had a positive impact on their level of hope, an increase from 24% in April. This may indicate that lived experience has offset some of the unknowns that young people were grappling with at the start of the pandemic (UNICEF Australia 2020).
What are young people worried about?
In both the April and July–August 2020 iterations of UNICEF Australia’s survey, the top 3 worries for young people were isolation from friends and family, disruptions to education, and a friend or family member’s contracting COVID-19. In July–August 2020, among young people aged 13–17:
- 46% were worried about being isolated from friends and schoolmates, a decrease from 57% in April. In Melbourne, it was 52%
- 23% were concerned about being separated from family members, a slight increase from 18% in April
- 45% were worried about their education being disrupted or held back as a result of the changes to schooling, a substantial drop from 67% in April, although it was slightly higher in Melbourne (50%)
- 42% were worried about a friend or family member’s contracting the virus, similar to the proportion for April (40%); the proportion was slightly higher for Melbourne (47%) (UNICEF 2020).
For information on the number of contacts with Kids Helpline, see Box 3.
Box 3: Kids Helpline
Phone and online support organisations reported substantial increases in demand for their services during the COVID-19 pandemic (AIHW 2020e). These organisations included Kids Helpline, a free 24/7 Australian telephone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25. It was established in 1991 (Kids Helpline 2021).
In 2020, answerable contact attempts (call, webchat and email) peaked during April and August, coinciding with national and Victorian restrictions respectively (AIHW 2021a).
How happy are young people?
Based on a comparison of 2019 and 2020 data from the annual Mission Australia youth surveys, conducted between April and August in the respective years, the proportion of young people aged 15–19 who reported feeling happy/very happy with their life as a whole was very similar in 2020 to what it was in 2019 (59% and 61%, respectively). The decrease between these 2 years was greater for females (3 percentage points) than for males (1 percentage point) (Carlisle et al. 2019; Tiller et al. 2020).
The proportion of young people who felt either very positive or positive about their future was also very similar in 2020 and 2019 (56% and 58%, respectively). The decrease was again greater for females (4 percentage points) than males (1 percentage point) (Carlisle et al. 2019; Tiller et al. 2020) (see also Subjective wellbeing).
For information on subjective wellbeing of school students in South Australia and Tasmania, see Box 4.
Box 4: Student subjective wellbeing
A range of measures on wellbeing are included in South Australia’s annual Wellbeing and Engagement Collection and Tasmania’s annual Student Wellbeing Survey, which include survey data from students in Years 4–12.
Results for Years 7–12 from the Term 1 2019 and Term 3 2020 collections for South Australia and Term 3 2019 and Term 3 2020 for Tasmania showed similar levels of wellbeing on a number of measures (Table 1) (see Technical notes for information on wellbeing scores and technical notes).
|Measure||South Australia 2019||South Australia 2020||Tasmania 2019||Tasmania 2020|
|Satisfaction with life||75||72||68||67|
|Absence of sadness||82||79||77||75|
|Absence of worries||72||70||67||68|
Sources: South Australia’s Wellbeing and Engagement Collection 2019 and 2020; Tasmania’s Student Wellbeing Survey 2019 and 2020.
While the changes between 2019 and 2020 were marginal, there was some difference between sexes.
- In South Australia, changes in levels of wellbeing for males ranged from a decrease of 1–2 percentage points compared with a decrease of 4–6 percentage points for females.
- In Tasmania, changes in levels of wellbeing for males ranged from a positive increase of 1 percentage point to a decrease of 1 percentage point, compared with a decrease of 1–3 percentage points for females.
What is the level of psychological distress among 18–24 year olds?
Findings from the longitudinal COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program, undertaken by the Australian National University’s (ANU’s) Centre for Social Research and Methods, show that the spread of COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the mental health of all Australian adults. Young adults aged 18–24 seem to have been particularly affected with higher levels of anxiety and worry than older Australians in May, August and October 2020 (Biddle et al. 2020d; Biddle & Gray 2020).
A comparison of pre-COVID-19 (February 2017) and April 2020 data on psychological distress (see Technical notes ) showed that psychological distress worsened for those aged under 45, and those aged 18–24 in particular (Biddle et al. 2020c). The proportion of young people aged 18–24 experiencing severe psychological distress increased from 14% in 2017 to 22% in April 2020. This rise is likely to have some association with the spread of COVID-19, in view of the larger negative impacts of COVID-19 for that group, such as job losses and financial stress (Biddle et al. 2020c).
Between April and May 2020, there was a slight improvement in psychological distress for all Australians. However, for young people, the overall psychological distress score was still above what it was in February 2017 and did not return to pre-COVID-19 levels in October 2020 (Biddle & Gray 2020). For those aged 18–24, the psychological distress score was 21% higher in October 2020 than before the pandemic in February 2017 and was potentially even higher between April and August 2020 (Biddle & Gray 2020).
Results for Victorian young people have not been published, but in October 2020, adults in Victoria continued to experience higher rates of psychological distress than adults in the rest of Australia (Biddle & Gray 2020).
Findings from the ANU's longitudinal COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program showed that, among all adults, job loss was a predictor of psychological distress scores (Biddle et al. 2020d) Controlling for other factors, people who were employed in February 2020, but not in May 2020, had higher levels of psychological distress.
In all the statistical models, those who lived outside capital cities had lower rates of psychological distress than those who lived in capital cities, controlling for other factors (Biddle et al. 2020d). This probably reflects the fact that the economic impact of restrictions has been higher in the major cities than in regional or remote areas, and that infection rates have also been higher.
Based on the January 2021 ANU poll, psychological distress had dropped for all age groups since the peak of April 2020, with the average score for whole-of-population in January being very similar to its level in February 2017. However, for those aged under 45, psychological distress remained higher than in February 2017 (Biddle & Gray 2021a). At the same time, though, young people aged 18–24 were optimistic about the future, with two-thirds (69%) thinking their life would be ‘much’ or ‘a little’ better in 2022 (Biddle & Gray 2021a).
Between January 2021 and April 2021, psychological distress for all Australian adults showed a continued decline, although the difference was not statistically significant. In April 2021, psychological distress of young Australians was significantly below what it was in April 2020 (the peak of the first wave of infections) but was still higher than in February 2017 (Biddle & Gray 2021b).
For information on deaths by suicide among young people in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, see Box 5.
Monitoring data on deaths by suicide
Please carefully consider your needs when reading the following information about suicide. If this report raises any issues for you, these services can help:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
- MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day.
The AIHW supports the use of the Mindframe guidelines on responsible, accurate and safe reporting of suicide and self-harm. Please consider these guidelines when communicating about suicide and self-harm.
Box 5: Deaths by suicide in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales
In Australia, data on suspected deaths by suicide for the whole population in 2020 have been released for Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales from their respective suicide registers. These data show no evidence to date of any increase relative to previous years.
Data for young people are available for Victoria and New South Wales and showed a similar pattern. In Victoria, the number of suspected deaths by suicide in 2020 was similar to that for 2019, both among those under the age of 18 (19 and 21, respectively) and those aged 18–24 (77 compared with 83). In 2020, as in previous years, males accounted for the majority of deaths by suicide among young people: 89% among those aged under 18, and 79% among those aged 18–24 (Coroners Court of Victoria 2021).
In New South Wales, the number of suspected deaths by suicide in 2020 and 2019 was similar, both among those aged under 18 (30 and 31, respectively) and those aged 18–24 (94 compared with 109). It should be noted that these data are not based on final determinations on the part of the Coroners (NSW Ministry of Health 2021).
While some key risk factors associated with deaths by suicide have worsened since the onset of COVID-19 (for example, job loss and rises in the level of psychological distress), protective factors may include a general sense of ‘we are all in this together’ and the impact of JobKeeper and JobSeeker supplements (see AIHW’s Data on suspected deaths by suicide).
Pedal cyclist fatalities
Preliminary insights from the Australian Road Deaths Database comparing fatal crashes during March–August 2020 showed a reported 20–30% reduction in traffic across Australia, compared with the same months averaged across the previous 3 years (2017–2019). However, the number of fatal crashes for the whole population declined by only 10% (Catchpole & Naznin 2020). While fatalities among drivers, passengers, pedestrians and motorcycle riders dropped between 5–20% during the COVID-19 restrictions, pedal cyclist fatalities across Australia increased by 29% (from an average of 21 in 2017–2019 to 27 in 2020). This may be due to anecdotal accounts of increased cycling since the pandemic. However, the increase was in the age groups 0–16 and 40–64, not in other age groups (Catchpole & Naznin 2020).
The importance of health literacy among young people in relation to public health messages has been particularly important since the COVID-19 pandemic began, given the high incidence rates among younger age groups in 2020 (see Confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19). While data for all young people are not available, there are findings for young people aged 13–17 from 2 phases of UNICEF Australia’s 3-phase national survey, conducted in April and July–August 2020 (UNICEF Australia 2020).
These findings showed that in July–August 2020:
- almost 2 in 3 (64%) felt they had a good understanding of what was happening (by reading and watching the news and other announcements)
- over 2 in 3 (69%) discussed developments regarding COVID-19 with their family and carers, an increase from 58% in April
- around 2 in 5 (43%) felt confused due to the volume of conflicting information. While 46% said that not enough effort was being put into communicating effectively with children and young people, this was a drop from April (51%) (UNICEF 2020).
In relation to trusting sources of information:
- the vast majority (96%) trusted their parents or guardians to provide them with accurate information about the pandemic and the response measures
- 90% trusted the Chief Medical Officers and Health officials at the federal and state levels
- 88% trusted teachers and schools
- 78% trusted state and territory leaders to provide accurate information while 74% trusted federal government leaders
- 42% trusted social media for accurate information about the virus, pandemic and responses (UNICEF 2020).
One potential consequence of the pandemic’s impact on employment, income and finances, is an increase in inequality. Young people are a group that generally has limited financial resources. As such, they are particularly vulnerable to housing stress, and potentially homelessness.
Protective factors against homelessness and housing stress due to some of the consequences of COVID-19 included:
- the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments
- a moratorium on rental evictions for those unable to meet their commitments.
It is important to note that outcomes of housing stress such as homelessness might take some time to eventuate.
Data for the second wave of the ANU's COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program was collected during the second half of May 2020. Based on this data, a high proportion of young people were in housing stress, defined here as not being able to pay their rent or mortgage payments on time. Note that the definition of housing stress used here is different from that in the section Housing stress.
In May 2020, among young people aged 18–24:
- just over 1 in 4 (28%) reported not being able to pay their rent and/or mortgage on time in the previous 3 months. This compares with 15% of Australians adults overall (that is, those aged 18 and over)
- the proportion of those in housing stress between April and May increased almost 3-fold (from 10% to 28%).
It should be noted that the increase in housing stress may have been reduced by actions taken by some, such as household consolidation (Biddle et al. 2020a).
Young adults are more likely to be renters and less likely to be mortgage holders. Based on the ANU’s COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program, in May 2020, among young renters:
- 44% reported not having been able to pay their rent on time over the previous 3 months. This compares with 27% of Australian adults overall
- 21% attempted to reduce or defer their rental payments and, of these, just over half (53%) were successful. This compares with 17% of adults overall who attempted to reduce or defer their rental payments, of whom 73% were successful.
When socioeconomic status of the geographic area was controlled for, young Australians were still more likely than older Australians to be in housing stress. This suggests that income is not the only cause of housing stress for young people, and that their savings and wealth are likely to be low (Biddle et al. 2020a).
In April 2021, among Australians who were paying off a mortgage or renting, young people aged 18–24 were more likely to say they were struggling with these payments than other age groups. Among respondents who did not own their own home outright and who were not paying off a mortgage, young people (as well as those aged 45 and over, and particularly those aged 65 and over) were also more concerned about being able to afford to buy housing during their lifetime (Biddle & Gray 2021b).
Initiatives to help address housing issues and create jobs as part of stimulus and COVID-19 recovery plans have been announced, including those in the 2020–21 budgets for Victoria’s Big Housing Build as well as in New South Wales (New South Wales Government 2020; Andrews 2020).
Specialist homelessness services
The COVID-19 pandemic poses a number of substantial and unique risks for young people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness in Australia.
- Limited access to accommodation and basic hygiene requirements increases the risk of infection and difficulty in complying with hygiene, self-isolation or quarantine measures (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2020; Waters 2001).
- Young people experiencing homelessness are more likely to have pre-existing anxiety or other mental health problems than young people in general (Steen 2018). As the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have resulted in even higher levels of distress in people with pre-existing mental health disorders, homeless young people are likely to have been greatly affected (Black Dog Institute 2020; NHMC 2020).
- Some submissions from Shelter in the Storm—COVID-19 and homelessness, an interim report on homelessness in Australia, suggested that young people were at an increased risk of homelessness during and after the pandemic due to factors such as workforce casualisation, declining rental affordability, youth unemployment and under-employment and inadequate rates of income support (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs 2020).
Monthly data from the Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) Collection showed that, from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 until December 2020, the number of SHS clients aged 15–24 in Australia remained within the range of that for the 2 years before February 2020 (between 18,600 and 20,100 young people, or around 22% of all SHS clients) (AIHW 2020f). This pattern was also true for other age groups (AIHW 2020f).
From 26 March 2020, ‘COVID-19’ was included as an option for the reason given for seeking SHS assistance. The proportion of all SHS clients who gave COVID-19 as their reason for seeking assistance reached its highest level, at 7.2%, in May 2020; it remained around 7% until September 2020 before decreasing, reaching 4.3% in December 2020 (AIHW 2020f).
In response to the challenges facing homeless Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic, many state and territory governments provided additional funding and developed new initiatives and strategies (AIHW 2020f). Some of this funding was not provided through SHS-funded agencies, meaning that the figures described here do not capture all of the demand for, and receipt of, homelessness services during this period. For more detailed information on SHS, see COVID-19 responses in the AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services: monthly data.
COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on a range of industries and cohorts; however, evidence shows young Australians have been the most affected in the initial stages. Job loss and reductions in hours worked can cause financial stress and affect mental health.
In April 2020, short-term policy measures were introduced by the Australian Government to protect those whose income was adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures included:
- a coronavirus supplement for the JobSeeker Payment and other payments
- suspension of mutual obligations and other eligibility requirements for some income supports, including the JobSeeker Payment
- introduction of the JobKeeper Payment, a temporary wage subsidy provided to help businesses to keep trading and keep people employed (for more details on eligibility requirements, see Technical notes). The amount provided through the JobKeeper Payment and the Coronavirus Supplement has varied over time. Particular rules also applied to those aged under 18. The JobKeeper Payment program ended on 28 March 2021 and the Coronavirus Supplement ended on 31 March 2021 (for more details see Technical notes).
Data from the ABS Labour Force Survey support routine reporting of standard measures on Australian’s participation in the labour market (including employment, unemployment, underemployment, and labour force participation). This section focuses mainly on how these measures changed for young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Box 6: Labour force concepts and definitions
People are considered employed if they worked for 1 hour or more for pay, profit, commission, or payment in kind, or worked for 1 hour or more without pay in a family business or on a farm. The employment to population ratio (referred to in this report as the employment ratio) describes the proportion of all young people aged 15–24 who are employed.
People are considered unemployed if they are not currently working, but are actively looking for work or waiting to start a new job in the next 4 weeks. The unemployment rate describes the proportion of young people in the labour force that are unemployed.
People are underemployed if they are employed and want, and are available for, more hours of work than they currently have. The underemployment rate describes the proportion of young people in the labour force that are underemployed.
People are considered to be participating in the labour force if they are employed or unemployed but actively looking for work. The participation rate describes the proportion of all young people who are in the labour force (either employed or unemployed).
As with other analysis in this report, a statistical significance test was used to analyse changes observed in ABS Labour Force Survey data. See Methods.
The employment ratio (see Box 6) of young people aged 15–24 describes the proportion of all young people aged 15–24 who are employed. Monthly seasonally adjusted labour force data show that between March 2020 (when COVID-19 restrictions began) and May 2020, the employment ratio dropped by 10 percentage points (60% to 50%, a decrease of 329,000 employed young people) (Figure 3). This was more than 2 times the relative decrease experienced by the working-age population (people aged 15–64) (from 74% to 70%).
Fewer people in employment can be related both to more people who are unemployed (not employed and still looking for work) (see Unemployment rate) and to more who are not in the labour force (not employed and not looking for work) (see Participation rate). People who were paid through the JobKeeper Payment scheme (as an eligible employee or otherwise) are expected to have responded to the Labour Force Survey in a way that would classify them as employed (ABS 2021b). This means that the decrease in employment for young people includes those who were ineligible for this scheme (such as employees on short-term casual contracts) (see Income support for young people) (Gilfillan 2020; ATO 2020).
From May 2020, the employment ratio of young people aged 15–24 generally increased. As at April 2021, the employment ratio of young people was 61% compared with 60% in March 2020.
Since March 2020, the changes in employed males and females aged 15–24 followed similar trends with:
- a larger drop in the employment ratio for young females from March to May 2020 than for males (11 percentage points compared with 8.6 percentage points)
- a larger rise for females than males from May 2020 to April 2021 (13 percentage points compared with 9.5 percentage points for young males) (Figure 3).
The employment ratio of the working-age population was 74% in December 2020. This compares with 74% in March 2020 and 75% in April 2021 (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Employment ratio for young people aged 15–24, November 2019 to April 2021
- Proportions are seasonally adjusted.
- Working-age population refers to people aged 15–64.
Source: ABS 2021b.
The unemployment rate describes the proportion of young people aged 15–24 in the labour force who are unemployed. Monthly seasonally adjusted labour force data show that between March 2020 (pre-COVID-19) and May 2020 the unemployment rate of young people aged 15–24 increased substantially (from 12% to 16%) (Figure 4). The unemployment rate remained at 16% in June 2020 and reached a peak of 16.4% in July 2020. In August 2020 the unemployment rate of young people fell to 14%, with the largest drop seen in females aged 15–24 (3.8 percentage points).
While many restrictions were eased around Australia in August 2020, further restrictions were introduced in July in Victoria, with the highest level of restrictions introduced in early August and with restrictions continuing until late October 2020 (Victorian DHHS 2020). From August 2020, the national unemployment rate steadily increased for all young people aged 15–24 to 16% in November 2020. This increase represents, in part, the effect of Victoria’s increased restrictions from July 2020.
In April 2021, the unemployment rate was 11% (or 228,000 unemployed young people) compared with 12% in March 2020 (Figure 4). The unemployment rate of both young females and males followed a similar trend, with rates in April 2021 of 9.4% and 12%, respectively, compared with rates in March 2020 of 11% and 13%, respectively.
The unemployment rate of the whole population followed a similar pattern to young people and was 5.5% in April 2021. The changes to the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments during the pandemic are likely to have affected changes in unemployment rates (see Engagement in education or employment for more details on unemployment).
Figure 4: Monthly unemployment rate of young people aged 15–24, November 2019 to April 2021
Note: Proportions are seasonally adjusted.
Source: ABS 2021b.
Monthly seasonally adjusted labour force data show that the proportion of young people aged 15–24 in the labour force who were underemployed (that is, employed but who want and are available for extra hours) rose from March 2020 (19%) to April 2020 (24%) (Figure 5). The rate then steadily fell, returning to pre-COVID-19 levels (March 2020) by June 2020 (20%). In December 2020, the rate was similar to that for December 2019 (16% and 17%, respectively). The underemployment rate has remained stable since (17% in April 2021) (Figure 5).
Since November 2019, the underemployment rate of the whole population has followed the same trend as that for young people while remaining consistently between 7–10 percentage points lower (Figure 5). This gap was greatest in March 2020 (at 10 percentage points). The changes to the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments during the pandemic are also likely to have affected underemployment rates (see Engagement in education or employment for more details on underemployment).
Figure 5: Monthly underemployment rate of young people aged 15–24, November 2019 to April 2021
Note: Proportions are seasonally adjusted.
Source: ABS 2021b.
The participation rate of young people aged 15–24 describes the proportion of all young people in the labour force (either employed or unemployed). Monthly seasonally adjusted labour force data show that between March 2020 and May 2020, the participation rate of young people aged 15–24 fell by 8 percentage points (68% to 60%) (Figure 6). The participation rate of the working-age population decreased by less (79% to 75%). This indicates that some young people left the labour force over this period, suggesting that more people were both not employed and had stopped actively looking for work. As the mutual obligation requirements to receive the JobSeeker Payment were changed during this period, some young people in this situation may have still been eligible for income support (see Government payments and Engagement in education or employment ).
By October 2020, the participation rate of young people had returned to pre-COVID-19 levels (March 2020, 68%) and remained at this level in April 2021 (69%) (Figure 6). This was also true for the working-age population. Young males and females experienced similar changes in participation rate to young people as a whole (ABS 2021b).
Figure 6: Monthly participation rate of young people aged 15–24, November 2019 to April 2021
- Proportions are seasonally adjusted.
- Working-age population refers to people aged 15–64.
Source: ABS 2021b.
In March and April 2020, short-term policy measures were introduced by the Australian Government to protect those whose income was adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These included:
- a coronavirus supplement for JobSeeker and other payments
- the suspension of mutual obligations and other eligibility requirements
- the introduction of the JobKeeper Payment for businesses (see Income support for young people for further information).
As at March 2020, 405,800 (or 14%) young people aged 16–24 had received an income support payment. By June 2020, this had increased to 23% (or 656,300) and dropped slightly by December 2020 to 567,700 (or 20%).
The overall rise in income support receipt among 16–24 year olds was largely driven by an increase in unemployment payments. Data on unemployment payment recipients is available monthly over the period of the COVID-19 pandemic (as opposed to quarterly data for other payments).
From March to May 2020, the proportion of those aged 16–24 receiving unemployment payments more than doubled – from 5.6% to 11.5%; an increase of 171,600 recipients over this period (from 162,000 to 333,600). Between May and September 2020, the number and proportion remained relatively stable (around 11%). It declined to 10% in October 2020 and 8.3% in March 2021.
Among those aged 16–24, the COVID-19 pandemic influenced unemployment payment receipt by sex. Over the March–May period, the proportion of those aged 16–24 receiving these payments doubled for both males and females (from 6.0% to 11.9% for males and from 5.2% to 11.0% for females).
By March 2021, the proportion of young females in receipt of unemployment payments dropped to 7.9%, while, for males, it dropped to 8.8% (see Income support for young people for further information).
Young people aged 15 to 24 experienced the largest drop in employment of all age groups between March and May 2020; a fall of 10 percentage points compared with a fall of 4 percentage points for the whole working age population aged 15–64 (ABS 2021b). However, of employees who received JobKeeper in April 2020 (the first month of payments), only 12% were aged 24 or under (ATO, unpublished). In comparison, young people accounted for 14% of the total population employed. The proportion of young people on JobKeeper remained at 11–12% until October 2020, when it dropped to 10%. By February 2021, 9% of those receiving the JobKeeper Payment were aged 24 years or under. This underrepresentation may reflect the eligibility rules for JobKeeper. A significant share of young people were employed as casuals and to be eligible for JobKeeper, casual employees had to be employed on a regular and systematic basis for at least 12 months. Underrepresentation of young people on the JobKeeper Payment is consistent with their considerably higher receipt of income support payments than other age groups (as discussed in the Government payments during COVID-19 section).
Family life at home
For many families, the restrictions associated with COVID-19 caused disruption to household routines as educational institutions switched to remote learning, as arrangements for caregivers changed, and as people started working differently (such as working from home) with many experiencing reduced working hours or job loss.
Many parents and caregivers have reported a benefit in family connectedness since COVID-19. Findings from The Royal Children’s Hospital’s National Child Health Poll, a randomly selected survey of adults (all of whom were parents of or caregivers to children aged 0–17) administered between 15–23 June 2020 showed that:
- the majority (87%) had spent more time together
- 3 in 4 (75%) had become closer
- over 2 in 5 (42%) reported they were more connected to their child since the pandemic
- 4 in 5 (80%) reported that the pandemic had given them a chance to think about what was important for their family (RCH 2020).
A third of parents (30%) reported that their family had more disagreements during the pandemic, although the majority of these parents also reported becoming closer as a family (73%) (RCH 2020).
In May 2020, the COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program asked participants (aged 18 and over) how the quality of relationships with other people/family members in your household had changed since the spread of COVID-19. Findings showed that being a parent of a child in the household was associated with a higher probability of reporting an improvement in the relationships with other people/family members in the household (32.7%) compared with those who were not a parent of a child in the household (24.9%) (Biddle et al. 2020d).
Nonetheless, a change in family routine, increased parental responsibilities for remote learning, working from home, and the financial impact of reduced hours or job loss can increase stress levels, and create parenting pressures. Between mid-March and mid-April 2020, the number of urgent applications for parenting-related disputes to the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia increased (see Child protection in the time of COVID-19 for more details).
Social connectedness of 13–17 year olds
The COVID-19 restrictions had an impact on face-to-face time spent with friends and family. Findings from UNICEF Australia’s national survey data collected in July–August 2020 showed that among young people aged 13–17:
- 42% (47% females and 37% males) said the pandemic and response had negatively impacted their social connectedness, a decrease from 70% in April. For young people in Melbourne, the proportion was higher at 55%, but still lower than April levels (UNICEF Australia 2020).
The easing of restrictions across much of Australia at the end of June brought more structure and connectedness to young people’s lives as they returned to school, some extra-curricular activities were introduced, and they were able to spend face-to-face time with friends again (UNICEF Australia 2020).
However, the impacts reported in Melbourne, however, were slightly worse than in other parts of Australia (UNICEF Australia 2020).
What support do young people feel they can draw on?
In July–August 2020, among young people aged 13–17:
- 62% felt confident they could turn to their family or carers for any support they require, a slight increase from 58% in April. However, the proportion who felt confident turning to their friends for support fell (from 55% in April to 37% in July–August 2020)
- 11% said they felt isolated and did not know where to turn outside their family/carers, less than half of what it was in April (24%). This is broadly consistent with a reduced level of worry about being socially isolated, and the fact that young people are now less likely to report having to stop seeing their friends
- 11% said that social distancing rules have affected their ability to effectively access support options outside their family, a third of what it was in April (30%). This likely reflects an easing of restrictions and return of some face-to-face services (UNICEF Australia 2020).
Findings from the ANU’s COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program indicate that, between April and May 2020, there was a significant reduction in the level of loneliness across the whole population, with the exception of young people aged 18–24, for whom there was no significant reduction (Biddle et al. 2020d). In both May and August 2020, rates of loneliness among those aged 18–24 were higher than those for the whole adult population (see Table 2) (Biddle et al. 2020e).
Source: Biddle et al. 2020e.
While in most states there was little difference between the proportions experiencing loneliness for all adults in May and August, in Victoria, the proportion increased from 36% in May 2020 to 45% in August 2020 (Biddle et al. 2020e).
Findings from the ANU's COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey Program also indicated that loneliness has a clear impact on both levels of psychological distress and life satisfaction. In a statistical analysis (that controls for psychological distress in April 2020), those who felt lonely either some, occasionally or most of the time all had significantly higher levels of psychological distress in November 2020 than others (Biddle et al. 2020f). Similarly, people who reported feeling lonely had significantly lower levels of life satisfaction than others (Biddle et al. 2020f).
For young people of school age and those undertaking post-school education and training, the restrictions on attending educational institutions and a shift to remote learning due to COVID-19 disrupted their education.
All states and territories, except the Northern Territory and Western Australia, closed schools for extended periods, with Victoria having two periods of extended school closures (Biddle et al. 2020b). As well, there were many localised closures throughout the year due to school- or area-specific cases (Biddle et al. 2020b).
Education ministers decided to cancel NAPLAN in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (ACARA 2020). This is likely to affect the ability to assess the impact of the pandemic on educational outcomes.
Disruptions to education have been a cause of concern for both young people and teachers (Tiller et al. 2020; UNICEF Australia 2020; Ziebell et al. 2020). Universities and other post-secondary education providers also shifted to remote learning. This prevented some research students from collecting data and undertaking fieldwork and other students from gaining valuable work/vocational placement skills (Go8 2020).
Potential effects of remote learning
In April 2020, the Australian Government commissioned 6 pieces of research on the potential effects of remote learning from home (home-based learning) during COVID-19 on vulnerable cohorts of children and young people: Brown et al. 2020, Drane et al. 2020, Clinton 2020, Finkel 2020, Lamb 2020 and Masters 2020. Each piece of research identified barriers to access and recommendations for evidence-based actions to respond to any negative impacts.
The reports found that:
- nearly half of the national school student population are vulnerable to negative impacts from learning at home, due to their age, social disadvantage, specific needs (including physical or psychological needs or language support) or family employment context
- home-based learning is likely to increase anxiety and stress due to the increased isolation and the loss of social connections
- many families lack the space, experience, time, technology and/or resources to support learning at home. Access to adequate technology was a particular barrier for students from remote and rural areas and from low-income households
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students face additional challenges due to their reduced interaction with Indigenous teacher assistance and to the challenges of incorporating culturally appropriate pedagogies in online resources
- home-based learning also restricts the access of students to school-based support for health and wellbeing, and decreases the usual opportunities available to schools to identify and respond to issues, including those to do with child safety and protection (see Child protection in the time of COVID-19 for more details).
These negative impacts are greatly increased for students with low socioeconomic status, for those with additional learning needs and for those already at risk of school failure. To enable the shift to home-based learning, many teachers need to develop new specialist skills in developing and delivering online learning. This makes continuing the same level of engagement and rate of learning more difficult. The reduced learning experienced at home could cause delays in future learning and achievement in some students, and cause some students to become disengaged from the education system entirely.
The disruption to education caused by COVID-19 restrictions:
- is likely to have a particularly strong effect on students in their final year of study before they transition to further study or employment (Go8 2020)
- may, in part, account for the increase in the proportion of young people not in education or employment (NEET). Based on data from the ABS Labour Force Survey, the proportion of young people who were NEET rose from 8.7% in May 2019 to 12% in May 2020 (ABS 2021a). However, since May 2020, the proportion of young people who were NEET has fallen. The latest data show that 11% of young people were NEET in February 2021, which was similar to the rate seen in February 2020 (10%) before the onset of the pandemic (ABS 2021a). Note that these estimates for young people who were NEET have not been seasonally adjusted. For more information on young people who are NEET, see Engagement in education or employment. For information on COVID-19 and employment, see Employment, income and finance.
Parental satisfaction and concern for education
The November 2020 ANU poll (the 44th waves of data collection on the Life in AustraliaTM panel) collected information from 3,029 respondents aged 18 and over across Australia, 732 of whom were a parent or guardian (hereafter referred to as parents for ease of reference).
The findings from this survey showed that most Australian parents (88%) were reasonably satisfied with how their children’s education systems adapted to the COVID-19 period. This included long day care centres, preschool programs, government infant/primary schools, and secondary schools (Biddle et al. 2020b). There was little variation across types of schools for levels of satisfaction.
- Nine in 10 (90%) parents with a child at a government secondary school and 85% of those with a child at a Catholic and other non-government school were satisfied with their child’s education systems (Biddle et al. 2020b).
Half (50%) of parents were concerned about their children falling behind in their education as result of the disruptions during the COVID-19 period. Again, there was little variation across school types, with 54% of parents with children at government secondary schools and 51% of Catholic and other non-government schools concerned (Biddle et al. 2020b).
The increase in online instruction varied depending on the type of institution attended. The increase was highest among those who had children attending a non-government secondary school (91.4%) or a non-government infants or primary school (90.5%). This compares with 81% for any type of educational institution.
Parents were also asked: ‘How much additional instruction or resources, if any, are you or another adult in your household providing to your children beyond what is being provided by the school compared to previous years?’ The biggest increase in the proportion of parents who reported that additional instruction or resources were provided appears to have occurred in government infants or primary schools (73%) or government secondary schools (71%).
Parents in Victoria were less satisfied with their education institution than those in other parts of the country, and a higher proportion of parents were concerned about their child’s learning. They were also more likely to say that their child had experienced an increase in online learning and that the household had provided more instruction and resources (Biddle et al. 2020b).
Overall, parents of students who experienced an increase in instruction or resources provided by an adult in the child’s household reported a significantly lower level of satisfaction, as well as a significantly higher level of concern (Biddle et al. 2020b).
Satisfaction and concern of adult learners
A total of 671 respondents aged 18 and over from the November 2020 ANU poll (described earlier) had attended an educational institution in 2020 (referred to here as adult learners). These respondents provided information on their satisfaction with the way their institution handled changes related to the spread of COVID-19. In summary:
- 34% said they were very satisfied, and 49% said they were somewhat satisfied
- 8.9% were very concerned and 28% were somewhat concerned about falling behind in their own education as a result of disruptions caused by the spread of COVID-19.
Groups of adult learners who were less satisfied with the way their educational institution handled changes related to the spread of COVID-19 included:
- those who had not completed Year 12 compared with those who had
- those in relatively advantaged areas compared with those in the rest of the area-level socioeconomic distribution.
Adult learners who lived outside a capital city were more satisfied with the way their educational institution handled changes related to the spread of COVID-19 than those in capital cities. Those attending a university or other higher education institution had the highest level of satisfaction, while secondary school adult learners and those attending technical or vocational education had the lowest.
Groups of adult learners who were less concerned about falling behind in their own education as result of the disruptions since the COVID-19 pandemic began included:
- those in relatively disadvantaged areas
- those with relatively high levels of education
- older Australians.
Adult learners who were a parent of a child attending an education institution did not report a different level of satisfaction or concern than those who were not (Biddle et al. 2020b).
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Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M & Sollis K 2020e. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (August 2020)—divergence within Australia. Briefing paper. Canberra: ANU CSRM. Viewed 26 February 2021.
Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M & Sollis K 2020f. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (November 2020)-counting the costs of the COVID recession. Canberra: ANU CSRM. Viewed 1 April 2021.
Biddle N & Gray M. 2020. Tracking outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic (October 2020)—reconvergence. Briefing paper. Canberra: ANU CSRM. Viewed 26 February 2021.
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- Psychological distress
Psychological distress is commonly measured using the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale—10 items (K10). The K10 questionnaire was developed to yield a global measure of psychosocial distress, based on questions about people’s level of nervousness, agitation, psychological fatigue and depression in the past 4 weeks. The Kessler 6 Scale is an abbreviated version of K10.
- Coronavirus Supplement
The rate of the Coronavirus Supplement per fortnight was:
- $550, from 27 April 2020 to 24 September 2020
- $250, from 25 September 2020 to 31 December 2020
- $150, from 1 January 2021 to 31 March 2021 (DSS 2021).
- The JobKeeper Payment
The JobKeeper Payment began 30 March 2020 and provided a temporary wage subsidy to help keep businesses trading and people employed. From 30 March 2020 to 27 September 2020, eligible employers received $1,500 per fortnight per eligible employee. In the first extension phase from 28 September 2020, the rate of the JobKeeper Payment was tapered, and 2 tiers of payment introduced. Employers were able to claim either $1,200 or $750 per fortnight per eligible employee based on their hours worked in the reference period. From January 2021, these payment amounts were $1,000 and $650 respectively.
The JobKeeper program had particular rules for under 18 year olds which also changed at different parts of the program. From 11 May 2020, to remain eligible for fortnights ending between 11 May and 2 August 2020, young people aged 16 or 17 on 1 March 2020 had to be either independent or not in full-time study on 1 March 2020.
On or after 3 August 2020, employees who were 16 or 17 years old on 1 July 2020 and not previously eligible could become eligible for a JobKeeper Payment from 3 August 2020 if they satisfied the relevant requirements, and either were independent on 1 July 2020, or not in full-time study on 1 July 2020 (ATO 2020).
The program ended on 28 March 2021 (see also Income support for young people).
- South Australian Wellbeing and Engagement Collection and Tasmanian Student Wellbeing Survey
The South Australian Wellbeing and Engagement Collection began in 2013 and over time has expanded to include all Years 4–12. The participation rate of all registered participants was 67% in 2019 and 54% in 2020. Note that the collection includes government schools and some non-government schools.
The Tasmanian Student Wellbeing Survey began in 2019, with 2020 marking the second year of survey collection. The full survey collects data from Year 4–12 (participation rate at 76% in 2019 Term 3 and 62% in 2020 Term 3). Note that collection includes government schools only.
This report only includes data from Year 7–12 in keeping with the age range of interest in this report.
Both the South Australian and the Tasmanian surveys are highly representative
The number of students in Years 7–12 who took part in the surveys in the respective years in:
- South Australia, was 56,600 (62%) in Term 1 2019, and 38,400 (47%) in Term 3 2020.
- Tasmania, was 16,000 (69%) students in 2019 Term 3, and 13,200 (55%) in 2020 Term 3
- In 2020, Tasmania first ran the survey in Term 1 with participation impacted by COVID-19. To support schools, Tasmania provided the opportunity for a further collection period in Term 3 2020. As this report only contains the Term 3 collection data, it provides a partial picture of 2020 data for Tasmania.
- High and medium wellbeing are classified as follows:
- High wellbeing: strengths reported as always or almost always being present
- Medium wellbeing: a mix of positive and negative responses to survey answers and/or responses close to the middle of the response scale
- Low wellbeing: challenges reported as always or almost always being present.
- Australian Institute of Criminology survey
For detailed information on the definitions, sampling and weighting methods of the survey, see The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic: Technical appendix.
Return to Australia's youth: