Remote learning might have helped protect teenagers’ sense of community during COVID-19 school closures

New research published in Behavioral Sciences provides evidence that information and communications technologies helped to protect students’ sense of community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. The spread of the virus resulted in schools being closed in more than 100 countries. To prevent a loss of education, many school administrations turned to online learning programs.

“In Italy, remote learning was particularly opposed in the public debate,” explained researcher Mirko Duradoni of the University of Florence. “Whether the position was politically instrumental or not, the supported idea of people against remote learning was that it could hinder the proper social functioning of adolescents.”

“Prof. Andrea Guazzini, Dr. Andrea Pesce, Dr. Fabiana Gino, and I, wanted to see if this was really the case since adolescents are quite skilled in using technologies for cultivating social relationships and thus may have found ways to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction opportunities during the pandemic.”

In the new study, 917 Italian high school students (with an average age of 16.38) completed an online questionnaire that assessed their perceived sense of loneliness and perceived sense of community before and after the outbreak of COVID-19. The questionnaire also collected socio-demographic information and included questions about the use of technology.

The researchers found that the COVID-19 pandemic had increased the perception of loneliness among the adolescents. Their sense of classroom community and sense of school community, however, appeared to be only marginally impacted by the pandemic.

“Remote learning constituted an occasion for adolescents to nourish their sense of belonging to the class and the school. Indeed, high school students’ sense of community remained almost unchanged even though they could not interact face-to-face with each other for months,” Duradoni told PsyPost.

“This was, in our opinion, a very important element of the resilience of our society during this specific phase of the pandemic,” he added. “If schools had been totally closed (i.e., without the possibility of remote activities), as happened in some parts of the world where information and communications technology structures were not supportive or ready, adolescents’ sense of belonging would have been probably heavily affected which would have been disastrous given the substantial lowering of loneliness levels still observed in our study.”

As expected, the researchers also found that the pandemic was associated with an increased use of information and communications technologies. The largest increase was related to studying and the need to keep in touch with class, followed by keeping in touch with friends and staying updated on the news. There were also small increases in the use of technology to keep in touch with family and online gaming.

“The main problem is that the remote learning line of research had a big impulse due to the COVID-19 pandemic for obvious reasons,” Duradoni noted. “So, studies before 2019 are quite scarce. For this reason, it is quite hard to distinguish between the effects due to the pandemic and remote learning. Right now they are closely intertwined.”

“Therefore, future research should clarify how loneliness varies in remote learning and blended learning conditions outside the current pandemic. This would allow scholars to have a more complete idea of the psychological repercussions related to remote learning in a world where the distinction between real and virtual is increasingly nuanced.”

“As reported in our study, information and communications technologies plausibly allowed adolescents to foster their sense of community despite the COVID-19 pandemic situation that, due to lockdown measures and remote learning, nearly resembles the dystopic condition described by Isaac Asimov for Solaria inhabitants who communicate almost entirely through sci-fi technologies: ‘They live completely apart and never see one another except under the most extraordinary circumstances.’”

The study, “How the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Adolescents’ Use of Technologies, Sense of Community, and Loneliness: A Retrospective Perception Analysis“, was authored by Andrea Guazzini, Andrea Pesce, Fabiana Gino, and Mirko Duradoni.