We all have a need to feel connected with others. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world have been asked to engage in and abide by public health measures, such as physical distancing, to control and reduce the spread of the virus. Promotion of and adherence to physical distancing is critical; in fact, research has shown that physical distancing must be maintained for many months to reduce potential resurgences of COVID-19. Unfortunately, some research has also suggested that prolonged physical distancing can impact feelings of (dis)connectedness among some individuals. These potential negative consequences may be particularly evident in young people, a cohort whose wellbeing depends greatly on social interactions with and validation by their peers. Because these in-person interactions have been greatly reduced for most young people throughout the pandemic, identifying effective ways to maintain social contact and connectedness—that could also promote adherence to physical distancing and reduce potential negative effects now and in possible future waves—is critical.

Technology has been highlighted as one way to maintain social connections during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a means of reaching out to loved ones via Zoom or Facetime for example, when in-person interactions are limited. For many young people in Canada, staying ‘connected’ often means engaging with friends on social media platforms such as Snapchat, Tik Tok, and Instagram. Given the widespread use of social media, as well as the reduced ability to physically interact with people during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that technology and social media use among young people has increased. Furthermore, relatively little is known about the health behaviours and social activities of Canadian youth throughout the pandemic; thus, investigating how and why social media is being used, and its relationship with physical distancing and health behaviours, represents another important area of research. 

Dr. Shauna Burke, Obesity Canada member and Associate Professor at Western University, has been exploring many of these issues as part of her “iBelong” program of research. The first phase of this research, conducted by Dr. Burke and her research team in the early stages of the pandemic (March/April 2020), examined Ontario university students’ perceptions of (and relationships among) physical distancing, social connectedness, social media use, and wellbeing (https://news.westernu.ca/2020/05/study-explores-impacts-of-social-distancing/). “iBelong2”, which represents an extension of the original iBelong study, is currently being conducted to explore many of these same issues with a broader range of young people in Ontario (students and non-students aged 15-24) using a longitudinal design.  

More specifically, the iBelong2 study consists of 3 online surveys that will be offered to adolescents and young adults in Ontario from now through to April, 2021. Specific questions that will be explored include:

  • How do perceptions of social distancing, social connections with others, and use of social media relate to young people’s well-being? 
  • For students, what are their thoughts about online learning during the pandemic? Are they satisfied or concerned about online learning? Have they experienced any challenges? 
  • What is the relation between young people’s body composition and physical distancing from others? 
  • Are answers to these questions the same or different for people of different ages, races, ethnicities, genders and personalities?

More information about this study can be found on the iBelong2 study Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages (@iBelongStudy). Potential participants can also reach the study’s Program Coordinator Nerida K. van der Linden at nkoertva@uwo.ca, or Dr. Shauna Burke at sburke9@uwo.ca.