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School health survey: Pandemic hit girls particularly hard

"It is important to remember that boys also need support," THL development manager Jenne Helenius said.

Lapsia kiikkumassa koulun pihalla.
Most of the children and young people who took part in the institute's regularly-conducted Student Health and Wellbeing Survey said they were happy with their lives. Image: Heikki Haapalainen / Yle

Loneliness and anxiety have particularly increased among girls, according to a new student well-being survey from the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

Most of the children and young people who took part in the institute's regularly-conducted Student Health and Wellbeing Survey said they were happy with their lives, but satisfaction levels this year had fallen from levels measured the last time the survey was published in the autumn of 2019 — not long before the arrival of Covid-era restrictions.

Kids were more likely than in previous years to say they felt lonely, anxious and suffered from school exhaustion.

This year's study found that about a quarter of girls felt lonely 'quite often' or 'all the time' as the Covid crisis continued and stints of remote learning increased their isolation.

Girls were also more likely to have experienced feelings of anxiety, with 30 percent saying their anxiety levels were 'moderate' or 'severe.' During the years of 2013-2019, between 13-20 percent of girls reported feelings of anxiety.

About 10 percent of the young male respondents in this year's survey said they experienced loneliness during the period, and about eight percent said they had experienced anxiety.

1.5 years is 'a long time' for kids

THL development manager Jenni Helenius said one factor behind the deteriorating results was the Covid crisis. Aims to prevent the spread of the disease prompted months of distance learning and the suspension of hobbies and social activities.

"A year-and-a-half is a long time in a young person's life. For example, the eighth and ninth grade respondents' first high school experience has been during this period of exceptional circumstances," she explained.

Meanwhile, the epidemic has also affected the education and hobbies of boys in similar ways, Helenius explained.

"The difference between girls and boys may be partly explained by how the survey's questions were answered. Maybe girls reveal more [about their feelings] or are better able to recognise signs of anxiety. It is important to remember that boys also need support," she said.

Helenius said the well-being survey's findings were in line with what experts and decision-makers have feared — that coronavirus-related exceptional circumstances have hit young people particularly hard.

"If you consider the youngest respondents, in fourth and fifth grade, one-third said they were concerned about a loved one getting Covid," she explained.

Sexual harassment climbs

The THL study has shown a steady increase in the sexual harassment of girls over the past several years.

Two years ago, less than 20 percent of young female respondents reported being the target of sexual harassment. In this year's survey, nearly half of the girls said the same.

According to the responses, such harassment has taken place via the phone, the internet and, to some extent, in public places.

The rise in sexual harassment claims two years ago was attributed to awareness prompted by the #metoo social media campaign.

The survey, which queried more than 260,000 children and young people, regularly measures kids' well-being, participation in activities, leisure time, functional ability, lifestyle habits, education, use of school-based health resources and their nurturing environments.

THL has carried out the survey since 1996. The survey included children in the fourth and fifth grades of primary school, young people in the eighth and ninth grades, and first- and second-year students in high school and vocational schools.

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