Teens stuck in virtual classes felt more isolated and more depressed than their peers in hybrid and in-person classrooms, a new study says.

A researcher behind the study, UC Davis communications professor Drew Cingel, said the results were predictable: Of course staring at a computer screen all day makes you lonelier than being in a room with your classmates; of course those kids saw their grades drop more.

But he was taken aback by just how bad things were for Zoomers.

“Typically, when you study humans, not every variable, not every hypothesis works out the way that you think it will,” said Cingel, lead author of the article published Oct. 27 by PLOS One. “But in this case, to find that adolescents and online schooling scored worse on almost every variable we measured across a wide array of variables — across feelings about school, sense of connection, media use, mental health … That was really surprising to us.”

In the survey of 1,177 high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors, the students who were attending online classes were more negative about school, more likely to find their assignments meaningless, lonelier and sadder compared to students who saw each other face-to-face.

Trans and gender-nonconforming students were the loneliest, the most anxious and the most depressed in general.

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Moreover, the 78 teens who said they were trans or gender-nonconforming seemed to fare the worst by almost all measures, no matter how they went to school.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Cingel said there may have been too few of these students in the survey to determine whether virtual learning affected them in the same way.

“Regardless of school context, adolescents who reported as transgender or gender-nonconforming were doing worse across the board,” Cingel said. “They felt worse about school, they felt less socially connected. They were higher in all forms of media use, particularly pathological or addictive media use, and they reported worse mental health.”

The survey ran from May through June in 2021. The World Health Organization declared the COVID pandemic in January 2020, and most U.S. school shutdowns began that spring.

Through inconsistent public health policies, Cingel said, “The United States had inadvertently created what we call a natural experiment.”

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Public health precautions varied from state to state and from district to district, and young people have had wildly different educational experiences during the same global health crisis.

Of the 1,256 kids surveyed — all between the ages of 14 and 16 — 1,010 said they used social media. The students in virtual learning had the highest incidence of “problematic” use: They were more likely to say that, frequently or always, they had trouble falling asleep because of social media or they struggled to log off.

Cingel said, however, that the way states and school districts address their students’ needs should be forward-thinking; he does not believe that his study should be used to support the idea that school shutdowns were the wrong choice.

“I am not an epidemiologist. I cannot speak to how many lives were saved as a function of these (virtual learning) measures; I cannot speak to the toll on hospitals and hospital workers that was saved by these measures,” he said. “But I think it’s important to know that — regardless of finger-pointing, regardless of who did what to whom — this is what happened. We have these two groups of adolescents who need help. We need to check in with them, provide resources to them, and try to help them to overcome these disparities that were created through these choices.”