Research | December 2020 Hearing Review

A look at the lived experiences of Australian teenagers during the pandemic

By Artemi Vella, MSLP, Louise Martin, MSpPathSt, Vivienne Marnane, BAppSci, Carmen Kung, PhD, & Teresa Y.C. Ching, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic in Australia saw physical distancing measures take effect to limit the spread of the virus. Many schools took to remote delivery of education for students, including delivering education via video, emails, and independent reading materials. We continue to work with children in the LOCHI study to explore the experiences of young people with hearing impairment during the time of distance learning. 

The COVID-19 pandemic in Australia saw physical distancing measures take effect to limit the spread of the virus. Similar to other countries, many Australian schools took to remote delivery of education for students, including delivering education via video, emails, and independent reading materials. We continue to work with children in the Longitudinal Outcomes of Children with Hearing Impairment (LOCHI) study to explore the experiences of young people with hearing impairment during the time of distance learning. 

The LOCHI study has been tracking the development of language, speech, literacy, hearing, and psychosocial skills of approximately 450 hearing-impaired children since birth. We are connecting again with study participants as they turn 16 to 17 years of age to find out how they are doing in the final years of school. The findings will generate new knowledge about the impact of early intervention on long-term outcomes of children with permanent hearing loss.

Anecdotally, we received reports that participants in the LOCHI study were finding alternate delivery education methods implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic more difficult than learning in a traditional classroom environment. We sought to better understand the extent and nature of these difficulties by asking the participants about their learning experiences.

Methods

The conversations took place with 10 Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) teenagers ages 16 to 17 years old with bilateral hearing impairment who have been participating in the LOCHI study. The teenagers lived across four different Australian states and included 7 males and 3 females. Three teenagers wore bilateral cochlear implants, 5 wore bilateral hearing aids, and 2 chose not to wear their devices.

Conversations with the teenagers were conducted over the phone and were semi-structured, guided by a series of probe questions that were constructed to test five main assumptions based on anecdotal reports:

  1. DHH teenagers are experiencing a negative impact from COVID-19
  2. DHH teenagers are experiencing a negative impact from a reduction in connectedness with others
  3. DHH teenagers experience more difficulties with online learning than face-to- face learning
  4. DHH teenagers will not want to continue with online learning after lockdown measures ease
  5. DHH teenagers are experiencing a negative impact from increased screen time. 

Using the above assumptions, we asked the teenagers how they felt about the COVID-19 situation, what impact it has had on them, and their experiences with using technology to continue their learning.

RESULTS

Assumption #1: DHH teenagers are experiencing a negative impact from COVID-19

Psychological impact: Uncertainty, loneliness, and boredom. It was clear from the responses that a majority found the current conditions difficult (Figure 1). Most DHH teenagers indicated that their mental health was negatively impacted. They expressed feelings of boredom and uncertainty. Regarding the impact on feelings of uncertainty and loss of direction, one teenager stated: 

Figure 1. Assumption #1 was validated, with 9 out of 10 teenagers experiencing a negative impact.

“I dunno, it just felt a bit different, like I didn’t know where my head was heading… so it did get me a bit lost in what I was doing…”

Several participants discussed their feelings of loneliness during online learning, comparing that with their prior face-to-face school experience: 

“At school there is contact; you’re sitting there with someone and having a laugh every couple minutes. At home you’re very isolated and by yourself.” 

Feelings of boredom were also expressed by the teenagers. For example, a participant discussed being at home during the holidays and being restricted to the house: 

“Those weeks I had difficulty: stay in the house, do nothing….we really had nothing to do.” 

Another commented that there was too much spare time and not enough social contact: 

“I had time to do all sorts of things but I don’t really need that much time again… it gets really boring sometimes and you just want to see everyone.”

Physical Impact: Loss over activities taken away. Teenagers also expressed concerns for their physical health. A major area where the teenagers expressed a negative impact of COVID-19 was on their participation in extra-curricular sporting activities.  For example, teenagers commented that they haven’t been able to keep to their exercise routines:

“I haven’t been able to do the exercise I do, so that’s been hard… I need to get that back on track.”

Other teenagers expressed changes in their motivation around exercise during COVID-19. For example one commented: 

“I feel like I’m a lot more restricted… I love to go on jogs … then I just got like lazy and I haven’t gone on jogs that often.” 

Teenagers also expressed disappointment that extra-curricular sporting activities were cancelled: 

“All my hockey was canceled … so that’s also been difficult.”

There was a clear relationship between reports of the lack of physical activity and its contribution to the teenager’s overall wellbeing: 

“It’s [COVID-19] been affecting my physical health, I guess, so of course my mental health has been affected a little bit because I can’t go out with my friends and talk to them as much. It hasn’t been great.”  

While the impact of changes to physical health experienced by teenagers was surprising at first, this outcome is in line with the interests and activities of many in this age group, being young and more active.

Assumption #2: DHH teenagers are experiencing a negative impact from a reduction in connectedness with others 

The assumption that COVID-19 reduced connectedness for DHH teenagers was not validated, with 6 of the 10 teenagers experiencing worsening connectedness (Figure 2).  The teenagers were asked to think about connectedness across many areas of life: friends, family, school, other activities. 

Figure 2. Assumption #2 was not validated. A total of 6 out of the 10 teenagers experienced reduced connectedness. 

The results show that some teenagers found it more difficult than others to stay connected. Some teenagers expressed concerns of being “cut-off” from friends, school mates and extra-curricular activities. One teenager commented on the worsened connectedness due to disrupted routines: 

“There was a 3-week period where no one really talked [school friends]… people’s sleeping signal was all messed up… people staying up all night and all that.”

In contrast, other teenagers seemed to have strategies and other resources to stay connected with friends. Reliance on technology was a major factor in keeping these teenagers connected. For example, one teenager commented: 

“I didn’t lose any face-to-face time because I call my mates all the time and tell them what’s going on.”

Other teenagers commented that there was no impact as face-to-face contact was limited pre-COVID-19, with one teenager commenting: 

“No [impact]. My friends all live closer to school than me so I didn’t really get to catch up with them a lot anyway.” 

Assumption #3: DHH Teenagers experience more difficulties with online learning than face-to-face learning

The third assumption related to the teenagers learning experience during COVID-19 compared to pre-COVID-19 learning and instruction. The assumption that DHH teenagers are having more difficulty with online learning compared to face-to-face learning was validated (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Assumption #3 was validated, with all 10 teenagers reporting difficulty with online learning compared to traditional face-to-face learning. 

Online learning video/audio accessibility and the impact of a lack of contextual cues. Some teenagers reported experiencing difficulties specific to their ability to hear and get the most out of technology platforms. This appeared to be an issue where teenagers relied on contextual cues to facilitate listening. One teenager commented: 

“I unconsciously lipread a bit….I always pick up words better if I can see your face…so because the timing was off a bit on the Zoom calls and the audio, it made it a bit messed up for me.” 

Another teenager experienced challenges in learning without the visual cues available when in a classroom: 

“A disadvantage was to know exactly what you are doing [because] in class you can look at the white board and look up and know what to do next, while on the computer you get lost.”

In contrast, other teenagers reported no difficulties hearing or listening over video/audio platforms. One teenager, whose class used only audio learning, reported: 

“Yeah no [difficulty]. I mean, for me, what works best is just putting on a headset…that’s always worked…for Zoom.” 

Independent Learning: Difficulties with motivation. The home environment of online learning required more independent learning from the teenagers. Some were asked to login for their weekly reading materials while others received written correspondence. For example, one teenager stated: 

“With school, they sent us an email each week with the weekly things we had to [do] and like, there was a lot of procrastination with that…I mean it was actually due before the end of the week or whatever, but still it was very like I could waste as much time as I wanted…” 

Another teenager contrasted the different modes of learning for her: 

“It changed…it feels like you’re not going to go to school anymore; it’s learning at home and talking to the teacher on the Zoom.”

Difficulties accessing facilitators of learning: Teachers and peers. The most commonly reported difficulty was accessing teacher support. All the teenagers had concerns in varying degrees, as accessing teacher support was important for them to learn well. One teenager commented on the impact of losing real-time learning moments: 

“I reckon I’m learning at least half the work [because] sometimes you need to get help from the teacher when he or she is right in front of you.”  

Another teenager reported on the consequences of losing the one-on-one contact and real-time teaching: 

“I think, you know, not being able to sort of communicate with teachers as easily, and then sort of falling behind uncontrollably.”

This was also expressed in terms of the value of the teaching that teachers do: 

“I found it very difficult…it’s easier for me if someone tells me more [by] explaining ….[rather than] give us homework. Like I don’t get it. It’s really hard.” 

Another teenager commented on how difficult it was understanding content without the teacher’s instructions: 

“The thing I didn’t like about [online learning] was understanding the teacher’s explanation; I was kinda missing that…”

DHH teenagers also reported that in the online learning environment, they missed the peer support they would normally access. The fact that many DHH teenagers rely on contextual cues and they were not able to do so in the online environment, nor were they able to clarify information with peers (in real-time), was a significant drawback to online learning: 

“The thing I didn’t like about [online learning was not] having a friend in class to be able to talk about the work with.” 

Assumption #4: DHH teenagers will not want to continue with online learning after lockdown measures ease

The fourth assumption related to the DHH teenager’s preference for learning was their experiences with online learning during COVID-19 compared to traditional classroom learning pre-COVID-19. The assumption that DHH teenagers would choose face-to-face learning over online learning was validated, with all 10 teenagers preferring face-to-face learning (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Assumption #4 was validated, with all 10 teenagers preferring face-to-face learning.

When presented with a choice, each of the DHH teenagers unanimously preferred to go back to face-to-face learning once the lockdown measured eased. Answers were provided without hesitation and with certainty. For example one teenager said:

“Definitely face-to-face.”

This is not a surprising result given the difficulties expressed in Assumption #3. Most teenagers echoed similar difficulties, resulting in concern about their final year of studies at school. 

Assumption #5: DHH teenagers are experiencing a negative impact from increased screen time

Given that many people are experiencing greater amounts of time in front of a computer, TV, or their phone during COVID-19, we wanted to find out about the impact (if any) of additional time in front of a screen on DHH teenagers. The assumption that DHH teens are experiencing a negative impact from increased screen time was validated, with 7 of the 10 teenagers reporting a negative impact (Figure 5). 

Figure 5. Assumption #5 was validated, with 7 of the 10 teenagers reporting a negative impact while 3 of the 10 teenagers did not experience any negative impacts.

Negative impact of increased screen time: Fatigue, reduced activity and sleep. Many teenagers reported a large increase in screen time and inactivity: 

“I feel like I only had 2 hours of no technology [a day] which is really bad….I hated it, just sitting down all day… it was just horrible… not really having physical exercise and not communicating to friends in person.” 

Teenagers commented that this made them tired: 

“I was definitely stuck behind the screen more… I got pretty tired looking at the screen to be honest, staring at it all day.”

Other teenagers noted that increased screen time had replaced outdoor time: 

“Probably a lot more [screen time] than when I was at school because I was going outside or going with my mates to play basketball so now I stay inside in front of the computer all the time.”

Teenagers also commented that the increased screen time had impacted their sleeping: 

“My screen time analytics increased by like 100%—something massively. For a week I’m averaging 11 hours a day on my iPad. I’ve been struggling sleeping a bit more; I guess my brain hasn’t switched off as much.”

Although the majority of teenagers experienced negative impacts there were some who did not. One teenager reported already large amounts of screen time pre-COVID-19 and didn’t feel any additional impact: 

“Probably not [experiencing an impact]. I mean I still would be on my computer…I use my computer a lot at school.”

Discussion

Although this study is restricted to only 10 Australian DHH teenagers, our conversations indicated a profound negative impact of online learning during COVID-19 for a majority of them. The teenagers reported feelings of uncertainty, boredom, and loneliness. An important challenge was with maintaining physical activity. It is likely this challenge was felt more acutely by this age group as physical activity can play an important role in maintaining friendships and identity.1

Regarding DHH teenagers’ experiences of connectedness during COVID-19, some but not all experienced difficulties staying connected with friends and across other areas of life. This may be related to their individual skills in technology and lifestyle. The teenagers who reported no concerns in this area appeared to utilise technology and family resources to maintain connectedness across other family and social groups. Access to technological skills and resources may be more challenging for some individuals than others. This is an important factor to explore in future work. 

Our findings on the experience of DHH teenagers in using online learning showed they are experiencing more difficulties in comparison to face-to-face learning. A major difficulty is with the lack of real-time teacher support. Some teens expressed specific concerns with using technology that relies on their ability to hear well to learn. Further explorations into voice-based, text-based, and other visual-based tools, including sign-language interpretation to support interactive learning, may be necessary to better meet the needs of children with hearing loss.2 

With regard to screen time and online learning, we found that a majority of DHH teenagers reported an increase in screen time and a subsequent negative impact on energy levels, activity, and sleep as a result. However not all teenagers reported a negative impact. It is likely some DHH teenagers already had high levels of screen time pre-COVID-19 and the additional increase resulted in no further negative changes. Nonetheless, the effects of screen time on the health and well-being of children and young people must not be ignored. There is evidence that higher levels of screen time is associated with a variety of health harms and quality of life.3

In summary, DHH teenagers in Australia reported a negative impact of distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic on their learning as well, as their mental and physical health. It was not surprising that all the teenagers preferred face-to-face learning over online learning methods. 

As we move into the future, online and distance learning are likely to become the “new normal” for schools. Some schools, having now invested in the online learning platforms, also plan to use them as a contingency for certain circumstances (eg, snow days, prolonged sick leaves, and advanced placement/college course offerings). Thus, post pandemic, independent online learning is likely to play a larger role in further education and in early career development. This study has indicated much work needs to be done to increase our understanding of the needs of young people with hearing loss for distance learning, and to devise innovative solutions to support them.

Original citation for this article: Vella A, Martin L, Marnane V, Kung C, Ching TYC. Learning and connecting: Teenagers with hearing impairment during COVID-19 restrictions Hearing Review. 2021;28(1):10-13.

CORRESPONDENCE to Emi Vella at: [email protected]

References

  1. Eccles JS, Barber BL, Stone M, Hunt J. Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. J Social Issues. 2003;59(4): 865-889.
  2. Vargas K. Local 23 Valley Central.com website. Teachers help deaf and hard of hearing students navigate through distance learning. https://www.valleycentral.com/news/teachers-help-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-students-navigate-through-distance-learning/. Published April 7, 2020.
  3. Stiglic N, Viner RM. Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: A systematic review of reviews. BMJ Open. 2019;9(1):e023191.