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Teens Dissatisfied with Virtual School

Teens in Virtual Classes Are Less Satisfied with School Experience


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New study finds that teens in virtual classes are less satisfied with their school experience, but are no more likely to be depressed.

As middle and high schools around the United States open again after pandemic closures, teens might actually be looking forward to getting back into classrooms full time. In a national survey of U.S. teens and parents in Fall 2020 sponsored by the Wheatley Institute, teens attending school virtually with a live component (37%), virtually asynchronously (38%), or attending in person on a part-time basis (38%) were more likely to be dissatisfied with their school experience than those attending school full-time in-person (24%).


Similarly, the parents of school-aged children attending school part time in person or virtually with no live sessions (asynchronous) were the most likely to be dissatisfied (29% in both groups), compared to virtual with live (synchronous) sessions (25%) and full time in person (18%).

However, teens in virtual classes were no more likely to be depressed, lonely, or unhappy than those attending in person. Virtual students were also less likely to be sleep deprived. Teens in virtual classes were also more likely to say that they disliked school than their peers attending school in person on a full-time basis. Dislike of school was especially high (22%) among those taking asynchronous classes, which was more than twice as high as teens attending school full time in person. However, virtual students still felt connected to their teachers, with slightly more virtual and part-time students vs. full-time saying their teachers cared about them more than they did before the pandemic.


Virtual and part-time schedules carry significant logistical and educational challenges for students and parents—they seem to be yearning to get back to full-time in-person school,” said Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen, who helped design the survey. “On the other hand, it’s very encouraging that teens in virtual classes were not experiencing more mental health issues than those attending in person.”

Parents whose children were in virtual school, whether live or asynchronous, were the most likely to say that managing their children's schooling had been difficult (31% in both groups), compared to 27% for those with children in part-time in-person school and 14% for full-time in-person school.


Parents whose children had asynchronous virtual instruction were also the most likely to say that the school district’s implementation of school changes during Fall 2020 was poor (48%), compared to synchronous virtual classes (35%), part-time in-person classes (26%) and full-time in-person classes (25%).

Teens also used digital media differently depending on their school mode. Teens in asynchronous virtual school spent less time using social media and video chat than those in other school modes. “Teens participating in online only school may be at risk for technology fatigue,” said Sarah M. Coyne, Associate Director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, who helped design the survey and analyze the data. “Even though these teens may be craving social connection, they may be becoming increasingly tired of looking at screens,” she noted.


Although presented as percentages, the numbers in this report are, in reality, predicted probabilities (multiplied by 100) from binary logistic regression models run for each outcome, adjusting for demographic factors. “By including these controls, we can have greater confidence that observed differences are due to school mode and not to other factors,” said Spencer James, Associate Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and the lead analyst for the project. “By taking into account other plausible explanations for the links between the type of classes teens are engaged in and their mental health, we hope to strengthen policy and civil society discussions about how the pandemic is impacting teens.”


Research Team

Jean M. Twenge (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of more than 140 scientific publications and books, including iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Spencer James (Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University) is an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and a Fellow of the Wheatley Institute. His research focuses on global family relationships and how those relationships influence the wellbeing of children, adolescents, and adults.

Sarah M. Coyne (Ph.D., University of Central Lancashire, England) is a professor of human development at Brigham Young University and a Fellow of the Wheatley Institute. Her latest research project, M.E.D.I.A. (Media Effects on Development from Infancy to Adulthood), follows 510 families with children who are “digital natives,” tracing how media usage influences attitudes and behavior.