Youth and COVID-19: Malaysia

By Cathryn Anila

The COVID-19 pandemic and the drastic measures taken to curb it have taken a toll on each and every one of us. Despite children’s and youth’s effort to continuously learn and adapt to the present circumstances, this sudden and inevitable change also brings with it a whole set of new challenges — the like of which we, the children and youth, have never experienced before.

The Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia was implemented on 18 March 2020. Two months into the MCO, the Petaling Jaya Child Council along with Childline Foundation conducted an online survey on “The current situation of children in Malaysia during MCO.” Out of 526 participants, 259 (49.2%) were in the 15-18 age group, with 16-year-olds making up the majority with a total of 116 participants. 62.2% of the survey participants were females, and the remaining 37.8% males. A total of 360 participants (68.4%) were residing in Klang Valley, the urban conglomeration that is centred in Kuala Lumpur.

Among the domestic problems and challenges during the pandemic that were identified by children and youth in the survey was access to groceries and essentials, a lack of food, overwhelming responsibilities and pressures from family, and financial setbacks. An extensive segment of the survey also covered digital challenges such as online learning and digital resilience, with emphasis on issues such as screen time and online safety. Surprisingly, while the challenges were general and deemed to be prevalent, most survey participants (almost 80%) responded with “no problem”, indicating that they were unaffected by many of these challenges. However, as they answered more questions and delved into the topic of mental health, only 62% of the participants responded that the pandemic had no impact on their mental health. The remaining 200 participants, however, admitted to mental health impacts such as increased stress and irritability.

Domestic Challenges

15 participants agreed that they have trouble getting groceries and essentials due to transportation. This is likely due to the shutting down of public transportation. A total of 48 participants brought to light the problem of extra responsibilities and higher expectations that have suddenly been set upon them. Many of these children and youth come from relatively large families and a major challenge stated by participants is the responsibility of having to take care of siblings. Another challenge identified by 134 of the participants was the financial situation of the family. It is a known fact that the economy worldwide has plummeted, negatively affecting average-income households (locally known as the B40 community). Many have lost or fear losing their jobs. Thirty participants even identified “not enough food” as a challenge they face.

Digital Challenges

Online learning itself was not much of a problem, as the majority of participants indicated that it was effective and that their teachers were also very helpful and supportive. Though 284 participants had no problem at all, a total of 112 participants cited one problem with online learning: poor internet connection. The average screen time for children and youth obviously increased: the average screen time for survey participants was 3 hours a day before MCO, which increased to an average of 6 hours a day afterwards. When participants were asked about online safety, a total of 273 participants indicated that they felt safe online, while 56 admitted to not feeling safe online. Though the majority felt safe, 51 of them remarked that they had been asked for personal or inappropriate content.

Mental Health

Being confined to their own homes, it is only normal for children and youths to feel anxious, depressed and everything in between. What’s new is the spike in mental health awareness and conversation online. In addition to the coronavirus outbreak and its impact, other news — such as the Black Lives Matter movement (which was localised and used to talk about the local racism), the sufferings of the people of Yemen, and also local trending news such as increased suicide cases —  resulted in abundant infographics and other content about mental health online. This sudden exposure to mental health content, especially during a time such as this, not only overwhelms children and youth who are still learning about themselves, it also spurs confusion, since the topic is relatively new in Malaysia — mental health illnesses are still taboo in some communities and people are only just learning about mental health and being open to understanding. Out of the 200 participants who admitted to recently experiencing negative impact on their mental health, only 95 participants were experimenting with various coping mechanisms (such as virtual interaction, exercising, playing video games, reading, etc.), while the remaining 105 were not taking any action. Based on the survey, it was also observed that 42% of participants were turning to their parents when they were depressed, anxious or lonely, 23% to their friends and 20% were not opening up to anyone. Only 2 out of 526 participants said that they would call the local child helpline. The top three worries that the participants have are not being productive (46%), weight gain (31%) and increased stress (23%).

Despite the various challenges, it is heartening to see so many people of this generation rise above the negativity. Children and youth are trying to spread as much love and positivity as they can. With the understanding of how each and every one of us is struggling in our own way, we have seen the emergence of more kindness and empathy among children and youth.

 

Cathryn Anila is a member of Child Helpline International’s #Youth advisory council.