SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — A new report from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services notes that the pandemic had a negative effect on the mental health of Beehive State teens — and they have not bounced back as the pandemic ended.

The Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey, conducted every other year, surveys students statewide about tough topics such as mental, physical, and social health, as well as habits and substance use. DHHS calls the survey one of the most valuable data collection tools the has to get a pulse on Utah’s youth.

Over 50,000 students statewide responded to the 2023 SHARP survey, with a fairly even split. While it showed several promising signs, particularly when it comes to drug and alcohol use, students are reportedly more depressed than in recent years.

According to survey results, Utah’s student body felt alone during the pandemic years. In 2021, many respondents indicated they felt left out, isolated, and that people barely knew who they were. As quarantine ended and schools opened back up to in-person learning, students feel less alone but still are not close to returning to pre-pandemic levels.

A chart showing survey results regarding social isolation among Utah students (Courtesy: Utah Department of Health and Human Services)

The pandemic also brought a significant rise in students reporting spending 2 or more hours per school day playing video games, texting, or browsing social media. Unlike the feelings of isolation, those numbers increased in 2023 as more students are reportedly spending more time with electronics. Coincidentally, students are also reporting a rise in cyberbullying online or in text messages over the last year.

While correlation is not causation, more students reported feeling moderate depressive symptoms while those with no depressive symptoms are on a decline.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has recently been a strong opponent of social media, saying the platforms have been detrimental to Utah’s youth. In August, Cox launched a public awareness campaign warning parents of the harmful dangers of social media. Earlier in the year, Cox and and Attorney General Sean Reyes put social media “on notice” for a lawsuit.

“[Social media apps] are designed intentionally to make sure that you never put them down,” Cox said during a press conference in January. “This is very intentional. They teach these classes at Stanford and other places.”

Meanwhile, alcohol and marijuana use has been on a steady decline since 2019 across all grades, however, as students get older, they are more likely to vape marijuana. Overwhelmingly, students who have vaped any kind of product in the last 30 days said they bummed it off someone else.

Most students said their parents would feel it was “wrong” or “very wrong” if they smoked or drank but parents talking to their kids about no alcohol expectations at least twice a year was low.