Mental Health and Behavior of College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Longitudinal Mobile Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study, Part II

J Med Internet Res. 2021 Jun 4;23(6):e28892. doi: 10.2196/28892.


Background: Since late 2019, the lives of people across the globe have been disrupted by COVID-19. Millions of people have become infected with the disease, while billions of people have been continually asked or required by local and national governments to change their behavioral patterns. Previous research on the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that it is associated with large-scale behavioral and mental health changes; however, few studies have been able to track these changes with frequent, near real-time sampling or compare these changes to previous years of data for the same individuals.

Objective: By combining mobile phone sensing and self-reported mental health data in a cohort of college-aged students enrolled in a longitudinal study, we seek to understand the behavioral and mental health impacts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, measured by interest across the United States in the search terms coronavirus and COVID fatigue.

Methods: Behaviors such as the number of locations visited, distance traveled, duration of phone use, number of phone unlocks, sleep duration, and sedentary time were measured using the StudentLife mobile smartphone sensing app. Depression and anxiety were assessed using weekly self-reported ecological momentary assessments, including the Patient Health Questionnaire-4. The participants were 217 undergraduate students. Differences in behaviors and self-reported mental health collected during the Spring 2020 term, as compared to previous terms in the same cohort, were modeled using mixed linear models.

Results: Linear mixed models demonstrated differences in phone use, sleep, sedentary time and number of locations visited associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In further models, these behaviors were strongly associated with increased interest in COVID fatigue. When mental health metrics (eg, depression and anxiety) were added to the previous measures (week of term, number of locations visited, phone use, sedentary time), both anxiety and depression (P<.001) were significantly associated with interest in COVID fatigue. Notably, these behavioral and mental health changes are consistent with those observed around the initial implementation of COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020.

Conclusions: In the initial lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, people spent more time on their phones, were more sedentary, visited fewer locations, and exhibited increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. As the pandemic persisted through the spring, people continued to exhibit very similar changes in both mental health and behaviors. Although these large-scale shifts in mental health and behaviors are unsurprising, understanding them is critical in disrupting the negative consequences to mental health during the ongoing pandemic.

Keywords: COVID fatigue; COVID-19; George Floyd; anxiety; college; depression; digital phenotyping; mobile sensing; phone usage; sleep.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety / diagnosis
  • Behavior*
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • Cell Phone Use / statistics & numerical data
  • Depression / diagnosis
  • Ecological Momentary Assessment*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Locomotion
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Health / statistics & numerical data*
  • Mobile Applications
  • Pandemics*
  • Sedentary Behavior
  • Self Report
  • Sleep
  • Smartphone*
  • Students / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult