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14.08.2023 | כז אב התשפג

More Israeli Adolescents Experiencing Mental Distress, Fewer Use Cannabis, While Other Health Risk Behaviors on the Rise

A study held by Prof. Yossi Harel-Fisch and researchers of the BIU Faculty of Education is used to implement evidence-based strategies for enhancing adolescent wellbeing


More Israeli adolescents are experiencing mental distress daily, fewer are experimenting with cannabis, while tobacco use and binge drinking are on the rise, reveals a new World Health Organization (WHO) Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) study conducted by Prof. Yossi Harel-Fisch and his research team at the Faculty of Education at Bar-Ilan University, in collaboration with the Israeli ministries of health and education. The study also finds that social media use and screen addiction have increased, which may impact adolescent well-being.

In Israel, as around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the lives of children and adolescents. Measures taken to control the spread of the virus, such as school closures, lockdowns, and social distancing, impacted their daily routines and well-being as they navigated a new normal with restrictions and limited social interactions. The HBSC study in Israel investigated shifts in risk behaviors and mental health from the pre-pandemic period (2019) to when school and community activities resumed in 2022.

Mental distress In 2019, about 20% of adolescents reported daily psychosomatic symptoms such as feeling low, feeling nervous or having difficulty sleeping. This proportion increased to about 30% in 2022, indicating a significant rise in mental distress following the pandemic, which continued even after schools reopened. These adolescents also reported feeling disengaged in school, lacking a sense of belonging or not feeling support, highlighting students’ difficulties in re-adjusting to school after such a long period of closure and social distancing.

Cannabis, tobacco and alcohol use The study results reveal a decrease in adolescents reporting cannabis use with only 6.1% in 2022, compared to 9.2% in 2019 before the pandemic was announced. During the pandemic in 2021, 9.0% of adolescents reported using cannabis.

As per tobacco use, over the past 20 years, there has been a consistent drop in cigarette smoking among Israeli adolescents, from 33.6% in 1998 to 10.7% in 2019. This decline in prevalence continued into the lockdown period in 2021 to 7.5%, but immediately after social restrictions were lifted and school and community activities resumed in 2022, it increased to 9.2%.

Binge drinking — consuming five or more alcoholic drinks within a few hours, a behavior that causes drunkenness, is also a growing concern among youth. Since the implementation of the Israeli national alcohol

prevention program between 2010 and 2014, there has been a consistent decline in binge drinking among Israeli youth, from 20.6% in 2009 to 7% in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. This downward trend continued until 2021, with only 5% of adolescents reporting binge drinking while social distancing measures were still in place. Data from 2022, however, show that after restrictions were lifted, binge drinking prevalence increased dramatically to 12.5%. These findings support the assumption that adolescent drinking is linked to social leisure time activities rather than addiction to alcohol.

“We are concerned since the troubling increase in both cigarette smoking and binge drinking seems to be associated with the resumption of social nightlife activities and the belief that the two years of social distancing can now be ‘compensated’ by embracing the use of tobacco and alcohol as part of renewed social leisure time activities,” explains Prof. Yossi Harel-Fisch, Director of the International Research Institute on Adolescent Well-Being and Health at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Principal Investigator for HBSC Israel.


Social media use and cyberbullying Problematic social media use, an indicator of screen addiction, is defined as the extensive use of social media to the extent that it significantly disrupts daily life. Data show 15.3% of adolescents were classified as problematic social media users in 2022, compared to only 4.3% in 2019.

Despite the increase in screen addiction, cyberbullying has declined. The study shows a consistent decrease in cyberbullying from 10.4% in 2019 to 7.6% in 2022.

“This may imply that the steps taken by the Child Online Protection Bureau, a joint authority established in 2018 combining law enforcement with education and treatment to ensure the safety of children and teens online, were not adversely affected by the increased exposure to the Internet during the pandemic and continue to bear fruit even in the post-pandemic period,” says Prof. Harel-Fisch.

The findings from this study have been presented and discussed with government agencies, experts, and decision-makers and are being used to implement intensive evidence-based school strategies to enhance adolescent well-being and promote healthy behaviors in Israel.