What Does COVID Mean for Teens in the Long Run?
Updated: May 23
In the past year, the pandemic has affected all aspects of life: education, work, financial stability, social relationships and mental health. For adolescents, the blend of academic pressure and decreased socialization has made this time particularly challenging.
The results of a recent poll conducted by UNICEF, representing 8,444 individuals between the ages of 13 and 29 in nine countries, demonstrate staggering statistics on the effects of COVID-19 on mental health. Among the participants, 27% reported feeling anxiety and 15% reported depression in the last seven days.
These mental health struggles are also being witnessed by psychologists among their practices and patients. Clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Waverly Group in Greenwich Dr. Lauren Riordan said, “I would say starting seven, eight years old, up through adolescence, we're seeing a lot of anxiety, so that's the biggest rate of increase."
The adolescent experience of the pandemic is unique in the need to balance school with increased external stress.
"There's a lot of pressure certainly in middle school and high school because the expectations are so high,” Riordan said.
As Mikaela Browning, a hybrid GHS junior, said, “There’s just so many moving parts to high school: team recruitment, college applications and just keeping up with classes.”
All of the changes established in response to COVID-19 significantly changed student life, forcing students to adapt and ultimately learn from their experiences. With changes to learning environments and decreased accountability, students faced hardships in maintaining motivation and self-discipline. In the aforementioned UNICEF study, 46% of participants report having less motivation to do activities that they usually enjoyed.
Discussing her experiences with motivation, Ellie Viney, a fully remote junior with plans of returning in person late May, said that “engagement and motivation have been a really big challenge. I think, being at home, I’m surrounded by a plethora of distractions, and it’s just all too easy to indulge in those distractions.”
Whether fully remote or hybrid, all GHS students have experienced learning from home with a common struggle being the lack of change in scenery.
Viney said, “As a species we thrive on novelty and seeing new things. Change in our environment is incredibly healthy, but being stuck in a room for six hours a day on a computer is really unhealthy for our brains and our mental health, so it's no wonder that a lot of people's mental health has declined.”
When learning from home, the distinction between school and home is blurred, causing students to overcompensate with their free time and stay up much later. By needing a break after school and starting homework later, students go to sleep later, making them more exhausted the following day and perpetuating this cycle of sleep deprivation.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, sleep deprivation puts individuals at greater risk for depression: about 90% of children with depression experience some kind of sleep problem. As a result, it is no wonder that students have felt the effect of less sleep on their ability to complete tasks, as well as focus and participate in class.
Limits to socialization have also greatly impacted adolescence, as distance learning, separation from friends and decreased social interactions have affected students’ mental health and social skills.
As Browning said, “Even around your friends, you feel less connected,” and it’s more necessary to take initiative if you want to see others. As for the class atmosphere, “it’s not the same as a normal year. It’s a lot more difficult to get to know people, with being six feet apart and wearing masks, but I still prefer that to being completely isolated.”
Furthermore, Viney said, “This social isolation in the long run is detrimental to me because, being introverted, I am quite comfortable in this situation, but you don’t learn anything, and you don’t grow by just being comfortable.”
Apart from school-related stress, concerns of current events and fluctuating pandemic statistics have affected students’ mental health. Viney described how viewing the news impacted her: “Around December when the second wave of coronavirus cases was hitting, I would check the COVID statistics multiple times a day, and it was unhealthy because it did not ease my anxieties. I certainly learned that it’s important to establish and maintain a balance between staying informed, but also prioritizing my mental health.”
Adding on, Browning discussed how uncertainty has impacted her, saying, “There have been certain times where we don’t know what’s going on and no one has the answers. And that can be really stressful, especially in key moments like AP exams and midterms.”
As Viney said, “Online learning has required a great deal of flexibility and adaptability, and growing comfortable with change.”