The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been far-reaching and for many have taken a psychological as opposed to physiological form, with studies showing that numbers of adults suffering from mental distress, anxiety and depression have risen to up to three times that of recent years. Given these figures, there has been considerable worry about how the situation has been affecting teenagers.
Adolescence is a developmental stage when social connections and a need to separate from parents become of great importance. So when the restrictions and lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic first began to come into force, there were fears about the emotional impact that school closures, a lack of opportunity to see friends, and being stuck at home with their families might have on teens' mental health.
Surprisingly, though, many teens seem to have reacted to the situation in unexpectedly positive ways.
Using four criteria - life satisfaction, happiness, loneliness and depression - to assess mental well-being, one survey of 1,523 North American teens carried out between May and June 2020 appears to show that their mental health has not suffered unduly over the pandemic, with percentages of unhappy or dissatisfied teens only slightly higher than they were in 2018, and percentages of depressed or lonely teens actually lower. The results are especially striking given the fact that nearly a third of those responding said that they knew people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, a quarter had a parent who had been made redundant, a quarter were worried about their families not having enough to eat, and two-thirds were worried about not being able to see their friends.
There may be several reasons for this positive response. Firstly, most of the respondents reported spending increased amounts of time with their families, with over half saying the family now ate together, and almost 70% saying that the pandemic had brought their families closer. Positive family relationships are often linked to better mental health, so this increased family time may have actually helped teens manage the situation.
Another important factor is sleep. Adolescent brains need nine to ten hours of sleep a night, and sleep-deprived teens are more likely to suffer from depression, stress and lower levels of cognitive functioning. Teenagers' body clocks are programmed to go to sleep later in the evening and wake up later in the day, and now that they are not being forced to wake up early to get to school, teens are at greater liberty to follow these natural rhythms. In fact, the number of teens who said they usually slept seven or more hours a night has jumped from 55% in 2018 to 84%.
A third factor may also be linked to a decrease in - or more purposeful use of - social-media. Research has shown that using social media actively as opposed to passively (i.e. engaging directly with contacts rather than doomscrolling through endless posts) can be helpful for mental health, and in fact half the teens in the survey said they were avoiding using social media passively, with almost 80% saying social media had allowed them to connect with their friends during quarantine.
The survey seems to show that sleeping more, spending more time with family and using social-media in productive ways may have helped mitigate the potentially negative effects of lockdowns, personal distancing and quarantine for many teens – in fact, over half said that they felt the experience had made them more resilient. Let's hope that as things go forward, they continue to find equally positive ways to face what is undoubtedly an extremely challenging situation for them.