The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us, but younger people have been particularly impacted. In February, they were attending school, hanging out with friends, and participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. By March, they were locked in the house and told they would be missing out on the rest of the school year, losing out on their role in the school play, and foregoing their chance at the varsity team -- all-important school-related activities that help teens feel fulfilled and develop a sense of identity outside the home. This loss of a normal teen life is a topic that many, including parents, educators, and students themselves, are concerned about and it's why we've put together this guide to teen mental health.
We have a range of practical schooling guidance for students and parents to help them through the coronavirus pandemic, but we also want to help with mental health during COVID-19. Here, we'll explain some of the preliminary data on how the crisis has affected teens across the country, give you some warning signs to look for in your child, and offer you some tangible ways that teens can keep themselves happy and healthy.
Teen Mental Health and Quarantine: By the Numbers
Researchers from around the globe started gathering teen mental health statistics as soon as quarantines were put in place. When we sat down to look at the data, we found that there were many studies that dealt with adults (during the pandemic, they've been three times more likely to experience anxiety, mental distress, or depression) but not many studies examined how teenagers were faring. Many of the ones that did specifically study students and teens were rudimentary and didn't offer much insight for parents. Others looked at teens in other countries whose school systems and societal structure didn't translate to American teens.
We did, however, find a couple of studies that will help you understand how this pandemic has affected adolescents and we'll break them down here.
The Surprising Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Teens
One relevant study, the Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time, and Family Connection, conducted by the Wheatley Institution, looked at the lives of 1,523 U.S. teenagers (specifically 8th, 10th, and 12th graders) as they quarantined. It examined their mental health, their time with family, and their time in front of screens. It then compared this data with findings from a 2018 study on the same topic, and the results were surprising.
As a group, teens did better during the pandemic than we would have guessed. In fact, reports of depression were actually lower in 2020 during the lockdown than they were in 2018. For instance, 27% of teens surveyed in 2018 said they were depressed and only 17% reported feeling depressed in 2020. The same was true for loneliness, which was hovering around 30% in the original study and dropped down slightly to about 22% during quarantine. Dissatisfaction with life also dipped a little, although general feelings of unhappiness rose a bit.
Perhaps less surprising was that nearly all of these categories started to trend negatively as the quarantine moved into the summer months, with loneliness, depression, and feelings of dissatisfaction taking a sharp uptick after school let out for summer break. Yet, even at their summer peak, the numbers for depression and loneliness didn't hit the 2018 percentages.
The non-profit group America's Promise Alliance dove into the same subject and its findings weren't quite as sunny. In The State of Young People During COVID-19 study, researchers surveyed 3,300 students aged 13-19. More than a quarter said that they were losing sleep because of anxiety, losing confidence in themselves, or feeling unhappy or depressed. Around a quarter of these teens also said they felt less connected to their school communities, teachers, and classmates.
When asked what was bothering them the most during the pandemic:
- 52% said they were 'much more concerned than usual' about their health
- 40% were worried about their family's financial situation
- 39% were anxious about their education
- 30% had concerns about meeting their basic needs (food, safety, medicine)
These worries were more pronounced among certain demographics. Teens living in cities were 15% more likely to express health worries than kids in rural areas. Asian youth, Latinx youth, and those whose parents were born outside the United States reported cognitive and emotional health issues at significantly higher percentages than black and white teens, and those whose parents were born in the United States.