Written by: Nicole Samoylovich
Despite the fact that practically everyone has felt the mental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers are often forgotten in this discussion because they tend not to have adult responsibilities to live up to, such as paying bills or supporting their families. But how has this pandemic affected them specifically? How is the mental health of teens faring in this unprecedented time? Research and individual testimony show that teenagers are in fact struggling more than it would initially seem.
It can be safely said that the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been kind to anyone’s mental health since it began last year. Essential workers, parents, teachers, and countless other groups of people have all felt the deep strain of both the disease itself and the quarantine, in countless, distinct ways. Teachers have been struggling to teach classes over Zoom, hospital staff have been bombarded by infected patients, and other essential workers - such as those employed by grocery stores or the government - have too faced immense difficulties as a result of pandemic restrictions. With the subsequent economic downturns of the pandemic bringing on an eviction crisis and rapidly growing unemployment rates, most average people in the United States have clearly been struggling, not just in the sense of their financial stability and physical health, but also their mental health. It is a worthy observation to note that almost all age groups and occupations in the U.S., although especially essential workers, underpaid adult caregivers, and minorities, have reported significantly higher-than-average rates of substance abuse and suicidal thoughts as a result of the pandemic, which are both very telling signs of a mental health crisis in the country. People are getting evicted, tied down by work, and/or losing their jobs, friends, and loved ones constantly, so it comes as no surprise that depression and anxiety rates are up. However, there is one group of people whose mental health status in the pandemic is often overlooked on account of the fact that they typically don’t have the responsibilities of working, paying bills, or providing for their families - and that group is teenagers.
Teenagers have been dealing with the struggle of remote academic learning for over a year now, but this isn’t the only aspect of them as a group that makes them unique in this pandemic. Teenagers are still developing both physically and mentally into adults, and therefore have different brain chemistry. For instance, it is well-known information that teenagers require more sleep than adults, and that they are biologically primed to seek independence from their families and take more risks. Any expert will tell a frustrated parent the importance of allowing teenagers to take small risks, to go out more and spend more time with their friends as opposed to their families, and to experiment with self-expression and different hobbies. Teenagers need all these things, along with many others, to properly develop into mature adults.
However, COVID-19 has prevented teenagers from completing these tasks. By staying at home almost 24/7, teenagers hardly ever get to see their friends, or use much energy at all. Instead of playing sports, committing to extracurriculars, socializing, traveling, or getting involved in their communities, they are simply staying home all day, living vicariously through social media as their only means of staying in contact with friends. Social media engagement, combined with remote learning, have been the primary reasons why teens spend anywhere from 7 to 12 hours a day staring at screens. The physical effects of this electronic dependency during the pandemic are plentiful - many teens report back and neck pain, headaches, and fatigue from sitting at their desks for hours at a time during their remote lessons, plus doing their homework assignments remotely which takes an even more consuming amount of time. Even when the remote school day is over, there isn’t much to do afterwards; constantly staying at home means that when a teenager finds some free time, they’ll most likely spend it watching TV, playing video games, or scrolling on TikTok. The app actually provides valuable insight into what exactly teenagers have been doing throughout the pandemic to cope with the lack of social interaction in real life.
The impact of TikTok, the hugely popular video-sharing social media app, on teenagers and pop culture throughout the pandemic cannot be stressed enough. It is one of the biggest outlets for teens to try and curb the negative mental effects of quarantine. In addition to offering a convenient way to meet new people, connect with existing friends, and take up free time, TikTok has been the birthplace of countless online trends and dances, which millions of teenagers have been steadily partaking in. For example, last year, a trend born on TikTok led teenagers to make “whipped coffee” en masse, a recipe involving one part instant coffee, one part sugar, and one part hot water. The parts are mixed together until a thick, ‘whipped’ texture is achieved and the entire thing is stirred with milk and ice. This was just one trend, however; another was for people to bake their own bread from scratch. The hundreds of dances on TikTok that teenagers spend several hours a day learning, memorizing, practicing, and recording themselves doing can also account for the question of how teens have been coping with this pandemic. For a group of young people with a lot of alone time on their hands, it makes sense that an app like TikTok became so popular last year, seeing 180% growth among people aged 15 to 25 years old after the pandemic broke out. It is astoundingly clear that teenagers are on social media more than ever, but the question of how this affects their mental health is more complicated.
Although TikTok’s popularity is an example of how teenagers have found different outlets for COVID-era boredom and isolation, it doesn’t erase the damage that the pandemic still wreaks on young adults’ mental states. Social media by itself causes numerous mental health problems, with several users reporting that it harms their self-esteem and in some ways makes them feel lonelier, despite supposedly making them increasingly connected to their friends. It can be draining for teens to constantly compare themselves to the perfect images they see online, and to strive to achieve a TikTok-certified standard of physical beauty. The fact that teens are on TikTok more than ever might feel like a good thing on the surface level, but the truth clearly suggests otherwise with regard to their mental state. Additionally, it can hardly be said that social media ‘fixes’ the quarantine mental health chaos just because it is the only way teens have managed to socialize lately. One study from Fair Report found that mental health claims from teenagers exploded last year, growing by 97% in March and 103.5% in April, right when the pandemic started, despite the fact that social media usage exploded around the same time too. While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, this does raise the question: did the rapid growth of social media usage by teens during the pandemic perhaps contribute to the increased claims of mental health issues?
Self-harm claims from the same age group grew nearly 334% from August 2019 to that of 2020 in American northeastern states. Claims of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders similarly inflated since the start of the pandemic. At a point in life when one needs to begin diverging from their family and exploring the world a little more, it couldn’t be more unhelpful for teenagers to be stuck at home all day every day, in constant close proximity to their families. Several teens report heightened stress levels within their households as a result of more frequent arguments with their family members, exacerbated by the fact that teenagers are naturally more moody and prone to emotional outbursts than other age groups. Teenagers often cite parental control and pressure as being some of the major sources of stress, anxiety, and general unhappiness in their lives, and these things have only become ever more present as a result of the quarantine.
The emotional duress of being separated from friends, missing out on memories such as school dances, performances, and graduations, and attempting to prepare for exams and even apply for college virtually, have contributed to the worsened mental health of teenagers seen throughout the pandemic. Many teenagers are going to have to gradually regain their social skills after the pandemic and, some experts say, even go through withdrawal from electronics and screens once in-person school is back in session. Needless to say, teenagers have had a unique experience over the past year, not just because they’re in school, but because their biology makes them just about the worst group of people to saddle at home all the time. At some point in the future, when COVID-19 becomes an unpleasant memory of the past, it is safe to expect teenagers to spend an unprecedented amount of time outside, making up for all that they missed. It’s worthy to note that as vaccine rollout in the U.S. continues at a rapid pace, and New York residents aged 16 and older have just recently become eligible for receiving doses, it seems as though things are looking up for teenagers, and for the country as a whole. Perhaps sooner rather than later, the hazardous mental effects of quarantine will be fixed for teens. The two main things that they weren’t permitted to do as a result of COVID-19 might soon be allowed again, so teenagers can get back to doing what they do best: hanging out with their friends and taking (healthy) risks.
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