Health & Science

Are the Kids Alright? New Report Explores How Teens Are Handling Covid-19

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One of parents’ main concerns throughout this pandemic has been the mental and physical health of their children. Will there be a negative impact on their social-emotional development from living in isolation? Will there be long term effects of this prolonged loneliness? Will they experience grief, anxiety, and depression? Are there healthy ways to cope, and to deal with the skyrocketing screen time brought about by boredom and virtual learning?

This month The California Partners Project (CPP), in collaboration with the Child Mind Institute and Material, released an interesting study that uncovered teens’ mental health status and coping strategies during Covid-19. The findings from Are the Kids Alright? are based on interviews with 46 California teens, ages 14 through 17, complemented by week-long diary responses from each teen. These daily diary entries documented behaviors such as sleep, exercise, Internet use and corresponding mood. To understand how parents and guardians perceive the wellbeing and behavior of their teens during the pandemic, caregivers of the teens also completed daily diary entries.

While the study size is small and localized to California, most parents can agree that the information and implications are pretty universal. 

Kids are hurting

“What many teens initially embraced as a short, unexpected school break has become an extended trip to new territory, with no return ticket,” the study says.

The report found that since schools have closed and in-person interactions have shifted entirely online, adolescents are experiencing a deep sense of grief and loss over missing out on key moments that support the development of their identities. They no longer get to connect with their peers through sports, gain confidence while performing in a school play, or develop friendships through chatting in the hallways between classes. Instead, they are replacing these enriching and developmentally-significant activities with social media and gaming. 

Even before the pandemic, the Pew Research Center had found that 95 percent of teens had access to a smartphone, and 45 percent said they were online almost constantly. In 2019, a full 24 percent of teens said their tech use had a “mostly negative” effect. So what does that mean, now that almost their entire lives have moved online out of necessity? While teens’ diaries in the study reflected using social media as a mood booster, they also named it as one of the main reasons they felt down. As one boy explained it, “My use of social media is to numb my feeling, not feel something else.”

“For every parent watching their kids go through this tumultuous time, it’s obvious: kids weren’t built to live their lives chained to their devices,” First Partner and co-founder of CPP Jennifer Siebel Newsom said. “As a society, we need to find ways to support our children, help them recognize warning signs of too much time online, and also insist that tech is designed with child wellbeing in mind.” 

It’s impacting physical health as well

The new normal has physical as well as socio-emotional implications. Most teens reported little to no physical activity over the course of a week. This is only making an existing problem worse—a 2019 study had already found that 80 percent of adolescents weren’t getting enough exercise.

Teens also reported they are going to bed later than they did pre-pandemic, staying on devices up until and sometimes well after bedtime, and are regularly multitasking on social media and games while in online classes. As one study participant shared, “Sometimes the phone hits me in my face so I must fall asleep with it in my hand.” 

Health experts emphasize how critical it is that teens get restorative sleep. “A full night of sleep helps hit the save button on new memories,” Matthew Walker, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science said. 

The stress, economic and personal upheaval, and all-online world of the pandemic, may also mean parents and caregivers are less likely to accurately assess and recognize warning signs of problematic internet use. While the research found adolescents are suffering from headaches, poor sleep, and exhaustion, and are feeling the consequences of being “addicted” to their phones and social media, they feel these problems are too mild to warrant a change in behavior or conversation with their parents. 

What parents can do

During this tumultuous time, the Child Mind Institute identified ways parents, teachers and concerned adults can step up and help teens navigate this present and the uncertain future including: 

Acknowledge the loss and what has been taken away. In addition to missing milestones, friends, sports, celebrations, and other hallmarks of teen life, “adolescents are very aware that they are missing a key phase of identity development,” the report says. That’s a huge deal. Use “radical genuineness” to truly validate their feelings.

Don’t blame teens for their coping mechanisms. “Teens  are  responding  in  the  best  ways  they  know  how,” the report states. Social networks and multiplayer games are among the very few ways they still have to socialize and feel connected to community.

Know and identify the signs of depression and anxiety. Some signs include your teen becoming more withdrawn than usual, severe mood swings, intense worries that interfere with daily activities, or major changes in behavior. Talk to your pediatrician, school counselor, or other health professional if you have concerns. Find ways to ease anxiety and care for your child’s mental health.

Be aware of the behavior you are modeling.  “I’m learning myself that when I’m online, delegating something or ordering something, whether it’s food or making a doctor’s appointment, that I have to communicate what I’m doing to the kids, so they don’t think I’m just surfing the internet or social media,” Newsom shared.

What teens can do

The experts involved in putting this study together also had tips for teens to build better habits while living online.

  • Prioritize sleep. “Getting enough sleep improves your ability to concentrate, maintain a good mood and healthy weight, and even improves the quality of your skin,” the study says. Aim for at least 9 hours per night.
  • Keep moving. Find creative, fun ways to get at least an hour of physical activity per day.
  • Practice mindfulness. Since it might not be realistic to unplug right now, notice your thoughts and feelings around tech use. Ask yourself: How am I doing right now? How is this app making me feel? How did that picture make me feel? “If something is consistently making you feel bad, practicing mindfulness can help you identify that and figure out if there is something you can do that might help. Maybe you’ll want to unfollow an account or spend less time on a certain app.”

“We shouldn’t blame kids for their time spent online—who hasn’t scrolled longer than was good for them?—but we can try to help them become more mindful users of technology,” Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founding president of the Child Mind Institute said. “We can model better tech usage for our children. We can help them become more attuned to how they are feeling and how their activities directly affect their thoughts and emotions.” By addressing the problem, hopefully we can counteract some of its impact on our kids.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.