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What It’s Like to Be a Teen During the Pandemic

A survey of over 1,500 teens, collected between May and July of this year by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution, found that, “The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower than in 2018, and the percentage who were unhappy or dissatisfied with life was only slightly higher.” The study’s authors suggest that the reason for the improvement in mood was that teens were sleeping more in quarantine, and also that a majority — 68 percent — said that they felt closer to their families.

Food insecurity was associated with the largest difference in depression. “Among teens who worried that their families would not have enough to eat, 33 percent were depressed, versus 14 percent of teens who were not worried about having enough food,” according to the study. This tracks with studies tracking parental mental health as well, as moms and dads who are concerned about meeting their children’s basic needs report the highest levels of stress.

Another survey of 1,000 teenagers from the mental health initiative WellBeings.org from early October is bleak. Almost 50 percent of teens said their mental health is much worse or somewhat worse than it was pre-pandemic. More than 50 percent said their social life is worse or somewhat worse, and over 72 percent said that the coronavirus has created a disadvantage for their generation, with climate change and racial strife cited as the biggest societal stressors for them outside of the virus.

I asked Dr. Damour what she thought about the disparate results of these surveys. First, she mentioned that stress is something that’s cumulative, not just for teens, but for everybody. “It’s impossible for us to say that Covid is X amount stressful for teens, because it’s entirely contingent on what other factors are at play,” she said. “If your family is impoverished or on the verge of poverty, Covid-19 lays on top of that. If your family is dealing with systemic racism, Covid-19 lays on top of that.” The universals that the whole country is experiencing, like the impact to teens’ social lives and schooling, can only be seen through the lens of the other stressors in their lives.

And the quality of a teen’s relationship with their parents is more important than ever right now, since we’re smooshed together for prolonged periods of time. “There are plenty of teens who get along with their parents and love their parents,” she said, as well as, “a lot of teens who have friction with their parents, or may not feel accepted by their parents for any variety of reasons. And for whom going to school each day and being around the ‘good grown-ups’ of school, were how they were getting through their adolescence.”

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