How Teens Are Dealing With The Coronavirus Pandemic

by Christine Organ
Young student working on digital tablet in his kitchen during lockdown
Alistair Berg/Getty

These are unprecedented times and we are all struggling. Like any parent, I worry about the impact of this pandemic on our kids. I worry about the little kids who might be regressing developmentally. I worry about the elementary-aged kids who are aware of what’s going on, but don’t really understand it. But truth be told, I worry most about teenaged kids.

Unlike younger kids who are more dependent on parents, teens are in a unique developmental stage that makes it hard to deal with the social distancing requirements currently in place. For one, their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed, so they are more susceptible to making impulsive decisions – like taking the car to make a non-essential trip to the convenience store. Psychologist Michelle Drouin, Ph.D. also points out that they are in the “identity formation” stage of development, which means they are more likely to test boundaries, making it that much harder to get them to understand the importance of not playing a pick-up game of basketball with their friends at the park down the street.

Additionally, their friendships become more important and they need time away from their parents – something that they aren’t getting much of when the entire family is quarantined in the home for weeks on end.

Peer interactions – and even the “peer pressure” we often look so negatively upon – are actually quite beneficial. “It’s really interesting that we as adults in the society often regard friendships more as a nuisance and a distraction rather than give them the value that they really deserve,” Jaana Juvonen, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, told The Atlantic.

These healthy and essential in-person interactions have been erased from our teens’ lives now due to social distancing. They aren’t able to chat with their classmate in the hallway. They can’t tell jokes (most of which are somewhat inappropriate) while eating a sandwich at the lunch table. They can’t trash talk each other over a friendly basketball game at the park down the street. FaceTiming, a House Party group chat, or playing a virtual Xbox game together are all options, but they aren’t quite the same thing.

What we are currently going through is, without a doubt, going to have a serious and lasting impact on all of us. Several experts have actually said that what we are going through is both grief and trauma. But since teens sometimes lack the ability to express their emotions, they may not have the tools to communicate or understand what they are feeling. Heck, I don’t understand half of what I’m feeling right now.

So yes, I worry about my teen son. I worry about all teens.

Not surprisingly, a survey conducted by Common Sense and Survey Monkey found that the pandemic is having a big impact on teens. Eight out of 10 teens said they’re following news about the coronavirus pandemic closely, and more than 60% said they’re worried that they or someone in their family will be exposed to the virus or that it affect their family’s ability to earn a living.

The survey — which included 849 U.S. teenagers, age 13 to 17, and was conducted from March 24 to April 1, 2020 – also found that teens of color are more likely to be worried about exposure to coronavirus and the potential economic impact of the pandemic on their family.

Despite best efforts to make remote learning as functional as possible, it just isn’t the same. (Shout-out to teachers: we know you are kicking ass and feeling the pain of this as much as your students).

“Working from home is worse as I don’t care to admit, my work habits from home are not the best. I am easily able to procrastinate at home and having class in bed is not the best idea. Plus, I can no longer get the one on one help teachers provide if needed,” Larisa from California told The New York Times.

The Common Sense/Survey Monkey survey found that 56% of students were worried about not keeping up with their schoolwork and that 55% were concerned about keeping up with extracurricular activities.

The impact that the coronavirus pandemic will have on teens (and all of us for that matters) depends a great deal on individual circumstances. For many teens, remote learning is far more challenging and detrimental than for others, due to lack of technology or language barriers. For this reason, Common Sense has launched, together with various media and technology companies, Wide Open School, with a goal of making sure every family has equal access to broadband internet access. The campaign is calling on Congress to fund devices and internet service so those students without access to such technology can also engage in remote learning while schools are closed.

One positive from the survey is that many teens seem to looking to more reliable sources for information on the pandemic. Almost half of the teens said they were getting information on the pandemic primarily from news organizations, while 37% said they were getting information primarily from friends, family or teachers. Only 11% were looking to social media personalities or influencers for information.

“Teenagers are taking the coronavirus threat seriously, with most worried about the impact on their families and exceedingly few eschewing social distancing,” Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey, said in a press release. “Though most teens are keeping in touch with friends and teachers using technology, more than four in 10 say they feel more lonely and less connected than usual—a concerning indicator for parents and teachers to monitor as the situation continues to unfold.”

Teens aren’t just worried; they’re lonely too. Four in 10 teens – 49% of boys and 36% of girls — said they feel “more lonely than usual” right now. But teens are resilient, resourceful, and creative. Most of them (83%) are texting, but some also said phone calls help them stay in touch. (Or if you’re like my son and his friends, it’s more likely to be FaceTime than a phone call.)

Our teens are going through a lot right now. It isn’t just the missed milestones – graduations, proms, sports tournaments – but the day-to-day in-person interactions they need as well. So let’s be gentle with our teens — and ourselves.