As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States in March, work and school moved online, restaurants closed, and unemployment soared. The effects on mental health were immediate: U.S. adults in spring 2020 were three times more likely to experience mental distress, anxiety, or depression than adults in 2018 or 2019. According to data collected by the Census Bureau, anxiety and depression rose even further among American adults in June and July, after the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests.
How American teenagers fared during this time is more of a mystery. With teens no longer going to school and few able to see friends, many people worried about how teens would adapt. However, teens’ experiences of these events might differ from adults’, just as responses to the Great Depression varied by age.
To better understand the experiences of teenagers during this unique time, my colleagues and I fielded a survey of 1,523 U.S. teens from May to July this year, asking about their mental health, family time, sleep, technology use, and views on the race-related protests and the police. We assessed mental well-being using four measures: life satisfaction, happiness, symptoms of depression, and loneliness. We then compared the 2020 teens’ responses with responses to identical questions from a similar survey in 2018.
Surprisingly, teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic when the two surveys are compared. The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower in 2020 than in 2018, and the percentage who were unhappy or dissatisfied with life was only slightly higher.
This relatively positive picture for mental health occurred despite many of the challenges faced by the teens in our survey. Nearly one out of three teens (29 percent) knew someone diagnosed with COVID-19. More than one out of four (27 percent) said a parent had lost a job, and exactly one out of four was worried about their families having enough food to eat. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) were worried about catching the virus, and two-thirds worried about not being able to see their friends.
So why was teen mental health stable, or even better, during the pandemic?
First, teens have been sleeping more during the pandemic, and teens who are sleep deprived are significantly more likely to suffer from depression. In 2018, only 55 percent of teens said they usually slept seven or more hours a night. During the pandemic, this jumped to 84 percent among those for whom school was still in session. With teens going to school online during the pandemic, they were likely able to sleep later in the morning than usual. When school is held in person, the large majority of middle and high schools begin classes before 8:30 a.m., and some as early as 7, requiring many students to get up very early to commute to school. This creates a mismatch between school schedules and the shift to a later circadian rhythm that occurs during biological puberty, when teens find it difficult to fall asleep earlier. Teens who were able to sleep later during the early months of the pandemic might have improved their mental health.
With many parents working from home and most outside activities canceled for both parents and teens, the majority of teens reported increased family time. With positive family relationships linked to better mental health, more family time might have mitigated any negative mental-health effects of the pandemic. Fifty-six percent of teens said they were spending more time talking with their parents than they had before the pandemic, and 54 percent said their families now ate dinner together more often. Forty-six percent reported spending more time with their siblings. Perhaps most striking, 68 percent of teens said their families had become closer during the pandemic. Family closeness was associated with mental health: Only 15 percent who said their families had become closer during the pandemic were depressed, compared with 27 percent of those who did not believe their families had become closer.
Although the teen mental-health outcomes during quarantine were not as bleak as we might have supposed, the financial distress caused by the pandemic still had an impact. Twenty-five percent of the teens who reported that a parent had lost a job during the pandemic were depressed, compared with only 16 percent of those without parental job loss. Similarly, 26 percent of those worried about their families not having enough money were depressed, versus 13 percent who did not have this concern. Food insecurity was associated with the largest difference: 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.
Some of our most interesting findings had to do with teens’ use of technology. When the pandemic hit and quarantine began, teens were unable to spend time with friends or fellow students face-to-face. Electronic communication became the primary way teens could interact with people outside of their families. Given that screen time, especially time spent using social media, has been associated with mental-health issues in teens, we wanted to understand how technology affected their mental health in quarantine.
To our surprise, teens’ technology use did not appear to increase dramatically during the pandemic when compared with 2018. Teens in quarantine were spending more time videochatting with friends and watching TV, videos, and movies on an electronic device. But they spent less time gaming, texting, and using social media.
We were surprised that social media, which is more connective, decreased, while passively watching television and videos increased during that same time. Teens might have primarily been using media as a form of distraction or to pass the long hours in quarantine, rather than predominantly seeking out more virtual connection with others. These trends are consistent with our findings regarding mental health, given that social-media use is more strongly associated with mental-health issues than are more passive types of media such as watching television or videos.
Of course, the line between connective and passive media is blurrier now than it once was. For example, YouTube, which is primarily a video-sharing site, is now social media, where users create and post videos, receive “response” videos in return, and comment on videos in an interactive way. In fact, a rising number of social-media apps integrate video into their connectivity. Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, for instance, were all originally photo- and message-sharing apps that now have video posting and sharing as main components. These sites/apps are often passively entertaining and connective. So teens might have been specifically using TV and videos as a twofold way to cope with pandemic-related anxiety.
Another possible reason for the rise in video watching and videochatting online, and the decrease in texting, is that students on school campuses usually can’t stream videos or videochat during the day, as this would be disruptive of the school environment. But they often will text throughout the school day, as this form of connection is quick and silent. Teens also use the messaging features within video-rich apps in lieu of old-fashioned texting.
However, none of these interpretations minimizes the happy fact that teens were also sleeping more and spending more time with siblings and parents (including playing family games, going outside more with family, and eating family dinners), which might have displaced some of the time they would have spent using media.
And although social-media use decreased on the whole, teens might have been using it more purposefully during quarantine. Previous research has found that using social media in more active, connective ways can be protective for mental health. About half the teens in our survey said they avoided using social media in passive ways such as scrolling through posts endlessly. And most striking, almost 80 percent of teens agreed that social media allowed them to connect with their friends during quarantine, and nearly 60 percent said they used social media to manage their anxiety about the pandemic.
Overall, teens during the pandemic appear to have managed the challenges of 2020 with resilience, taking comfort in their families and the slower pace of life. Indeed, 53 percent of teens said that the experience made them feel stronger and more resilient. Although teens were worried about health, economic stressors, and the protests, these challenges were seemingly offset by changes in their lifestyle, especially increases in sleep and family time. And yet, depression, loneliness, and unhappiness are still at unacceptably high levels among American teens. Although the pandemic did not appear to worsen these trends, many teens are still in need of mental-health services, and the pandemic has not changed that reality.