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Social Isolation During the Pandemic May Hit Teens Hard

But research suggests there are many ways to cope.

Key points

  • A lack of social ties has been linked to an increase in physical and mental health problems, such as heart disease and depression.
  • The developmental changes that occur in the brain during adolescence cause teens to be particularly vulnerable to social isolation.
  • Brain plasticity is high during adolescence, which might make teenagers receptive to positive interventions.

As vaccination rates increase across the U.S and infection rates plummet, schools across many states are starting to reopen in a phased manner. This comes as welcome relief to parents and teenagers alike. The social costs of the past year or so of the COVID-19 pandemic might turn out to be especially significant for children and young adults.

When I was a kid in school, I would be a little confused when people said they got bored over the vacation. It was two whole months of freedom away from the drudgery of schoolwork, with just your friends and cousins and your imagination for company. Why would anyone complain?

I had to grow up to realize that individual differences play a major role in how we react to various situations. Perhaps the kids who hated the vacation didn’t really have much of a friends circle to play with; or perhaps they were the kinds for whom regular interaction with lots of peers at school was of the utmost importance; and perhaps imaginative play within the four walls just didn’t cut it for them.

Of course, my school vacations were really nothing like the situation that faced — and continues to face — children and adolescents during the pandemic. This was an enforced situation with no clear end in sight, and lasted at least an entire school year.

The Effects of Social Isolation

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that scientific studies have repeatedly found significant advantages to social interaction. A lack of social ties has been linked not just to increases in the likelihood of the development of depression, but also to the development and progression of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. A study even found that among adults with coronary artery disease, those who were socially isolated had more than twice the risk of cardiac death than those with better social ties.

Of course, not every social relationship comes with benefits. There are rare cases where just being in a relationship can be stressful, which can in turn lead to psychological distress and symptoms like increased heart rates, causing the people involved to indulge in unhealthy behaviors.

Adolescents Are Particularly Susceptible to the Harms of Social Isolation

In general though, if social interaction is important to adults, it is critical to adolescents. The developmental changes that occur in the brain during this time cause adolescents to be particularly vulnerable to social isolation. A number of disorders, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, show increases during adolescence. Exposure of the brain to stressors at this age has been proposed to play a significant role.

Given that studying the animal brain provides excellent room for experimental manipulation (can you imagine putting real adolescent humans through chronic stress in order to understand the brain better?), there have been a number of studies on the effects of stress on rat brains during adolescence. While it may not be possible to extrapolate directly from animal model studies, the significant commonalities in the biology of the various mammalian species give them value.

These animal studies not only suggest that isolation-induced stress causes changes in the adolescent brain, but that these changes last longer than those observed in adults. Structural changes have been observed in areas such as the hippocampus, which is involved in long-term memory storage, and the prefrontal cortex, which is important for goal-directed behavior.

In adult rats, most of the stress-induced changes in brain structure seem to be reversible; if given 10 days to recover from the stress, the branching patterns of the neurons return to pre-stress condition. Discouragingly, some studies have shown that it takes longer for rats in adolescence to recover to normal brain structure post stress, particularly pertaining to isolation.

It is critical, however, to keep in mind that the laboratory conditions that rats are subjected to are far more intense than anything that teens are subjected to with respect to the pandemic. These studies pertain to stress that arises as a result of isolation, which is an extreme and rare reaction.

Avenues for Intervention

Also, it is not all bad news. Normal adolescent development involves intensive pruning and regrowth of various brain regions — it is, in other words, a period of human development where brain plasticity is high. This might make the adolescent brain more adaptable and receptive to intervention. Parents of teenagers and pre-teens can take comfort from the fact that animal studies have shown that rats that had been through trauma shortly after birth or as children responded very well to enriched environments during puberty.

Enrichment of the physical and social surroundings of a person can help stimulate their brain. Studies have found that when people learn complex tasks such as juggling or mirror reading, parts of the brain actually increase in size. At least a part of this increase could be due to the enhanced number of connections between neurons that are required for learning. Perhaps learning a new skill could help mitigate some of the isolation effects due to social distancing.

The pandemic has also struck at a unique moment in history where large sections of the population have access to the internet and other resources that help them stay connected. Peer relationships are essential for adolescent development, and social media and messaging/video apps have the potential to help teens stay connected to each other at such a difficult time.

Sometimes, thinking beyond oneself can have potential benefits for mental health. Parents could encourage teens to consider volunteering their time (in safe, socially distanced ways) to organizations or individuals in need of help.

Staying cooped up at home can also be quite stressful. Given the low risk of COVID-19 transmission outdoors, teenagers could go out for short walks, or spend time gardening, or in their patios. I’m typing this story from my patio, and I find that just sitting outside helps me concentrate better.

Of course, all this aside, parents and teens would do well not to be too hard on each other or themselves at the moment. It might not be such a good idea to push teens to participate in something that they’re not comfortable with due to parental concerns of isolation (your child might not be feeling isolated in the least).

Also, there are people that are very comfortable not interacting with other people day in and day out. For introverts, the pandemic and the related stay-at-home orders don’t really feel like much of a change from their regular lives.

Adolescence is the time for people to move away from family structures and gravitate more towards peers. Evolutionarily, some amount of risk-taking behavior is essential if an animal is to move away from the pack. The pandemic has put a lot of families in an enforced situation of being together in confined spaces for long periods of time. While this might, at times, not feel like the perfect situation to be in for either side, it could be an opportunity for families to get closer and try and understand each other better.

A version of this article also appears on Deccan Herald online.