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How Teens Are Responding to Loosening COVID-19 Restrictions

The double whammy currently posing harm to kids.

Key points

  • A recent study showed that one-third of young people surveyed cited mental health as a significant source of stress in their lives.
  • The Coronavirus has created a false sense of security among young people long burdened by educational, social, and even athletic restrictions.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests youth may be responding to loosening COVID restrictions by engaging in risk behaviors such as alcohol and drug use.

Throughout September’s National Suicide Prevention Month, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) rolled out “Together for Mental Health.” According to NAMI, this awareness initiative:

Encourages people to bring their voices together to advocate for better mental health care, including a crisis response system. NAMI wants any person experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors to have a number to call, a system to turn to, that will connect them to the treatment and support they need.

But suicide awareness and prevention are not just for September, and parents and all those who work with youth are well-advised to keep their eyes on the ball. NAMI cautions,

Suicidal thoughts, much like mental health conditions, can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background. Suicide is often the result of an untreated mental health condition. Suicidal thoughts, although common, should not be considered normal and often indicate more serious issues.

Recent revelations that Facebook knew the extent to which its Instagram social media platform negatively affects teen and preteen girls, often related to body image issues and increased anxiety and depression, should come as no surprise (Wells et al., 2021). And Instagram is particularly popular with teens.

The Pew Research Center published findings in 2018, revealing,

Until recently, Facebook had dominated the social media landscape among America’s youth – but it is no longer the most popular online platform among teens. Today, roughly half (51 percent) of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they use Facebook, notably lower than the shares who use YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat.

 Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels
Source: Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels

This shift in teens’ social media use is just one example of how the technology landscape for young people has evolved since the Center’s last survey of teens and technology use in 2014-2015. Most notably, smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95 percent of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more persistent online activities: “45 percent of teens now say they are online on a nearly constant basis” (Anderson and Jiang, 2018).

And, of course, the pandemic is not helping. A study from Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and NBC News included questions that specifically asked about the ways COVID-19 disrupted both schools and society at large, found three key takeaways (Challenge Success, 2021).

  • Key Finding 1: Students, especially females and students of color, continue to experience high levels of stress and pressure.
  • Key Finding 2: Students’ engagement with learning, which is always a challenge, is especially low now.
  • Key Finding 3: Students’ relationships with adults and peers are strong yet appear strained in recent times.

The study also revealed that more than one-third of young people surveyed cited mental health as a significant source of stress in their lives.

In Fall 2020, 32 percent of students report mental health as a major source of stress versus 26 percent pre-pandemic. This is even more concerning for females who cite mental health as a source of stress at more than twice the frequency of their male classmates (Challenge Success, 2021).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites suicide as the leading cause of death for adolescents aged 15-19 years, just behind accidents (unintentional injuries) and ahead of homicides (Curtin and Heron, 2019).

To make matters worse, new data shows that poor mental health among youth negatively impacts cognitive performance, which, in turn, drives stress, anxiety, and depression (Total Brain, 2021).

A study on youth mental health conducted from 2000-2017 by the CDC’s National Center for Health statistics found the following (Curtin and Heron, 2019).

After a stable period from 2000 to 2007, suicide rates for persons aged 10-24 increased from 2007 to 2017, increasing 56 percent.

  • The suicide rate for persons aged 10-14 declined from 2000 (1.5) to 2007 (0.9) and then nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.
  • For persons aged 15-19 and 20-24, suicide and homicide death rates increased more recently during the 2000–2017 period, with the increase in suicide rates beginning earlier than for homicide rates.
  • For the entire age group 10-24 and persons aged 15-19 and 20–24, suicide rates surpassed homicide rates from 2011 to 2017.

Wham!

Oddly enough, anecdotal evidence suggests that loosening COVID restrictions may have a paradoxical effect on teen risk behavior.

Psychologist and author Laurence Steinberg (2008) said,

Risk-taking increases between childhood and adolescence as a result of changes around the time of puberty in the brain’s socio-emotional system leading to increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers, fueled mainly by a dramatic remodeling of the brain’s dopaminergic system. Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood because of changes in the brain’s cognitive control system, which improves individuals’ self–regulation capacity. These changes occur across adolescence, and young adulthood and are seen in structural and functional changes within the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The differing timetables of these changes make mid-adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behavior.

Then, it may follow that progress on the Coronavirus has created a false sense of security among young people long burdened by educational, social, and even athletic restrictions.

Cameron Gray, a sophomore at California’s Whittier College, told me in an email about his experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic impacted my mental health in several ways. I hit a rough patch and did not find joy in most things. I was playing video games until the early hours of the morning and sleeping during the day. I was also weightlifting during this time, but that was it. I did not enjoy much of anything.

Further down the road, I could use this time of quarantine to my advantage and start new things. I was able to become mentally tougher. At this point, I can say to myself that I have made it through COVID-19 so I can tackle any other obstacle.

I have coped with being stressed by simply taking time for self-care. I would lift and create a plan of attack for what is stressing me out. I also remind myself that all of my stress is temporary, and I have made through 100 percent of my bad days.

I have noticed a rise in risk amongst my peers. I see toxic mindsets where people will say, ‘I’m vaxxed, so I’m going to go to a huge party or go out every night.’ They then get COVID and get mad about it.

Double whammy!

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Anderson, M. and J. Jiang. (2018). Teens, social media and technology 2018. Pew Research Center. May 31, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-tech… (30 Sept. 2021).

Challenge Success. (2021). Kids under pressure. NBC News. February 2021. https://challengesuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/CS-NBC-Study-Ki… (30 Sept. 2021).

Curtin, S. and M. Heron. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. No. 352. October 2019. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf (30 Sept. 2021).

Lomas, N. (2021). Seeking to respin Instagram’s toxicity for teens, Facebook publishes annotated slide decks. TechCrunch. September 30, 2021. https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/30/seeking-to-respin-instagrams-toxicity… (30 Sept. 2021).

NAMI. (2021). Suicide prevention awareness month. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/get-involved/awareness-events/suicide-prevention-a… (30 Sept. 2021).

Steinberg L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review: DR, 28(1). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2396566/ (30 Sept. 2021).

Total Brain. (2021). High prevalence of mental health risk amid COVID pandemic taking a serious toll on U.S. students’ cognition. February 24, 2021. https://www.totalbrain.com/high-prevalence-of-mental-health-risk-amid-c… (30 Sept. 2021).

Wells, G., Horwitz, J. and D. Seetharaman. (2021). Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show. The Facebook Files. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen… (30 Sept. 2021).

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