Adolescent Stress in the Time of COVID-19: Social Distancing
Part 1: What developmental science shows about stress, coping, and resilience.
Posted March 21, 2020
All of us are dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, from health fears for our families and ourselves to economic insecurity to stay-at-home/shelter-in-place, and more. But how we are affected, and what we can do to cope, varies based on many factors: social class, financial resources, employment situations, and others. Stress and possible coping strategies also differ across developmental levels. Adolescents are experiencing stressors that are specific to their situation and are amplified by key developmental characteristics. This is a brief overview of those major stressors, and what adolescents and their parents may find useful to know about how to deal with them, based on the developmental science of adolescence.
Two overall observations provide an important context. One is that we were in the grip of a national stress epidemic that has been rising for decades (Keating, 2017; Keating, Siddiqi, & Nguyen, 2013), and seems to have been accelerating during the Trump administration, all of which preceded the pandemic’s onset, but which also created vulnerability going into this crisis. We’ve seen evidence of this in adolescents’ self-reports of their feelings and health, as well as in their underlying stress physiology, as I’ve written about here. It‘s all but certain that this will be further turbocharged by the current crisis, so we have an obligation to do what we can to minimize the effects of this unprecedented new stressor.
The second observation is that the “new science” of adolescence, rooted in developmental science and societal trends (Bos et al., 2019; McDonagh et al., 2018), makes it clear that we should view adolescence as encompassing emerging adulthood into the mid-20s, as a kind of “elongated adolescence”—a term that is uniformly rejected by hundreds of undergraduates in my adolescent psychology class, although they don’t dispute the rationale nor the evidence. In my experience, the current adolescent generation (now primarily Gen Z) is on the whole bright, socially conscious, proactive, and pragmatic about the societal trends toward decreasing social mobility, increasing inequality, peer competition for the shrinking number of secure educational and career options, combined with a passion for addressing the existential crisis of our time, climate change, and the everyday crisis of mass shootings in schools that has been embedded in them by repeated “active shooter drills” in school.
But this crisis is different in many ways and presents stressors with which we have very little to no experience. Without precedents to go by, one place we can turn to is what developmental science tells us about stress, coping, and resilience as they function in adolescence more generally, and consider how to apply that knowledge today. The leading factors that mitigate or buffer stress and enhance resilience in adolescence can be grouped into three major categories: social connection, mindfulness/purpose/planning, and taking care of the physical body. Those lines of research can inform how we may be able to help, recognizing that their application to the current crisis-level stressor may not always be obvious.
Stay-at-home/shelter-in-place/social distancing versus the need for social connection
These novel restrictions comprise the most dramatic social impact of the response to the pandemic, and all the epidemiological evidence tells us that the most effective way to slow down the pandemic is to “flatten the curve” to reduce the degree to which medical and hospital care will be overwhelmed, and perhaps to reduce the overall number of cases and resulting fatalities. This is hard for everyone, but harder for some: separating older adults from their family at a critical time, causing massive job losses for those in the hospitality industry, and so on.
These regimes of physical isolation are hard for adolescents in a more specific way that amplifies the impact. The desire and the need for peer interaction are stronger during this developmental period than at any other time, as oft-replicated research in behavioral and brain research has shown (e.g., Chein et al., 2011). It is this need, along with still-maturing prefrontal executive and judgment capabilities, that has led to some of the reported disregard for these restrictions, whether during spring break at the beaches or in self-organized substitute graduation “ceremonies” after the official ones have been canceled.
Gatherings of large numbers of adolescents in any context, especially those happening as they prepare to disperse across the country, are a petri dish for COVID-19, posing risks to their own health, their family’s health, and the health of their community. As California and New York have now shown, and others are sure to follow, we can’t rely on self-monitoring of these crucial preventive measures and will likely need to move to enforcement to protect population health. But there’s no doubt that this hits adolescents hard because of their fundamental need to connect socially.
What can they do, and what can we do to support them? Some have suggested that we should shift terminology to remind us that physical isolation is a better way to phrase this, rather than social distancing. It’s important to find ways to nurture and promote social connection even during isolation, which sounds like a contradiction, but isn’t. It’s critical to find and support methods for distant socializing in a time of social distancing.
One of the generational resources of today’s adolescents is that they are “digital natives.” They’ve been online virtually since they could first manipulate any device, from early childhood passive viewing (what modern parent hasn’t been grateful for the calmer downtimes that child-focused entertainment affords—be honest) and, from tweens onward, almost constant engagement with social media. There have been arguments that this devotion to social media is their downfall, promoting anxiety, depression, even suicide (Twenge et al., 2018), but the evidence for this from better-designed studies suggests that, in general, social media has few negative effects, and very small ones at that (Orben & Przybylski, 2019). There has been less focus on the potential benefits, but the growing literature there indicates that it can be beneficial in some contexts.
Rather than place major restrictions on screen time, social or otherwise, we should think carefully about the fundamental adolescent need to connect socially, and characterizing social media as a major risk rather than as potential support gets the science wrong. Group Facetime meet-ups may not be as good as hang-outs, but they’re a safe substitute that counteracts social isolation. Put it together with the joint streaming of a film, and it’s a movie night out, just not out. There are apps for that—allowing synchronous viewing, pausing, and so on. Moderate amounts of screen time on one’s own allow for distraction as well, and the evidence does not identify significant risks.
Not all social connections during isolation should be virtual, of course. Regular family dinners, which have been shown to be positively associated with multiple developmental outcomes, are even more important now, as families quarantine together. The family conversation may take a bit more parental initiative—“How was school today?” as the opening bid won’t work now. But mere connection, along with a good dose of listening to how they are dealing with the stress and realistic reassurance, is a valuable tool that is right at hand.
Note also that what we’ve learned from five decades of resilience science (Masten, 2018) is that social connection plays a central, and arguably the most powerful, role in dealing with stress, in terms of developmental health outcomes as well as the biologically embedded counterforces against excess or toxic stress (Keating 2016, 2017). The risks to adolescent well-being and development may be hard to fully predict, but there is a strong likelihood that those risks are serious, especially if we don’t find ways to support their need for social connection. Taking together the best current evidence on stress, resilience, social media, and screen time, we should be supporting virtual/distant socializing, even if that means some relaxation of family expectations around social media and screen time that apply when they are in school.
Beyond social connection, there are two other broad categories that arise from the resilience literature that are particularly relevant to adolescents in the current crisis: mindfulness/planning/consciousness, taking advantage of emerging PFC capabilities; and taking care of one’s body in ways that provide protection against stress, or at least don’t aggravate stress.
To read about these, see Part 2 of this article.
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