Teens appear to have have fared better in overall mental health than adults during the COVID-19 pandemic — despite fears that a generation of adolescents already battling higher-than-normal levels of depression and loneliness would suffer more because of quarantine, enforced online classes, separation from friends and related challenges.
That’s according to a report released Tuesday morning by Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution and the Institute for Family Studies. In “Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time and Family Connection,” researchers compared findings from the 2018 “Monitoring the Future” survey of eighth, 10th and 12th graders with a comparable group of 1,523 teens surveyed mid-pandemic, expecting to find elevated mental distress.
Instead, the study led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of “iGen,” and BYU professor Sarah Coyne found that depression and loneliness had decreased somewhat during the coronavirus quarantine, compared to levels in pre-pandemic 2018. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life rose slightly.
The survey asked adolescents about mental health, family time, sleep, technology use and recent protests over race relations and policing.
Because trends in teen mental health have been “pretty negative in the past five or six years with really big increases in depression and anxiety — not just a couple of percentage points, but in some cases doubling or tripling — our speculation was that the pandemic would make things worse,” Twenge told the Deseret News. “Somewhat to our surprise, that was not the case.”
What accounts for the surprising finding that overall teen mental health didn’t worsen?
The answer is likely found in the pandemic-centric features of recent life: An increase in sleep and more quality time with family members, said the research team, which included BYU professor Jason Carroll and Institute for Family Studies senior fellow and University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox.
What’s good for youths
American adults have clearly struggled amid COVID-19, according to the report, which found them three times more likely in 2020 to be experiencing mental distress, anxiety and depression than in either 2018 or 2019.
Twenge said that “the picture for adults has been, of course, a lot of economic disruption, effectively homeschooling with online school, just a lot of life challenges in taking care of their families and themselves.”
Teens were being impacted, too. They didn’t see their friends as much. They had to learn differently — and from home. Many had social activities curtailed, and lots of experts worried they’d spend even more time on social media and video gaming, increasing worries over more cyberbullying and other challenges.
But both more sleep and more positive family time are correlated with better mental health outcomes for children — and for the majority of teens in the survey, time with loved ones and pillow time were more plentiful during quarantine.
Parents were less apt to commute to work or be hauling kids around. Kids regained time normally spent getting to and from school or at outside activities.
“I’m baffled at why we continue to start high school in Utah at such an early hour despite all the research evidence suggesting that teen mental health would improve if we pushed this back by an hour or two,” said Coyne, associate dean in BYU’s School of Family Life.
California legislators, for instance, enacted a policy that in 2022 will delay school start times to be more friendly to the teen circadian rhythm.
“Second, teens were having more quality family time (including family dinner, outside recreation, sibling time, etc.) that appeared to be protective,” Coyne said. “My favorite finding was that the majority of teens said that they felt they had become a ‘stronger and resilient person’ since the beginning of the pandemic. That is amazing and speaks to the growth mindset of many of these kids.”
The report said teens did spend more time watching TV and videos, but they didn’t appreciably increase their time on social media. And during quarantine, many schools started online classes slightly later than in-person start times.
Twenge speculated that with fewer social activities, teens may also have found less to gossip about, perhaps reducing the incidence of cyberbullying. It’s also likely, she added, that teens did use social media more to stay in touch, rather than for its more potentially negative aspects.
The teens reported during quarantine they more often had dinner with family and did activities together, often boosting those relationships. Of those who said family became closer, just 15% of teens said they were depressed, compared to 27% who did not believe they’d become closer.
“There’s a common perception teens don’t want to spend time with their parents and it’s true their friends are important,” Twenge said. “But they do want that closeness with parents. In some ways, that was the silver lining of the pandemic. There were so many obviously huge downsides economically, healthwise and otherwise.”
But having time together helped many families, she and Carroll said.
The researchers are quick to affirm that the adolescent mental health crisis of recent years has not disappeared, though the pandemic appears not to have increased it significantly overall. Still, some teens are experiencing more anxiety and depression, including those whose parents lost jobs and especially those who worry about having enough to eat.
“This is not to say that a small minority of teens likely really struggled during lockdown. I don’t want to discount the lived experiences of many families who were dealing with a teen who was melting down,” Coyne said. “Especially those who come from abusive environments where they did not have the family support. Or those who may have lost family members as a result of the pandemic. That is very real and very difficult.”
Teens were not simply less concerned because they didn’t realize the impact of the pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 teens knew someone who had gotten COVID-19 and 27% said a parent lost a job. One-quarter said they worried about being hungry, while 63% worried about getting the virus and slightly more still about not seeing their friends.
Family financial distress exacerbated teen stress. More than one-fourth of teens with a parent who lost a job were depressed, compared to 16% of those whose parents had intact employment. Of teens who worried about their family not having enough money, 26% were depressed, compared to 13% who didn’t worry about that. And a third of teens who worried about not having enough to eat were depressed, compared to 14% who were food secure.
The report said mental health was “significantly better” for teens in two-parents families than in single-parent families. Depression was higher among teens who didn’t feel connected to their families, compared to those who did.
Carroll, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and associate director of the Wheatley Institution, called it “very striking and important” that teens said family connection made them resilient during a “time of difficulty, a time of adversity, a time of change.” Family patterns can give youths strong grounding as they grow up “in a world with a fair amount of conflict and difficulty and a lack of predictability,” he said.