When the world shut down in March 2020, many kids were excited for what they thought might be a bonus spring break from school. However, it soon became obvious that COVID-19 was no vacation and the pandemic was going to have wide-ranging consequences for everyone — especially the youngest members of society.
One of the most seismic and immediate changes was the way nearly all schools needed to suddenly shift to a remote or hybrid learning environment. This transition wasn’t always smooth, and its success depended on numerous factors that were often outside of kids’ and adults’ control. Turns out, kindergarten Zoom lessons are quite difficult when youngsters are sitting in their bedrooms full of all their favorite toys.
For older students, the effects of the pandemic have proved more dire, as many teens didn’t have the opportunity to properly continue or finish their education and develop important bonds with their peers. Sports practices, proms, graduations and even just old-fashioned teenage mischief were often lost entirely or reduced to a screen.
While the aftermath of this period will be studied for decades, a picture is already starting to emerge of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teens’ mental health.
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Influenced Teens’ Mental Health
The shift to remote schooling and social distancing measures meant kids were spending even more time by themselves staring at digital devices. Teens’ mental health was already on the decline prior to COVID-19. One study from Express Scripts shows that from 2015 to 2019, teen prescriptions for antidepressants rose by 38%, compared to a 15% rise during the same time period for adults. The pandemic only exacerbated this trend and today, over a quarter of kids ages 12–17 report having depressive episodes.
Predictably, more kids reported spending more time on their devices. Apps such as TikTok skyrocketed in popularity and resulted in children spending significant portions of their day on the internet.
Schools as a Mental Health Resource Suffered
Recently, schools have become much more than a place to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Many children rely on their schools for both their emotional and social needs, and as a result, educators play an increasingly dynamic and important role in shaping students’ lives.
School guidance counselors and psychologists often serve as frontline resources for students who need assistance with managing their mental health. The preexisting school mental health care provider shortage was compounded when the pandemic simultaneously drove vulnerable students out of school and even deeper into the grips of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and mental health issues. With remote learning, many students in crisis slipped through the cracks and were, unfortunately, left to their own devices when it came to managing their mental health.
In addition to losing key adult support, students were also separated from their friends and peers during the initial and subsequent COVID-19 waves that necessitated a turn to the virtual world. Teens and young adults reported increases in loneliness — which was already on the rise pre-pandemic.
The Learning Routine Was Negatively Impacted
For kindergartners and high school seniors alike, kitchen tables were turned into classrooms in the blink of an eye. The sudden rise of remote learning meant that children of all ages had to adapt to receiving instruction online with varying levels of support and success.
However, it’s well-established that children with special needs and IEPs (individualized educational plans) disproportionately suffer from remote learning. Many special education students were unable to access the usual therapies and support systems that make their education possible. These students tend to need specialized attention from trained educators, and the disruption of in-person schooling meant children with special needs were often unable to fully participate in their education.
Additionally, 31 states reported decreases in the number of graduating students in 2021. Unfortunately, some schools lost track of students’ whereabouts entirely as truancy rates soared during virtual learning.
Beyond the stress of remote learning, many children were also thrust into the role of caretaker for their relatives, whether that was siblings, parents or grandparents. Food insecurity was also more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many adults lost their incomes and struggled to provide for their families, and students lost the consistent, free or low-cost meals they typically had at school. These added responsibilities and stressors undoubtedly made it even more difficult for students to focus on school.
It Will Take Time to Fully Understand the Pandemic’s Mental Health Impact
As with much of the effects of the pandemic, it’s still too soon to definitively know exactly how the pandemic will affect children in both the short and long term. It’s unclear when — or even if — children will fully recover from the mental health impact of the pandemic.
Private schools saw a significant increase in enrollment as a result of the pandemic. Research suggests that children enrolled in private school are slightly less likely to report having a mental health condition as an adult.
Similarly, homeschooling has risen in popularity over the last couple of years. While it still remains to be seen how this uptick in alternate education will play out, there’s no question that parents and their children are making decisions that have the potential to bring about substantial shifts to the learning landscape.
In spite of all the negative consequences remote learning ushered in, there’s evidence that remote learning did provide a welcomed reprieve to certain students who are vulnerable to bullying. Data indicates that reports of bullying declined during periods of virtual instruction. Furthermore, cyberbullying also precipitously dropped, even though more kids were spending more time online.
The Importance of Being Resilient
Many adults can learn from the youth when it comes to lessons in resilience and adaptation. Kids everywhere navigated making meaningful connections in a digital world, balancing school and other responsibilities and, in some cases, even walking across the virtual graduation stage.
Appropriate mental health care can help ensure that the kids are alright. Parents and health care providers should focus on creating an open dialogue with kids to give them the space to express their needs. FHE serves individuals of all ages who are suffering from a mental health condition or supporting someone who is. Contact FHE to start the journey of healthy living for yourself and your loved ones.