The First Data On COVID-19 And Teens' Mental Health Is Here — And It's Not Good

Sixty percent said they're feeling lonely. And more than half said they're feeling anxious.
A new survey suggests COVID-19 may be hurting teens' health. 
A new survey suggests COVID-19 may be hurting teens' health. 

As COVID-19 social distancing measures have worn on, a lot has been written about how younger children are coping.

Less has been said about teenagers, who missed out on big milestones. (Final semesters! Final sports seasons! Graduation! Prom!) And who have also been kept from doing what is basically their full-time job: separating from their families, exploring the world and beginning to figure out who they are.

A new survey released this week gives a preliminary glimpse at the toll all of those changes has taken on teenagers’ mental health — and it raises an early alarm.

Of roughly 1,500 teenagers who took part in the survey, conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the National 4-H Council in May, 7 out of 10 teenagers said they were struggling with their mental health in some way.

More than half said they’d experienced anxiety, 45% said they’d felt excess stress, and 43% identified that they’d struggled with depression.

For some context, roughly 12% of American teens meet diagnostic criteria for depression and roughly 30% generally meet criteria for having an anxiety disorder by the time they are 18, although that data is by no means identical.

“It is clear to us based on the survey findings that COVID-19 has had a measurable adverse impact on teens’ mental health,” Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of 4-H, told HuffPost. “For example, 61% of teens said that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased their feelings of loneliness.”

“This information reflects a quick screen for distress rather than clinical diagnoses provided by mental health professionals,” cautioned Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. (Meyers did not work on the survey.)

But he added that “the findings do indicate increases in stress and mental health concerns, similar to many adults’ experiences.” For example, a recent Johns Hopkins survey conducted in April of this year, comparing how adults were feeling at the same point in 2018, found a threefold jump in the percent of adults experiencing symptoms of psychological distress.

So what can parents do to help their teenagers continue to navigate this challenging situation that is unlikely to end anytime soon?

One notable finding from the survey is that teens reported spending at least nine hours a day on screens during the pandemic, an increase of at least three hours per day.

The poll did not (and cannot) establish cause and effect, but experts say it is certainly reasonable to expect that all that screen time could be exacerbating teens’ feelings. As one survey respondent said in press release announcing the survey’s findings: “Coronavirus has been overwhelming and being on social media can be too much for me at times.”

To a certain extent, teenagers have been required to be on their devices for much of the day in order to partake in remote learning. And that could very well continue through much of the upcoming academic year. So Meyers suggested that one thing parents should consider is that the non-screen time they spend with their tweens and teens is really important.

“Even though many teenagers may be on their devices for most of the day for school and recreation, it is important to spend time together,” he said. “These interactions are important for reinforcing connection, creating routine, and providing in-person interaction that may not otherwise occur.”

It is also critical that parents “check in directly with their children,” Meyers urged — and not shy away from tough questions. Ask how they’re feeling. Ask what they are struggling with. Perhaps open up about your own emotions and struggles to get the conversation going. Teens are hungry for this type of communication, the survey suggests. Roughly 80% of the teens said that mental health concerns are major issue facing teens today. At the same time, roughly 80% of the survey respondents said it can feel uncomfortable to ask for help.

Yet despite the overall picture painted by this early look at how teens are coping with COVID-19, there are reasons for optimism. Children’s mental health experts are generally quick to point out how emotionally resilient most kids are, and the survey found something similar: Nearly 70% of the teenagers surveyed said they consider themselves resilient.

“It is certainly a positive sign that so many teens feel confident in their ability to deal with life’s challenges,” Sirangelo said. And there are steps parents can take to boost their child’s ability to bounce back, like focusing on what is in their control and creating real space for them to talk about their emotions.

“It’s impossible to anticipate every scenario they may encounter but we can equip them with the skills to navigate this complicated world,” she added. “Most importantly, teens need to know that it is OK to ask for help.”