US poll: Pandemic takes its toll on teens' mental health

·3-min read
Nearly half of parents have noticed a new or worsening mental health condition in their teen since the pandemic started, according to a US poll.

Often singled out for their lack of solidarity with older generations since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, teenagers are far from being spared the effects of this bleak period. With online learning, limited social interactions and the lack of physical and cultural activities, covid-19 has hit the mental health of teenagers hard, as revealed by the findings of a new US national poll.

What better time in life than adolescence? A carefree time for all manner of experimentation, for meeting new people, and a growing feeling of independence. At least, that's how it was before a global pandemic came along and shook up the lives of a generation that relies heavily on social interactions. A new national poll carried out by Michigan Medicine, the academic medical center of the University of Michigan, reveals that teenagers' mental health has been particularly affected by the pandemic, and even more so by the restrictions imposed to halt the spread of covid-19.

The survey is based on responses from 977 parents of teenagers aged between 13 and 18. Almost half of the parents polled (46%) reported noticing a new or worsening mental health condition in their teenager since the pandemic started in March 2020. Girls seem to be more affected than boys, particularly when it comes to anxiety and depression.

In fact, teenagers' social lives have been at a halt for the best part of a year, which is taking its toll on their mental health. With lockdowns, social distancing and other restrictions, three in four parents said that covid-19 had negatively impacted their teen's social interactions, something that's highly important at this stage of life.

Anxiety and aggressive behavior

The report reveals that more than a third of parents of teen girls (36%) noted an increase in anxiety or worry, compared to 19% for teen boys. But that's not all, as the parents polled also reported increased depression or sadness (31% for girls vs 18% for boys), sleep disturbances (24% vs 21%), and more aggressive behavior (8% vs 9%).

"Peer groups and social interactions are a critical part of development during adolescence. But these opportunities have been limited during the pandemic. Many teens may feel frustrated, anxious and disconnected due to social distancing and missing usual social outlets, like sports, extracurricular activities and hanging out with friends," explains the poll co-director Gary L. Freed.

The essential role of parents

Faced with the declining mental health of their teens, parents have tried all sorts of ways of redressing the balance. Half of them reported relaxing social distancing rules to allow their teen to enjoy some limited socializing. And this seems to have worked particularly well, since 81% reported that it helped.

Parents of teens also tried relaxing restrictions on social media use, allowing their teen to spend more time than usual on social networks. Some reached out to mental health experts or even turned to new technologies, in particular, web-based programs and applications destined to improve the mental health of teenagers.

"Parents play a critical role in helping their teens cope with the stress of the pandemic. There are strategies parents can engage to help, whether or not their teen is showing signs of problems. One of the most important things for parents to do is keep lines of communication open; ask their teen how they are doing and create the space for them to speak honestly so they can provide help when needed," advises Freed.

Christelle Pellissier