Urban News Staff Reports
National nonprofit organization GENYOUth recently released the results of a first-of-its-kind national survey of America’s youth detailing the impact of COVID-19 on their everyday lives, the disruption it has caused to their plans for the future, and the support they need from adults to help them cope in the weeks and months ahead.
“Life Disrupted: The Impact of COVID-19 on Teens,” is the fourth national youth survey fielded by GENYOUth as part of its Youth Insights platform, and presents a multifaceted picture of how unprecedented pandemic-driven changes in American life have impacted the nation’s youth, from wide-ranging feelings of distress and worry, to surprising reservoirs of resilience and strength.
“We’ve heard volumes from government officials, health professionals, parents and educators about COVID-19’s impact on youth. But until now, we have not heard directly from students,” said Alexis Glick, CEO of GENYOUth. “On issues of national importance – be it the pandemic, economic instability, hunger and food insecurity, or race and inequality – conversations about how best to help our nation’s youth need to start with them. They have a powerful voice and they need to be heard.”
This GENYOUth Insights survey, conducted in May 2020 with a nationally representative sample of U.S. teens 13 to 18, examined seven areas of potential impact and distress in young peoples’ lives caused by COVID-19. The findings provide a real-time snapshot of what’s on teenagers’ minds as they enter their fourth month living in lockdown and face the challenges of a summer disrupted by social-distancing and continuing uncertainty regarding the next school year.
GENYOUth’s survey data identify several significant dimensions of impact and distress, the underpinnings of youth resilience, and the key elements of an effective support response to help young people deal with the most life-altering societal event ever experienced in their lives.
A High Level of Disruption and Distress
The impact of the pandemic on teens has been immediate and deep. Some relatively short-term disruptions – missed social events like prom, spending time with friends, going to concerts – are already well discussed. This study yielded additional critical insights regarding distress points that have the potential to result in deeper and longer-term consequences.
- Families’ well-being. With unemployment at post-Depression record levels, over one in four (27 percent) feel their family’s well-being, including expenses like food and housing, has been directly impacted – with 83 percent of those respondents also feeling distressed. Less affluent (31 percent), Black and Hispanic (31 and 38 percent) and high schoolers (34 percent) all report feeling impacted at even higher levels.
- Educational future. About one-third of kids say their educational futures have been disrupted by COVID-19, a number that leaps significantly among college-minded upperclassmen (42 percent), as well as ethnic groups such as Asian-Americans (39 percent) and Hispanics (42 percent).
- Athletic participation. Even more than economic or educational concerns, sports are on kids’ minds. Over half (54.5 percent) feel their physical activities have been disrupted with lower income kids at 63 percent. For many kids, sports are a path to an affordable higher education, as well as an invaluable source of leadership skills, self-discipline, team-work skill development and personal identity.
A Show of Resilience and Positivity
Despite major disruptions in their lives, teens are displaying a surprising sense of resilience and even positivity during the pandemic, much of it driven by the strengthening of family bonds and the strong support of parents during quarantine. Key drivers of resilience found include:
- Teens have perspective, with a majority agreeing that most of the pandemic’s impact on their lives will not be felt much beyond the end of the pandemic itself.
- Adults are listening and offering support. Four out of five respondents say their views are taken into account when adults make decisions that affect them. Adults are also offering access to necessary technology (64 percent), keeping kids informed (60 percent) and providing reassurance (57 percent).
- The pandemic’s silver lining. From sleeping more (45 percent), to experiencing less school pressure (43 percent) and less packed schedules (40 percent), kids see some positives of life under COVID-19.
What Teens Need
Yet, as time goes on, the pandemic will likely further put youths’ coping abilities to the test. Even if adults and schools don’t have all the answers, they still can help young people navigate the challenges ahead. The survey points to six key elements of an effective support response that can help the majority of youth to cope better, especially those who are hurting the most.
- Keep youth informed. Teens crave information on what’s happening and what it means.
- Help teens cope with uncertainty. Adults need to monitor their anxiety and help kids build routine as well as give them a sense of agency. Adults also need to help young people feel that the pandemic response is in the hands of capable and competent leaders who will make the right decisions.
- Offer relief from the boredom. Schools and community-based organizations need to offer summer activities that are synced up with schools’ summer plans and shifting start dates.
- Focus on athletics: Kids should be empowered and equipped to skill-build and train; stay in shape independently or in small groups; and study playbooks, films or other resources to get smarter about their sport.
- Address financial concerns. Parents/caregivers should keep teens appropriately informed about their family situation and even engage them in finding resources that may help their family via online sites like SAP4Kids (www.sap.com/sap4kids), while utilizing available support like summer meal programs and food pantries.
- Get youth input to problem-solve and make decisions together. The crisis has sparked dialogue in many life areas, including education. Asking kids to help re-imagine what schools might look like next year and beyond will make them part of the dialogue and provide a greater sense of control. “As America’s teens struggle with the uncertainties of life during COVID-19, education has to be a critical area of focus for everyone concerned about their future,” said Sharon Adams-Taylor, MA, MPH, Associate Executive Director, AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “It will be critical to involve and engage our young people in the discussion of how we can reimagine schools to best meet their needs in the months and years ahead.”
The survey results suggest that, first and foremost, adults can best support and guide youth by listening to them. Rather than making flawed assumptions about what youth are feeling, trust teens to articulate what helps them cope the most, what they are not getting that they need and where they are feeling the most distress. This is how one teen summed up his current pandemic life experience to us:
“This change hasn’t really been the best for me. Because of this pandemic, many great and important experiences and events that I was looking forward to have been taken from me. I do not get to be with many of my friends, who are seniors and will be leaving me in a few short months. Who knows if this virus will be gone in time for me to get time with them? It’s like every day I hear some new bad news,” said Viren, a rising high school senior from New Jersey. “I think this quarantine has changed me as a person a bit. I feel like it has given me time to think about things and learn, and after participating in GENYOUth’s survey, I am more committed than ever to making my voice heard.”