Teens, Screens and COVID-19

Being a teenager was challenging before COVID-19, but now this unexpected challenge to teens' rollercoaster life through emerging adulthood has appeared and is dictating terms

COVID-19 has brought about many challenges for all sectors, including seniors stuck at home or in nursing homes, deepening economic crisis and many families struggling to make ends meet. 

Young children sense the instability and anxiety of the unknown. 

And then there are adolescents. 

Increasing numbers of  pre-teens and teens are suffering greatly during these times. In Israel and in various other countries, many in this age group are still at home. They are not physically in school and the seeds planted much earlier in corona’s domination of 2020 are now appearing as full-grown problems.

Some of the most concerning statistics coming out of a 11 November 2020 report from the Mental Health Division of the Israeli Ministry of Health were covered by Hannah Brown in the following day’s piece in The Jerusalem Post (“Study: Over 70% of youth seeking psych care report suicidal thoughts”):

  • 71.2% increase in referrals of adolescent patients with serious suicidal thoughts during the second wave of corona in contrast to the first wave.
  • 81% overall increase in new referrals during the second wave and an increase in severity of the patients who have previously been in treatment.
  • 39% of patients reported some increase in suicidal thoughts during the second wave; another 32% said they had a meaningful increase in suicidal thinking.
  • The second corona wave witnessed a considerable increase in referrals for all issues and a severity of problems in patients with anxiety, mood and eating disorders.

While parents are busy going out to work or working from home (perhaps also looking for work as is very often the harsh reality today), or busy taking care of the younger kids or worried about their parents, teenagers are too often sitting in their bedrooms or some other closed room – with a screen. In a good scenario they are on zoom or another platform learning as best they can from a distance. 

But for many the pressures of independent learning, increased responsibility and need for self-discipline are too immense. Moreover these are the age-groups when natural in-person social interaction and being in the presence of friends is crucial. Not getting up in the morning and going to school means much less social interaction for some and very few positive touchpoints at all for others.  

With all that said, something else has changed too. Less social interaction and less seeing others without a screen as an intermediary but also an unnaturally steep increase in their seeing themselves. I’m hearing it from parents as much as from teenage girls that I see in my practice. These hours of them seeing themselves on camera and being “looked at” is causing deep self-doubt, laying siege to self-esteem and creating a different sense of self in general. 

Many adolescents are complaining that they don’t want to have their cameras on while in class but the teachers need them on in order to know that they are actually participating. This is very challenging in itself from a myriad of educational and psychological standpoints.

So what can parents do for their teens who might be suffering or don’t show signs of suffering but could very well be keeping it to themselves?

Make sure you are checking in with them a few times a day, encourage them to take a walk and get some fresh air and sun. Try to have them sitting in a public area of the house or have them come out of their room every once in a while for a break. 

Encourage them to make individual connections with friends either by zoom, whatsapp or the like but preferably in-person, face-to-face connections in accordance with health regulations. Make sure they are getting proper meals and not just getting by on junk or in some cases not eating at all.

Look out for signs of depression, mood changes, significant weight loss, lack of appetite, spending many hours in their room on screens. Screens are a reality for us today and Covid has cemented that reality perhaps for the foreseeable future.

Still, we as parents must place sensible boundaries and limits. Sometimes this may cause initial conflict and tension but it is very important for children and teenagers to recognize that their parents love and care about them enough to sometimes say “no”.

Try to engage them in conversations and offer them help whether in school assignments or with other things they may be struggling to cope with. If you feel they need to see a mental health professional, seek help, don’t hesitate to call and get advice. Teachers and school guidance counselors can be helpful by also keeping an eye out for unusual behavior, frequent lack of attendance on zoom, mood changes. They should be checking in with their students every now and then, asking how they are finding the distance learning, these adjustments, time away from friends, family and the like. 

Being a teenager was challenging before Covid-19 made its way to the world. This unexpected challenge to their rollercoaster life through emerging adulthood has appeared and is dictating terms.

Many teenagers are missing out on big moments and milestones which would usually give them a sense of satisfaction and stability. We must all work together to ensure they have outlets and safe space to share frustrations, fears, hopes and dreams and to help them find creative ways to strengthen their self esteem.

About the Author
Lisa Lawrence is a Family and Couples Therapist, specializing in Anxiety and Eating Disorders. She sees adolescents and adults at her private practice in Gush Etzion and by Zoom - in English and Hebrew.
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