From internet access to clear guidance about what kind of in-person interactions are safe, key factors could help young people continue work and school amid COVID-19
Article Shortcuts: Find the original press release from the University of Michigan, the Conversation editorial by Tammy Chang and Matthew Dunn, the September 2020 paper “Needs and Coping Behaviors of Youth in the U.S. During COVID-19” led by Eric Waselewski in the Journal of Adolescent Health, and the MyVoice report “Youth Experiences and Future Needs in Learning and Working During COVID-19“.
Last spring, the pandemic sent them home from high school or college, derailed their sports and activities, and sent them into “essential” workplaces that carried a new health risk. The summer has come and gone, and now they’re facing months more of living, learning, working and trying to have a social life in the time of COVID-19.
But what do people in their teens and early 20s need to get through these times?
New data from a MyVoice study based at the University of Michigan give some important insights.
The text-message-based survey, which is in its fourth year, seeks to find out what it’s really like to be a young person in the United States right now, with an emphasis on health-related topics.
When asked about the impacts of social distancing, many young people shared what they’ve lost, often talking about the ability to socialize with others. “I can’t talk to people,” was a common response. “I have not been able to see friends or work at all,” was another.
Telling young people only what they cannot do could lead to fatigue and riskier behavior. So, helping young people understand how to stay safe should also include recommendations for what they can do.
Tammy Chang and Matthew Dunn in The Conversation
She and her colleagues – many of them in their teens and 20s themselves – pored through the replies they received in several recent surveys of a diverse pool of nearly 1,000 respondents aged 14 to 24 across the country.
“The overarching theme in our data is that young people are trying to do the right thing, and trying to adapt, but aren’t always able to apply the rules in their real-world lives, and leaders aren’t giving them clear options on how to do so,” says Chang, an assistant professor of family medicine who focuses on adolescent health at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. “People think that socialization is just leisure, but for adolescents it’s required for proper development. We need to give clear messaging about safe ways to do the things young people need to do in order to grow and develop, and support them in learning and working in these times.”
Some of their key findings:
Youth emotional responses and coping strategies
• One-fifth of those surveyed in March were already experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression – suggesting a need for emotional and mental health support from family, friends and health professionals as the pandemic continues.
• More than two-thirds described strategies they were using to cope – including staying connected to friends virtually, staying busy and working to maintain their positivity.
Youth experiences in working and learning remotely
• In a May survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents reported that the pandemic had changed their learning experience, mostly because of a shift to online classes. Similarly, nearly 40% said their work situation had changed – including half who said they were now working from home, and many who had lost jobs or were working reduced hours.
Nearly 29% of those working or attending school from home said they suffered a lack of motivation or focus, or reduced productivity. But nearly 10% said that the experience was actually helping them focus more.
• Interestingly, 44% of the youth said that learning or working at home had improved their daily routine or work-life balance, citing everything from flexible schedules to more time for sleep. But for 20% of their peers, the home-based life felt worse, including because of a lack of separation of work or school and life.
Youth needs and resource availability
• Early in the pandemic, nearly one-third of youth reported limited access to essential needs like food, water, income, and cleaning supplies – reports of virtual socialization and connection necessary to cope also suggest a need for internet or technology access
• As the pandemic progressed and many youth transitioned to online school and work, one in five reported needed more resources to be successful, from internet access and computers to desks and private spaces. And nearly as many said they needed to make improvements to their personal practices, whether it was engaging in healthier habits or structuring their routines and time more.
• Many respondents also noted that more communication and interaction with teachers and others as well as setting clear deadlines and expectations in online learning would help them to succeed in the virtual setting.
Youth reported knowledge and behaviors
• Almost half of respondents said they had learned about COVID-19 from news media sources – but such reports are usually created by and for an adult audience. Adapting news and information for platforms that are most popular among young people could help spread accurate information more broadly.
• Young people seem to understand their role as potential spreaders of COVID-19, even if they themselves don’t get sick. Many youth report they are engaging in appropriate prevention behaviors, though often noting exceptions in their behaviors. More survey data on this topic and steps young people are taking – or not taking – is still being processed and will be published soon.
• Social distancing guidance seemed to be confusing or non-applicable to many respondents, who are in the age range where social interactions are vital to normal development. Chang and colleagues call for more clarity from public health officials in guidance that can tell young people what they can do safely, rather than focus on what they shouldn’t do.
Often, young people in our survey did not fully comprehend the rigorous nature of social distancing rules. For example, a few youth respondents reasoned that it was safe to hang out with friends if both parties were potentially exposed due to work or other reasons. “Most of my friends are ‘essential’ workers and are already exposed to lots of people. It seems moot to be super strict about social distancing,” one wrote.
Tammy Chang and Matthew Dunn in The Conversation
Study team member Eric Waselewski, is a medical resident at Michigan Medicine, and lead author of the new MyVoice paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The topic of how young people are getting information about COVID-19, and what is motivating their behaviors regarding it, will continue to be important to study, he says.
MyVoice project coordinator Marika Waselewski, notes that the open-ended responses enabled by the survey’s use text messages were especially revealing and youth had a lot to say about their knowledge and experiences with COVID-19. In fact, many wrote full-paragraph responses to questions.
The time of year likely impacts these experiences, she says, with spring-time responses including worries about missing once-in-a-lifetime milestones of the teen and young adult years, while the start of a new school year may generate more hopeful responses.
Chang and her colleagues continue to survey young people about topics related to COVID-19, from mask wearing to social distancing practices. The MyVoice survey is supported by the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research, the University of Michigan MCubed program, and the U-M Department of Family Medicine.