How social distancing affects social development

Are we doing enough to help adolescents in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

In recent months, rising COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed health services in the UK triggered further school closures and the imposition of strict social distancing measures. For adolescents, this means being deprived of opportunities to spend time with their peers during a period that is essential for their social development. Reports published at the end of 2020 revealed that the pandemic is having devastating impacts on young people’s mental health and learning. As the pandemic continues to affect children and young people around the world, we need to focus more attention on the toll it is taking on teenagers and what can be done about it. 

Adolescence is a period characterised by social development, a time for fine-tuning the social brain and social behaviours. During this period, young people are becoming less dependent on family members and more concerned with the exclusion, acceptance and approval of their peers as they develop more complex relationships with friends. The impact of the pandemic and extensive social restrictions is becoming alarmingly evident: in a recent report of more than 2,000 young people aged 16-25, over half reported that they had “always” or “often” felt anxious since the pandemic began. Experts have warned that social deprivation could have extensive effects on adolescents’ brain and behaviour. Given that more than 70 percent of individuals with mental health disorders are diagnosed before age 18, the potential triggers of such disorders and the vulnerability of adolescents’ mental health need to be taken seriously.

“Online social interaction is no replacement for the richness of in-person socialising, but crucially, it may provide a tool for learning how to adapt to the current situation.”

As socialising in person is not currently permitted, many people are turning to social media. While the rapid increase in the use of social media among teens over the past decade has caused concern for many parents, the claim that social media use is harmful for adolescent mental health is currently not supported by the evidence. Online social interaction is no replacement for the richness of in-person socialising, but crucially, it may provide a tool for learning how to adapt to the current situation.

A recent study of adolescents aged 13-19 found that anxious individuals have been using social media during the COVID-19 pandemic primarily as a way to cope with isolation, rather than for the purpose of socialising, and this led to an indirect positive effect on happiness in this group. Ways of coping with isolation included reframing the situation in a positive way and motivating others.

This finding supports the argument that what may be important is not the amount of time teens spend on social media, but rather how they engage with the various platforms. However complex the relationship between social media use and mental health may be, social media at least provides an opportunity to engage adolescents in a way that supports their mental health.

“Social media at least provides an opportunity to engage adolescents in a way that supports their mental health.”

As children and young people endure national lockdowns and restrictions on in-person gatherings, it’s clear they have fewer places to turn for help. Perhaps unsurprisingly, young adolescents are more influenced by people their own age than any other age group. In light of new evidence, anxious teens might benefit from using social media to support one another, which could help alleviate the negative impact of current restrictions on their mental health. As a parent, the increased time spent on social media apps might seem worrying but it is important to get to grips with how young people are using social media and how to spot warning signs in order to help teenagers build positive online communities with their peers.

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