March 12, 2020 was the last day of normal school for most Clayton students. It was the last day of face to face conversations, unmarred by face masks. It was the last day of students and staff sitting right next to each other, with no regard for physical distancing. It was the last day of field trips, kids talking and laughing excitedly as they crowded onto yellow school buses. Yet this last day was also a first day, containing an air of anxiety, one that would become ever more dominant over the next 20 months.
As cancelled spring break trips turned into stay-at-home orders and excessive hand washing became the norm, the social lives of teenagers moved online. Lunch table conversations moved to group chats and teens began to spend greater amounts of time on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, Discord, and Snapchat.
The isolation that teenagers experienced during the early part of the pandemic was very harmful to their mental health. “Being alone during the pandemic was so hard,” said CHS freshman Rayna Everett. Teenagers experienced record high rates of anxiety and depression due to social distancing and isolation practices.
Social and physical isolation led to increases in time spent on social media. Over 50% of CHS students surveyed reported that their time spent on social media increased during the pandemic and is still higher than prior to the pandemic.
Increased usage of social media had negative effects on people of all ages, but especially teenagers. “The rate of eating disorders really shot up during the pandemic because people felt they needed to come out of quarantine looking better and being thinner than when they entered,” said Kara Friedman, Licensed Professional Counselor. According to the Harvard School of Public Health website, Instagram’s algorithms pull teens into spirals of harmful content and reward negative emotions. Both of these factors can cause negative effects on the mental health of teens.
“During quarantine, I used social media a lot more just because it was the way that I connected with people, since we couldn’t see each other face to face,” said CHS freshman Anna McAndrew. Teenagers bond through similarities in their lives and interests. “Social media helped kids have shared experiences and shared memories during quarantine,” said Friedman.
Some types of social media were used differently during Covid than others.
“Once summer hit, we created the Discord. I used it for socializing. We played games on it, like Gartic Phone, and we also did voice calls,” said Sam Evra, CHS freshman.
FaceTime was also heavily used by many teenagers, to replace the typical interactions of spending time in the same space as their friends. FaceTime more directly simulates traditional socialization, as it provides the combination of voices and facial expressions of the people that are talking. However, it is by no means the same as in person socialization, especially with the disconnect in words and facial expressions caused by poor cell service or WiFi.
CHS sophomore Sam McDonough found a space for interaction on Twitter. “I’m on Twitter a lot more now. I started using Twitter to interact with people online, talking to my mutual friends and posting. I also got into the left side of Twitter, where I could share my opinion a lot,” said McDonough.
Some of the most popular forms of social media include Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.
“I use Snapchat, just as a way to communicate with people,” said CHS freshman Anna McAndrew. Many teens use Snapchat for its texting or chat features, or to view and share stories, which can be limited in number for a user to only share content with a select group of friends.
Instagram and TikTok include a lot of consumption of content made by other people, not unlike the stories feature of Snapchat. In addition to consuming content made by their friends and celebrities, many teens find a niche of content they like, such as baking, running or dog videos.
Most teenagers are now almost a semester into an entirely in person school year. However, the interactions that people have with one another have permanently changed. There is a persistence of preference for virtual communication among many teenagers, as that is what has consumed their lives for the previous 20 months.
“A lot more communication is done on group chats. And many conversations center around things that are online, like games we play on our phones or videos we saw,” said CHS junior Olivia Nafzger. According to a survey of CHS students, 2 times as many students spend more than 3 hours a day socializing online when compared to online socialization time prior to the pandemic.
Many students struggle to remain focused during in person interactions. “I feel like people feel the need to be on their phones more than they used to,” said McAndrew.
This trend is quite alarming, as in person communication skills are vital not only for returning to school, but also for future social and career prospects. Skills such as eye contact, making phone calls and interacting with new people have been lost or underdeveloped.
Other aspects of in person communication have changed due to the pandemic. “Even though I wasn’t able to talk to my friends in person, it really helped to have my younger brother Michael next to me. To keep those social skills,” said Evra. Due to months spent inside homes with their siblings, many teens report stronger connections with their families.
Many teens are also continuing to spend more time with their friends outside, as infection rates remain high, and as that was what they became accustomed to prior to the availability of vaccines. “I have a friend that during Covid, we would always get coffee and go on a walk together. I wouldn’t say we do that all the time now, but it’s another option that we have,” said Nafzger.
Many students and teachers have reported a social regression, or awkwardness in peer to peer interactions, that stems from a significant dry spell in traditional socialization.
“People have been saying that freshman are way more immature than we would’ve been. I would definitely agree with that,” said McAndrew, “Our last full school year was sixth grade, and that was a really long time ago.” Only seniors at CHS have experienced a full year of high school prior to Covid.
“I have severe social anxiety. So the pandemic really set me back, because I barely spoke at all,” said McDonough. Many teenagers now struggle to order food in restaurants, talk to adults or have difficult conversations with their friends face-to-face.
The continued implementation of universal masking has also impacted teenagers, though to a much lesser extent than young children. “I think people are going to lose practice recognizing facial expressions. It’s a skill that we take for granted with older children. But I also think high school students have enough social experience pre-mask to do ok. It’s the younger kids where we might have more challenges,” said Friedman.
Due to the availability of vaccines for adolescents, many high school students have been able to interact with their peers without masks for several months over the summer and fall. But masks are still required in indoor public spaces and at school. And as cold/flu season approaches, many people may return to masking indoors with others, even in their own homes. This amplifies the challenges that many teens are experiencing as they return to school and more normal forms of socialization.
“I feel like masks are a big issue because you never know if somebody is comfortable with your mask off, yet when you wear a mask it conceals your emotions,” said CHS senior Jack Blase. Especially in school hallways, students and teachers are reduced to scanning eyes, eyebrows and foreheads for facial cues.
Even with vaccines now available to most of the population served by the School District of Clayton, fear and anxiety around Covid remains a part of life. “Though everyone I know is vaccinated, we still carry some of that same fear of interaction,” said CHS freshman Hannah Yurkovich.
Though everyone I know is vaccinated, we still carry some of that same fear of interaction”
— Hannah Yurkovich
Yet, there is a great importance to pushing through that fear and re-learning how to interact with peers. “Push yourself into the uncomfortable, take risks and practice the skills that you may not have been able to practice before,” said Friedman. Having conversations with peers and adults without the aid of technology is vital, even in today’s digital world.
“If everyone is set back, no one is set back,” said McDonough. The awkwardness of social interactions is nearly universal among teenagers. Which further emphasizes the need to practice those interactions and for teenagers to be among their peers.
Much was lost in the almost eighteen months of virtual and hybrid school. Teenagers lost learning, social skills and valuable time in one of the most important phases of their lives. Many teens also struggled with anxiety and depression during this time, problems that persist today. Yet teenagers, developed a sense of awareness about their social needs. Due to isolation, they also learned things about themselves and their coping mechanisms.
“Teenagers are really resilient. I think there were a lot of lessons learned about themselves and their families and their needs. But my greatest concern is mental health challenges,” said Friedman.
Donate to The Globe
Your donation will support the student journalists of Clayton High School. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.
All online comments are reviewed by a member of the editorial staff before being approved. This site is intended to provide information and engage in open and respectful dialogue that is appropriate to the educational environment and fans of all ages. To ensure that exchanges are informative, respectful and lawful, we will NOT post comments that are off topic, spam, personal attacks, illegal, not factual or not appropriate in any other way.