Are the Kids Really Alright?

by Ariel Visconti

photography by mike Ford

With a large portion of the population now partially or fully vaccinated, Canadians are undoubtedly eager to leave the COVID-19 era behind and resume their lives. But for young people who have had their formative years interrupted, entering post-pandemic life brings unique anxieties about what life will look like.

Long lockdowns during the pandemic have been extremely disruptive to young people. Teens would normally spend this time forming their identities and building independent lives outside of their families. Instead, they’ve spent months under lockdown in their households, missing out not only on celebratory rites of passage and milestones but also on common formative experiences – going to school, engaging in extracurricular activities, getting their first jobs, socializing with friends, and exploring dating and sexuality – that are crucial to their development.

Now that the country is entering post-pandemic life, what impact will this disruption have on teens as they move forward and transition into young adulthood?

York University psychologist Jennifer Connolly is optimistic that any disruption to teens’ social development brought on by the pandemic will be temporary.

“I think it’s more of a pause than a permanent delay for most youth,” she says. “But sometimes there’s growth from stressful experience as well as delay. I’m hopeful kids are going to recover, get back into school, get back with their friends and re-engage, and they’ll start to feel better.”

Connolly is a professor and Psychology Department Chair in York’s Faculty of Health. Her research focuses on social development in adolescence, particularly romantic development, as well as resilience in youth who have experienced adversity.

Dating, an important part of many young people’s lives, has been especially interrupted by the isolation and social distancing that dominated pandemic life. While teens are accustomed to socializing via their smartphones, as Connolly explains, developing or maintaining a romantic relationship without face-to-face contact is inherently difficult, and even more so for young people who are navigating romantic relationships for the first time.

“Youth are used to being in the virtual world and being online and using social media, more so than us, but there’s always the other component of social interaction,” she says. “Even though I think they have some adeptness in that, relationships do not flourish as well without some kind of personal contact.”

Connolly believes that there will be a “resurgence” of young people’s interest in peer and romantic relationships following the pandemic. But she cautions that we must be “very cognizant” of the mental health challenges that the pandemic has caused for young people, including increasing rates of depression and anxiety that may linger.

She notes that the cohort of young people who have graduated from high school and entered post-secondary studies during the pandemic has faced particularly difficult challenges. Making this transition is already stressful, but doing so in an era of online learning, social distancing and lockdowns has completely upended their experience and impacted their ability to enter new social groups and romantic relationships.

“For these youth, this first-year university experience has been like nothing anybody has ever experienced,” she says. “It’s been a very isolating, lonely world. And I think they have especially felt that because they have, in a way, left their high school networks, their high school friendships, and they’re transitioning to university relationships, but that has been very much blocked.”

Similarly, students entering universities this fall, on the heels of the pandemic, may need extra support with the transition. Connolly emphasizes the need for universities to make sure mental health resources and services are available to students who are struggling with transitioning to post-COVID life, and to ensure that they don’t face hurdles like wait-lists when trying to access support.

“I think that their needs are going to be immediate and temporary, and if we can just help them right away with these transitions, that’s going to be really important. I think that universities are very aware of this issue and the resources are being put into place,” she says.

Although it may take time, Connolly is confident that young people will find their footing and bounce back from the challenges they experienced during the pandemic.

“I’m just hopeful that they’re a resilient and capable group of youth, and that, as things open up, they too will re-engage with the world with enthusiasm,” she adds. “I think there’s going to be a slower emergence; I think there will be lingering effects, but I don’t think it’s going to be permanently damaging.”  ■

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