On most days, one great pleasure of my job (reading and reporting on psychological science) is learning something new. As Michelangelo said at age 85, “I am still learning.”
A recent example is social psychologist Jean Twenge’s remarkable reports (here and here) of teens’ resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparing national teen surveys from 2018 and 2020, she found that “Teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic.” In fact, “the percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower in 2020.”
Does this surprise you, as it did me? After all, for the past seven months, reports of pandemic-related mental stress have proliferated. “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.,” headlined The Washington Post. Indeed, as the pandemic struck, Gallup surveys found U.S. adults’ quality of life evaluations plummeting, and their worry sharply rising. The Census Bureau reported that a third of Americans were experiencing clinical anxiety or depression. And The Lancet described a similar mental health decline in the U.K.
Moreover, multiple surveys found that those most afflicted were young adults. Mental distress, loneliness, and suicidal ideation rose most sharply among 18- to 29-year-olds. For those who have come to view depression and other disorders as biologically influenced—as syndromes that occur even in happy-seeming environments—the pandemic’s “massive mental health impact” is a reminder of the power of the situation. Significant stresses, and a thwarting of the human need to belong, can be emotionally toxic.
The toll on young adults also reminds us of the importance of face-to-face relationships, especially for younger adults with their many friendships. As Nathan DeWall and I report in Psychology, 13th Edition, older adults “tend to have a smaller social network, with fewer friendships.”
So what gives? Why might teens—pulled from school, separated from friends, so close in age to those struggling young adults—exhibit not only stable, but improved mental health during these trying times?
One factor is more sleep. We know that a full night’s sleep contributes to health and well-being, and that high school teens are commonly sleep-deprived. In the 2018 survey, only 55 percent of American teens reported sleeping 7+ hours per night. In 2020, while homebound during the pandemic—and without needing to rise so early to go to school—84 percent of teens reported getting 7+ nightly hours.
A second seeming factor is family. During the pandemic, 56 percent of teens reported “spending more time talking with their parents,” 54 percent “said their family now ate dinner together more often,” and 68 percent “said their families had become closer during the pandemic.”
So, while the pandemic has taken a huge toll on our lives and livelihoods, the news from teen-world offers a reminder: Sleep and close relationships are vital components of a flourishing life.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)