In a new Viewpoint opinion piece published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, experts urge policymakers to consider the effects of COVID-19 physical distancing measures on young people’s social development and well-being.
The authors warn that adolescence is a sensitive period in young people’s lives when their social environment and interactions with peers are important for brain development, mental health and developing a sense of self.
The experts argue that reduced face-to-face social contact with peers may interrupt this and could have long-term detrimental effects.
In addition, they say adolescence is a period of increased vulnerability to mental health problems, with 75% of adults who have ever had a mental health condition reporting that they first experienced symptoms before age 24.
“Owing to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many young people around the world currently have substantially fewer opportunities to interact face-to-face with peers in their social network at a time in their lives when this is crucial for their development,” said lead author, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK.
“Even if physical distancing measures are temporary, several months represents a large proportion of a young person’s life. We would urge policymakers to give urgent consideration to the well-being of young people at this time.”
The authors also discuss how the use of digital technologies and social media might reduce some of the negative effects of social distancing, by helping to maintain social connections between young people and their peers, but more research is needed.
“Evidence suggests that the type of digital technology and how it is used are important for how beneficial it is to an adolescent’s wellbeing,” said Dr. Amy Orben, a co-author from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge.
“For example, some studies have shown that active social media use, such as messaging or posting directly on another person’s profile, increases well-being and help maintain personal relationships. However it has been suggested that passive uses of social media, such as scrolling through newsfeeds, negatively influence well-being.”
In general, many questions about the effects of physical distancing on young people remain unanswered, and there is little understanding about how other stressors experienced during the COVID-19 crisis may be affecting young people, such as economic pressures, uncertainty and loss of public events marking key rites of passage.
Still, the authors argue that policymakers should give urgent consideration to young people when considering easing of physical distancing measures, and that reopening schools and other social environments for young people should be a priority when it is considered safe to do so.
“It is important to note that physical distancing measures may not affect all young people in the same way,” said Dr. Livia Tomova, one of the authors of the Viewpoint, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Adolescents living in a family environment, who have positive relationships with the parents, carers or siblings, may be less affected than those who do not have positive family relationships or are living alone.”
“Given the widespread use of physical distancing policies worldwide, there is an urgent need to understand the short and long-term effects of reduced face-to-face social interaction and increased use of digital technologies on human adolescent development and mental health.”
The authors’ Viewpoint is based on a review of peer-reviewed studies on social isolation and adolescence in animals, the social development of young people (aged 10-24), as well as studies of social media use in adolescence and mental health.
The researchers reviewed animal studies looking at severe isolation and found that even short periods of social isolation during adolescence (in mice or rats) can be tied to substantial and potentially long-term effects in the chemistry and structural development of the brain of these animals.
However, the authors found few studies into the effects of social isolation on humans. There was some evidence that extreme social isolation is linked to increased distress, depression, aggression and self-harm in adults, and these effects may be amplified in younger people. But such studies have been conducted in situations of much more extreme isolation (such as solitary confinement in prisons) than the reduced social interaction associated with physical distancing.
Some studies show that acute social isolation in adult humans leads to increased feelings of loneliness, craving for social contact, and decreased happiness, in addition to changes in brain activity. But the authors say that more research is needed.
The authors conclude that some aspects of digital communication might help reduce the consequences of physical distancing, and they recommend further research to investigate this possibility. They also say that governments need to address the digital divide by supporting access to digital connection in families regardless of income or location.