This report was co-authored by AEI Visiting Scholar W. Bradford Wilcox and Jean M. Twenge, Sarah M. Coyne, and Jason S. Carroll.
In March 2020, life changed very suddenly for Americans. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, work and school moved online, restaurants closed, and unemployment soared. The effects on mental health were immediate: U.S. adults in spring 2020 were three times more likely to experience mental distress, anxiety, or depression than adults in 2018 or 2019.1,2
As spring turned to summer, the arrest of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers resulted in his death. Soon afterward, racial tensions hit a boiling point and protests gripped the country. According to data collected by the Census Bureau, anxiety and depression rose even further among American adults in June and July 2020.3
How American teenagers have fared during this time is more of a mystery. With teens no longer going to school and often not able to see friends, many people worried about how teens would adapt. However, teens’ experiences of these events may differ from adult perceptions. Just as children, adolescents, and adults responded differently to the disruptions of the Great Depression in the 1930s,4
teens have faced a different set of challenges and opportunities during the months of the pandemic and protests than have adults.
To better understand the experiences of teenagers during this unique time, we fielded our Teens in Quarantine survey of 1,523 U.S. teens during May–July 2020, asking about their mental health, family time, sleep, technology use, and views on the race-related protests and the police. We then compared our 2020 teens’ responses to responses to identical questions from the 2018 administration of the national Monitoring the Future survey.5 Responses from 2018, before COVID-19 existed, served as a useful control for investigating the effects of quarantine on teens. Like Monitoring the Future, our survey gathered responses from 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. (See more about our methods in the appendix.)
To our surprise, we found that teens fared relatively well during quarantine. Depression and loneliness were actually lower among teens in 2020 than in 2018, and unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life were only slightly higher. Trends in teens’ time use revealed two possible reasons for the unexpectedly positive outcomes: Teens were sleeping more and spending more time with their families.
Despite worries that they would spend even more time on digital media than before the pandemic, teens in 2020 — at least during the school year — spent less time on social media and gaming than had teens in 2018. However, they did increase their consumption of TV and videos.
While the overall trends for mental health and screen time are encouraging, these patterns were not uniform across all teens. In particular, overall mental health was significantly better for teens in two-parent families, both before and during the pandemic. Teens who spent more time with their families during the pandemic and who felt their families had grown closer were less likely to be depressed. Thus, it appears that one of the primary foundations for teen resilience during the pandemic is family support and connection.
About half of the teens in our sample completed the survey after the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd had spread nationwide, giving us the opportunity to gauge their reactions. Compared to teens in 2018, teens in June/ July 2020 were more likely to believe that Black-White race relations had grown worse. Most teens supported the protests, but most also felt anxiety and worry associated with these events.
Overall, our results reveal a nuanced picture of teens during the pandemic quarantine: They were resilient yet worried, isolated yet connected to family, and well-rested yet concerned.
Download the full report here
- McGinty, E. E., Presskreischer, R., Han, H., & Barry, C. L. (2020). Psychological distress and loneliness reported by U.S. adults in 2018 and April 2020. Journal of the American Medical Association, E1–E2.
- Twenge, J. M., & Joiner, T. E. (in press). U.S. Census Bureau–assessed prevalence of anxiety and depressive symptoms in 2019 and during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Depression and Anxiety.
- National Center for Health Statistics (2020). Mental health: Household Pulse Survey. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm .
- Elder, G. H. (2018). Children of the Great Depression. 25th edition. New York: Routledge.
- Johnston, L. D., Bachman, J. G., O’Malley, P. M., Schulenberg, J. E., & Miech, R. A. (2019). Monitoring the Future: A continuing study of American youth (12th grade surveys; 8th- and 10th-grade surveys), 2018. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.