Just a few weeks ago, the conversation in my household revolved around one thing: Where my daughter was going to college. She’s a senior in high school, high-achieving, and very driven. We spent the fall slaving over college essays and applications, 11 in total. The wait to hear from the schools she applied to was agonizing for her, and even though today’s college admissions messaging is fully electronic, she would even bring in the mail at the end of each day—otherwise unheard of in our household—to see if there was something from a school waiting for her.
Now all we talk about is Covid-19.
The coronapocalypse has been devastating for us adults, but its impact on teenagers is arguably far greater. At age 48, I’ve seen a fair number of society’s ups and downs. I was born during Watergate, panicked about nuclear holocaust thanks to The Day After as a tween, and watched the first Gulf War unfold on the televisions in my college’s student union. Sure, I wasn’t standing in bread lines or facing the firebombing of my city, but the last 48 years have had their share of tragedy and upheaval.
Zoe was born in 2002, a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Things were looking up at the time, and they’ve stayed pretty rosy by comparison. Yes, we had the invasion of Iraq, the spike in school shootings, climate change, the 2008 housing crisis, and #MeToo, but we also had an unprecedented explosion in both creativity and commerce. All of the tech services we now love, from Facebook to Netflix, got started in these years. Barack Obama was president—for eight years. The iPhone was invented, and they got Osama bin Laden.
Even the election of Donald Trump couldn’t take much of the shine off the last two decades. As of 2019, our “Goldilocks economy” was seeing the lowest level of unemployment since 1969, minimal inflation, and a stock market at its all-time high. Not only was Zoe going to college, we were going to be able to pay for it and she was going to be able to get a job when she graduated.
In the space of a few weeks, none of those things are certain any more, and it’s hitting her hard.
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Everyone has had to abruptly adapt to “the new normal,” and my initial thought was that kids would take it all in stride. My daughter spends the vast majority of her free time in her room, on her bed, staring at her phone. Would shelter-in-place be any different, aside from not going to school for a few hours a day?
It is, and the impact on Zoe has been profound. She was devastated by the news, and she recently—after more than two weeks into stay-at-home restrictions—spoke to me about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the experience. “I’m trying to deal with the fact that my high school career is over,” she says. “Losing track and field, prom, and graduation sucks. And there’s no way to cope with it because I’m just never going to get to do those things. It feels like the last four years of hard work have been for nothing.”
I was suddenly facing the reality that not only were teens ill-equipped for this crisis, they’re actually in a much worse position than adults. There’s science behind this idea, as Psychology Today writer Christine L. Carter notes: “Teenagers and college students have amplified innate, developmental motivations that make them hard to isolate at home. The hormonal changes that come with puberty conspire with adolescent social dynamics to make them highly attuned to social status and peer group.”
Plus, they can’t even drink.
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I spoke to nearly a dozen high school students from all over the country and they overwhelmingly echoed the above sentiments. They were taking it in stride to varying degrees, but many were fatalistic about the future. They mourn the losses of (in order of increasing importance) prom, school groups, sports, and graduation. They hang out on video apps and social media with their friends, but they miss seeing them in person. And they miss the ritual of going to class and hanging out with people they’ve known for years, even if they’ve never been close friends.
Here’s some select commentary.
“When you’re in school you only think about going home,” says Emma (17, Novato, California, a classmate of Zoe’s), “and now that you’re home, going to school is all you want to do.”
Jackson (16, Greenville, South Carolina) misses other rituals. “I miss sitting down in a restaurant with my family, which we used to do every Friday night,” he says. “I just didn’t realize how much I’d miss ‘normal life.’”
Zia (16, Denver), a junior who has yet to take any of her college entrance exams, characterizes her mental condition as “stressed” and “getting worse every day” as the crisis shows no signs of abatement.
Kam (17, New York) says he’s keeping busy at home but, as a graduating senior, is “kind of freaked out about going to college after this. I’m an only child going from living with no one to living in a dorm.”
These are all common sentiments. A new study polled students aged 13 to 25 about their current mood, and the top three results were “frustrated” (54 percent), “nervous” (49 percent), and “disconnected” (40 percent). Teens are anxious, they are upset, and they are nostalgic … for February 2020.