What Isolation Has Done, How In-Person School Can Help

Dr. Delaney Ruston – I am concerned about our youth, and science substantiates my worries as studies are reporting very high rates of mental health challenges. Not long ago, results from a national survey of teens were published that used standardized screening measures for depression and anxiety symptoms. The results were staggering: 55% of teens had significant symptoms related to depression and 48% for anxiety. Protracted social media use and extended time feeling lonely were significantly associated with depression and anxiety symptoms. 

Some kids and teens have managed to keep meaningful connections while being safe, but many have not. Several teens in my clinic have talked to me about their profound sense of isolation. 

Schools around the country are shifting to more in-person school time — giving millions of kids more chances to be on campus together with peers, teachers, counselors, coaches, and so forth. This is exciting. 

What can we do right now to help our kids start to feel less lonely, reduce time on social media as they transition into in-person school?

I’m calling on everyone — young and old, schools and homes — to band together to find solutions. I have lots of ideas I explore with you today.

But first, two parents shared their surprise about their kids’ worries and preferences around returning to in-person school after a year away.

A friend in California who is the father of twin 8th graders told me how he thought his kids would be so excited to be on campus with others. His kids were put into small pods with other classmates for two days a week. The dad was shocked when his kids started begging to stay home. They told him they were disappointed because they had no friends in their pods and preferred to stay home where they could connect with their friends during breaks on social media. My friend said that they also added that they had grown accustomed to doing school from the comfort of their couch and beds

Meanwhile, Lisa, my Screenagers’ co-producer, has been talking with her daughter, a senior in high school transitioning back to school who has all sorts of new concerns. 

“She’s nervous (as a SENIOR) for the first time in high school about who she’ll sit with. Her school always had an open campus, but now everyone has to stay on campus all day. This issue of who sits with who is new. She is also apprehensive about seeing people for the first time in the year who she used to be friends with, but things have changed over the pandemic, and she’s unsure what the dynamic will be.” 

Here are some suggestions to consider:

When kids have opted to continue remote learning because of social fears, let them know…

  1. It is normal to have a lot of anxious feelings right now. Many people of all ages are struggling with being around others. (Two days ago, an adult friend said to me, “I was at the farmer’s market, and I felt so overwhelmed being around all those people that  I wanted to turn around and head right home.)
  2. Besides normalizing their feelings, help them recall times they have mastered the nerve to enter other socially challenging times — such as a sleep-away camp or starting a new school. You could say something like, “Even though it was hard, you not only got through it, but you made so much of it work out.” 
  3. If your kids continue to choose remote learning, work with them to find ways to be with friends, younger kids, and adults after school time. Socially engineering ways they can have in-person time is key.  For example, invite a family over you all used to hang out with for an outside dinner. 
  4. Consider letting them know there are many people of all ages experiencing loneliness, and having time with them (i.e., your child) can help diminish those feelings. Kids love to be needed — but, of course, don’t “guilt trip” them.

If kids opt to stay home, can they meet daily with a friend to do school together?

Isabel, a 16-year-old, told me: 

“My school is transitioning into full-time in-person, but with the option for students to stay fully online. We have been online for most of the year and recently in a hybrid model. For support with online school, I would do my classes with one friend who lives down my street. It helped keep school a social thing, and it kept my morale up.” 

Let our middle and high schools know that allowing social time is critical 

Yesterday, I ran into a beloved math teacher from my daughter’s former high school. He has two children in elementary school, and he told me, “What I worry about now with my high school is that there is all this focus to cram in as much academics as possible. Yet what is key is SEL[social and emotional learning] time. I think it is so much better what I’m seeing with my kids and their elementary school — the school intentionally has lots of time for social time. I worry we aren’t going to pay enough attention to that at our school.” 

Remember that school time will get easier and better with time 

Many kids tell me that the wearing of masks at school is challenging, even now with the CDC changing the safe distance from 6 feet to 3 feet. It’s hard to hear people and just overall more awkward. Yes, it is not optimal, but we must help our kids remember that there is a lot of value in being around others. 

Letting our schools know that having phones put away for all, or at least some of the day, is critical.

Our Away For The Day initiative to have phones away during school has many studies showing how this helps our kids’ social and emotional well-being. Now more than ever, it is important to have time off social media and off screens in general so to have more time to connect face-to-face with peers, teachers, coaches, etc. Check out the initiative, and it is full of resources to bring to your school and discuss how phones should get handled this spring or this fall.  

Here are a few questions to get the conversation started:

  1. What do you think about the associations of 1. loneliness and 2. time on social media and the increased chance of reporting depression and anxiety symptoms?
  2. Who is a teacher you are glad to see in person? Or if you are not back to school, who will be a teacher you will want to see in person in the future? 
  3. Given all the isolation students have had, do you think middle and high schools should proactively ensure students have more face-to-face social time than usual? 
  4. Do you have any friends who act like they are not ever lonely, but you suspect otherwise?
  5. If your school allows choosing remote or not, what percentage of students do you think are choosing which?