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Column: Teens grapple with impact of differing COVID-19 responses

For the Valley News
Published: 4/3/2021 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 4/3/2021 10:10:14 PM

“Fun,” I sarcastically wrote, is more important than “protecting other people’s lives, am I right folks?” Clearly, I got a little carried away in a group chat recently, responding to a message from a guy I didn’t know who was describing his “fun” travel plans.

I instantly regretted my tone, surprised at how quickly I became enraged about this detail from a stranger’s life. But this immediate, angry reaction is something to which I have become accustomed over the last few months, as the divide between some of my friends and me about the importance of COVID-19 precautions has grown wider.

Teens, myself included, are hardwired to resist following rules, especially those that restrict socializing. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, some are resisting their primal urges for rebellion and independence and engaging in some unnatural and unpleasant behaviors — like sheltering in place and turning down invitations to parties.

What, I wondered, is the impact of these conflicting behaviors on individuals and relationships?

It makes sense that some teens find it nearly impossible to social distance. It is well-known that we are the age group most likely to take risks, as Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg found in a recent study. And, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told us, young people are less likely to develop serious COVID-19 infections.

Thus, being told that our risk is lower isn’t exactly going to inspire a sudden affinity for taking precautions.

It is also the case that my generation’s mental health has taken a beating since the pandemic began. In a recent NPR article, psychologist Marisol Cruz Romero of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland cited social isolation as one of the highest risk factors for suicide. Being alone is hard, and antithetical to the very nature of teenagers, which makes obeying a mandate for social isolation a difficult task.

What about the teenagers who diligently adhere to COVID-19 precautions? Some have not entered a store for a year and have remained 6 feet from their friends, visiting only outdoors, even throughout the winter. Are we biologically unnatural? Maybe, as we choose to suppress our need for freedom and independence — and our selfishness — in favor of social responsibility.

But that comes at a cost. The widening gap between cautious and less-cautious teenagers has its own set of detrimental effects, on top of those associated with COVID-19 itself.

Many of us who find ourselves at home experience a mix of disappointment, jealousy and guilt for feeling jealousy, frustration and even anger when we see our friends posting on social media from beaches or restaurants. Those of us going to beaches may be leaving our more cautious friends behind, resulting in lost connections. These feelings and losses only add to the emotional toll that COVID-19 has taken.

There is also a significant amount of judgment, and it’s coming from both sides. COVID-cautious teens seem to view their less-cautious friends as anything from slightly reckless to morally reprehensible. Less-cautious teens seem to view their more-cautious friends as anywhere from silly to un-friend-able.

These differences spark emotional responses — like mine in the group chat.

I did apologize for my reaction, telling the person whose travel plans had made me so angry that while I regretted lashing out at him so rudely, I also disagreed with his choices and hoped he would consider the broader potential consequences.

It may be that I got so angry — and by extension, why this divide is so great — because COVID-19 seems to bring to the surface a fundamental tension usually hidden within teenagers: When should we act in our own interests, and when should we act in the interest of others? As we become adults, we are asked to relinquish our childhood egocentrism in favor of altruism — a task easier said than done. COVID-19 precautions demand we make that transition more quickly, and some of us quite understandably struggle with that more than others.

So how can we encourage teens to act cautiously without attacking their legitimate desire for self-determination? Humanizing the statistics around COVID-19 is, to me, a powerful motivator.

As of this writing, 564,938 Americans have died due to COVID-19. (When I wrote the first draft of this essay, in the middle of March, the number was 536,751. Almost 30,000 lives lost in little more than two weeks).

This is terrifying, but not as compelling as telling the story of, for example, someone who had to say goodbye to a parent through a window because it was too dangerous to go in and kiss them one last time.

No one, regardless of how cautious they are or aren’t, wants to be responsible for death. That can be a real motivator.

Weathering this pandemic is hard enough without the collateral damage caused by judgment, disagreement and lost friendships. As vaccine distribution increases, I think it will be even harder for us to remain vigilant, but arguably these next few months are the most crucial. I hope we can come through, if not for our sake, then for the sake of others.

Shira Hoffer, of Hanover, is taking a gap year before enrolling at Harvard College in the fall. She is engaged in several remote internships related to social justice and has been connecting with herself and her family during the pandemic. Email her at shoffer@college.harvard.edu.




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