Social Distancing Is a Special Kind of Hell for Gen Z

Teens and young adults are cooped up at home to avoid a disease they aren’t convinced will affect them. Here’s how to help them understand and cope.

Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Stringer/Getty Images

If you wanted to design a highly effective medieval torture device for teens and young adults, it would look a lot like our new normal. It’s the ultimate in being grounded, because everyone else is grounded too.

It’s difficult for most people to remain at home indefinitely. But being forced to stay home, away from friends and favorite hangouts, is undoubtedly a special kind of hell for most teens and young adults, especially those who have returned home from college and are doing distance learning while having to unexpectedly live with their parents again.

It’s also hard for many in this age group to take the pandemic seriously. Though it’s certainly not true of everyone under age 30, perceived invincibility remains a common characteristic of adolescence and young adulthood. And according to a Swytchback survey of 20,000 teens and young adults (ages 16–30) on March 20, nearly half didn’t see the Covid-19 pandemic as “very serious.” Though the proportion of young adults who consider it very serious increased from 51% to 63% during a second survey April 6, more than a third still don’t grasp the gravity of the situation.

The emphasis on older age as a risk factor for hospitalization or death may also have misled younger people into thinking they’re safer from the disease than they actually are. In the initial March 20 survey, 59% of respondents didn’t know that four in 10 people with Covid-19 ages 20–54 need to be hospitalized. And the percentage who knew that fact barely dropped, to 52%, in the follow-up survey April 6.

Perceived invincibility remains a common characteristic of adolescence and young adulthood.

Helping them understand

If you have young adults in your home, a few things might help drive home the gravity of the current situation while also helping them cope with it. Research suggests that people fare better in quarantine situations when they know what’s going on in the world around them, explained Jessica Gold, MD, MS, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

“It’s important for parents to explain what’s going on and have a conversation about it with their kids,” Gold says. “Risk is a very important point to convey, not just to themselves, but to others.” Online videos, such as this one using matches, this one using Ping-Pong balls and mousetraps, and this animation on Twitter from dietitian Lucy Fry, explain social distancing well and break it down in fun ways that may feel more relatable. “Hearing stories of younger people getting sick, and the possibility that they could get seriously ill, might help as well,” Gold says.

Discussing news articles about the pandemic, such as ones describing the damage the disease can cause and how undercounted deaths likely are, can drive home how bad the situation is in places like New York City, thereby emphasizing the importance of social distancing to reduce the disease’s spread elsewhere. Research has shown that articles with personal stories, such as the choir rehearsal in Washington that tragically spread Covid-19 or the stories of younger Americans dying, tend to resonate with people more than stories containing just facts and statistics, Gold says.

At the same time, don’t overdo it: A recent paper from China, though not yet peer-reviewed, found that more than three hours a day of exposure to Covid-19 news increases the risk of anxiety symptoms — though for many, it likely doesn’t require even that much to raise anxiety levels.

Another way to drive home the importance of staying home and away from others is the Social Distance Game, an online tool that lets users choose how much contact will be reduced and how soon, and then runs a simulation to show how many lives that reduction will save.

It’s also helpful to remind young adults how easy it is to catch the disease and pass it on before they realize they have it. Check out this article from BuzzFeed reporter Alex Campbell, who thought he was taking all the necessary precautions to keep himself and others safe — until he realized he may have exposed others when he went out for fun anyway.

Finally, after any younger children have gone to bed, consider a family movie night that brings the pandemic to your living room. You could start with the Netflix documentary miniseries Pandemic, which, as it happens, began airing just before the current pandemic began.

If you prefer fiction, the most scientifically accurate — and eerily similar to the Covid-19 pandemic — is the 2011 film Contagion. In fact, Kate Winslet’s character was modeled after real-life CDC official Anne Schuchat, the one who spoke at one of the earliest press conferences on the coronavirus and who is heading up the response at the CDC right now. NPR has a great fact-checking article that explains what the movie gets right and wrong.

Other pandemic films, such as Outbreak (about a disease more similar to Ebola) and Children of Men, are either unrealistic or futuristic, but they can certainly help shift your frame of mind when you’re watching something that even somewhat resembles our current situation.

But if teens still try to insist on going out, parents have to be firm. “This is a really hard conversation, but at a certain point, we might all have no choice but to do things like setting hard and fast rules about not leaving the home and taking the keys,” Gold says. “Ideally, this isn’t the place to start, though, since often kids don’t take it seriously because it does not feel immediate to them or a risk to them, or they might not understand it.”

Of course, in some families, the problem isn’t so much conveying the seriousness of the situation; it’s more about simply dealing with all the stress and uncertainty.

Managing the tensions of moving back home

For those in college who had to return to their parents’ home, the adjustment can be frustrating, Gold says. “A particular tension of college-aged kids coming home unexpectedly for the semester is that part of the collegiate experience is identity formation outside the home. Going back home for an extended period of time, under the same rules, always around parental influence, can feel like a regression.”

Parents need to recognize that their child is not in high school anymore, Gold says. She recommends thinking carefully about interacting with young adult kids given how unfamiliar house rules may feel to them. “This might include giving them more independence and time to themselves as well,” she says. “Communication is key, including even expressing why this can feel hard for you as a parent or college-aged person and why something different needs to be put in place.”

A particular tension of college-aged kids coming home unexpectedly for the semester is that part of the collegiate experience is identity formation outside the home. Going back can feel like a regression.

College students may also be coming home to a place that does not feel safe or secure to them. ”Sometimes it is the origin of trauma, or a source of anxiety or depression, and going home might worsen some of these things,” Gold says. Young adults should recognize that possibility and “try to find ways to healthily cope with the unplanned added stressors,” including seeking professional help if needed. Most counselors aren’t seeing people in person, but telehealth counseling services are available.

How parents can regain their sanity

“First, it is okay to admit to yourself that this is hard and that you may get a lot less accomplished right now, but that does not make you less of a successful parent, employee or human,” Gold says. “Be kind to yourself. This is a really hard time, and balancing everything is unprecedented.”

If you haven’t already set up a schedule, try setting one up now — or revamp it if a previous one isn’t working for everyone — for adults, small kids, teens, and young adults.

“You can have times when you interact with each other but also have times set aside to get work done yourself,” allowing parents and kids to “have daily structure and get work done,” Gold says. “It won’t be perfect, but it will help.”

Finally, look after yourself. “Always take time for self-care,” Gold says. “This might have to happen when your kids are sleeping or when you can actually be alone, but take time for yourself and something you enjoy, even if it is simple, like taking a bath.”

Tara Haelle is a science journalist, public speaker, and author of Vaccination Investigation and The Informed Parent. Follow her at @tarahaelle.

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