The COVID-19 pandemic will cause long-lasting harm on youth. The good news: we can do something about it.
Girls at a Helsinki youth club. Image: Maarit Hohteri / City of Helsinki.
Family matters too much.
In many cities and countries schools have moved totally or partially to remote teaching. Schooling in this ways demands a lot more support from parents.
It is easier to focus in education if you have your own room, your own computer, when your parents can help you with your homework and when you can afford to take a nice getaway with the entire family over the weekend.
The pandemic has strengthened the impact of family to young people´s futures. The teenagers who were supported at home before the crisis, have mostly been doing well. But the teenagers who did not receive this support from home before the crisis (for multiple reasons — mostly not for the lack of willingness), are falling behind to an even greater extent.
Lack of friends harms development.
Being a teenager is hard. Your hormones are taking over, the influence of family weakens and the influence of friends is growing. You´re trying to figure out who you are, what makes you different and which groups you belong to. You feel like your parents don´t really get you. There are tons of big decisions to make, which seems like matters of life and death.
When you see your friends less than normal, it can feel like you are alone in the world. There´s a good reason why young people´s gatherings in public places have grown bigger than before the pandemic. We see huge group of teenagers in our libraries and youth clubs.
Young people need their friends for their development. Now most of their essential meetings are taken away or judged as unnecessary risks.
Isolation weakens mental health.
The brains of teenagers are vulnerable. Their brains are less equipped to cope with stress than the adult brain.
And it´s not like their load was not heavy enough before this crisis. Big decisions in your personal life, a global pandemic, rising inequality in the world or the climate crisis can feel overwhelming. A lot of teenagers feel like they are personally — and alone — responsible for all the evil in the world. In youth work we meet a lot of teenagers who actually experience feeling of guilt regarding the state of the world and it is not a sentiment adults can explain away.
Remote schooling and shutting down hobbies means less physical activity.
The pandemic decreases the amount of physical activity. In many cities, hobbies are put on hold until the pandemic is over. You don´t take a lot of steps if your way to school is two steps from your bed to your laptop.
Teenagers find ways healthy or unhealthy ways to test their boundaries.
The hormonal rush in young people means that they need ways to channel their energy into something. We see worrying trends of teenager — or even pre-teen — violence in some neighborhoods. Similar reports are heard from other cities.
A lot of teenagers feel that they are living double lives during the pandemic. They are acting out a play for adults and then living their real life with their friends. Of course this has always been the case but the pandemic only heightens this development.
An essential part of adolescence is testing the limits of acceptable behavior. It´s not that you don´t know what is allowed. It´s your brain prioritizing emotions over rational judgement.
This is why a lot of public service announcement and advocacy campaign don´t work for teenagers — and why it is often so difficult for adults to understand teenagers. It´s not that they would not know the dangers of alcohol, drugs, safe sex or speeding. It´s that their brains are in a plasticity phase and primed for excitement.
Media loves moralistic judgement of teenagers.
In many countries the young people and especially young adults are overrepresented in new COVID-19 cases. This has led to the media taking a highly moralistic tone when talking about young people. I have seen multiple articles portraying an entire generation as irresponsible, selfish and careless.
This coverage continues a decades-long tradition of being worried about the corrupt nature of today´s youth. This, at the same time, when most youth statistics and surveys demonstrate that today´s youth exercise more, bully less, drink less alcohol, show more empathy to their fellow people and want to spend more time with their parents than any generation before them.
Pandemic weakens teenagers´ trust in adults.
Today´s young people have been demonstrating on parliament steps and on the streets for bolder action on climate change. They have been calling for tougher gun control after school shootings. The Black Lives Matter movement has mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people. In Helsinki´s youth council, teenagers — regardless of their own sexual orientation — advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.
Even before the pandemic, a lot of young people were losing hope in our political system — and in adults as a whole. In my work I meet tons of young people who feel like adults are either clueless or lying, or both.
And now young people see that we are only willing to take drastic action when we face an immediate threat directly to our own lives, right now. It actually portrays adults as selfish and short-sighted. Efforts of this scale have been deemed as irrealistic when it comes to climate change — a much greater threat of our entire planet. Young people see global solidarity eroding when we are in a real crisis.
Once-in-a-lifetime rituals are reduced to a minimum or cancelled.
Being a teenager is a series of firsts and lasts. Whether we talk about a Jewish bar mitzvah, confirmation camps in Lutheran church, last day of the school year, graduation or moving to a new city for your studies, these are once in a lifetime events. They are days and moments when you step from one phase to the next. Rituals are essential rites of passage as they mark the ending of something and the beginning of something else. They create life-long memories. They remind you that you are surrounded by people who love you and support you.
Many of these rituals have been reduced to a minimum or even cancelled. On a rational level it is understandable that we need to minimize contacts and this is not the time for big parties and celebrations. But we do need to take note that these moments are crucial for teenagers in reminding them that they are not alone and that they matter.
Even before the pandemic a lot of young people saw the labour market as scary, unequal and risky. In universities we see people stalling graduation when they are not sure that they have what it takes.
The pandemic has hit hard on business sectors that employ young people for entry level jobs: hotels, tourism, catering, events and festivals, arts and culture, restaurants and bars. There will be much less summer jobs and internships, especially for under-aged employees. In many companies, it is the most junior employees who are the first to go in lay-offs and furloughs. Many young people are now graduating into unemployment.
Young people employed by the City of Helsinki to bag face masks to be handed out to people in need. Image: Virpi Peltola / City of Helsinki.
10 things we can do about this:
Give positive recognition.
Demonstrate extraordinary kindness to the young people around you. Say out loud what you see as their positive character features. Take note when they are good at something. Offer support and help and show example that it is OK to ask for help.
Go for a walk or a bike ride or bake together. In my years in youth work, I have learned that it is easier for a lot of teenagers to talk when you are doing something else and there´s not awkward silences and staring eye-to-eye.
Create volunteering opportunities.
As Aristotle says, a good life is being able to use your skills to benefit your community. The best way to tackle the overwhelming apocalyptic anxiety is collective action. Create possibilities for volunteering in school, in your neighborhood or extended family.
Friends are not “just” friends for teenagers, they are quintessential for supporting mental health and personal development. Create safe possibilities for hanging out. Give young people space and privacy. Make a pizza for your teenager and his/her friends and leave for the evening.
Take care of celebrating the big moments — even if your teenager says it is not that important. Organize events outside, do a Zoom hangout, rent a bigger space for the gathering, create time slots for your guests. Call your friend´s kid on their big day. Even if the phone call might be awkward, they will remember it.
Invest in mental health.
Support policies and donate money to NGOs the provide easy-access mental health support for teenagers and young adults. Chat-based services, like Sekasin Chat , are easier for a lot of teenagers who struggle with calling people.
6. Incentivize creation of entry-level jobs.
Governments need targeted efforts to support young people´s access to the labour market. And we need to be smart about it.
Helsinki has successfully created a Summer Job Voucher , which is given to every teenager graduating from basic education (15-year-olds). This allows young people to find a summer job, which is partly subsidized by local government. By lowering the threshold for employment, we have created hundreds of new entry-level summer job.
Over the last couple of years in Helsinki´s Job´d initiative, we have also managed to create entry-level jobs for events and elderly care for 1 200 young adults by partnering up with Helsinki-based startup Treamer , festival organizers, World War II veteran support NGOs and the city´s elderly care.
Support teachers and schools.
The pandemic is incredibly tough on the education system. A lot of teachers have been forced to learn completely new ways of teaching overnight. The pandemic emphasizes the inequalities in the classroom. A lot of teachers have sleepless nights for feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. It is understandable that everything will not be perfect. But it does not mean that teachers would not be doing their best.
When we are overwhelmed, very few of us get better if we create more pressure. What teachers need is support and encouragement. Think how you can support your own child´s learning by giving positive feedback to his or her teacher.
Avoid moralistic talk.
Focus on understanding teenagers and creating safer spaces for sharing their thoughts. Count to ten before you react to their actions or ideas. Ask follow-up questions before you give your take on things. Don´t share alarmist articles of teenagers being corrupt and reckless. Some are but most are not.
Keep hobbies going.
In Finland the government has strongly emphasized the importance of children and young people´s hobbies. Every child and teenager needs other teenagers and other trusted adults to support their development. Hobbies are essential in understanding the idea of collective achievement, in building resilience and in recognizing your talents and interests.
Push for affirmative action.
The greatest impact of the pandemic on teenagers is that it speeds up the polarization amongst our youth. Even more than before the pandemic, we need targeted efforts to level the playing field. We need to be bold enough to say that some need more than others to have an equal starting point into adulthood. Cities need to be vocal in investing in opportunities in neighborhoods with higher crime, unemployment or immigration rates.
Push for bolder, global action on climate change.
This pandemic should wake us to the fact that we are able to change course if push comes to shove. This is the moment when we as adults need to demonstrate that we use this momentum to build a more sustainable future — on a personal, local, national and global level. As we are doing major public recovery investments, we need to do them so that they help us in making taking care of this one planet we have. We have a moral responsibility to do that.
Job´d is Helsinki´s initiative to support young migrants´ access to the labour market. Most of the jobs are created in events and in elderly care.
(This post was inspired by a talk Helsinki´s Director of Youth Affairs Mikko Vatka gave to Helsinki region´s leadership on 30 October 2020.)