Defining a Generation

The Long-term Impact of COVID-19 on Today’s Youth

By: Ilan Preskovsky

It would be the height of chutzpah for someone like me, someone who is both unmarried and childless, to tell any parent that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the lives of their adolescent or even pre-adolescent kids. So I won’t. I certainly wouldn’t dare to presume to explain to adolescents and children how Covid has affected them. No one needs me to spell out how challenging online school classes are or how disappointing it must be to have machaneh or the start of a gap year/studying at yeshiva overseas yanked from under you at almost literally the very last minute. The last couple of years speak – or, rather, scream – for themselves.

Taking a step back, though, what’s less blindingly obvious is what it all means in the long and medium-term for today’s “pandemic kids” and what our children’s short-term reaction to the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns, social distancing, and general disruptiveness – both in the Jewish and wider worlds – has to tell us about our youngest generation.

I have already written (as recently as last issue, in fact) about the effect that the pandemic has had on our mental health in general and, as a separate matter, about the often disastrous impact of social media on the mental health of children and adolescents, but as it turns out, there’s a lot more to talk about when these subjects are combined.

A Major Israeli Study

While, no doubt, most parents and their teenage children will attest to the obviousness of just how awful Covid has been in terms of living their day-to-day lives – even if the extent and manner in which this is the case will vary between families and individuals – a scientific study on adolescent mental health during the pandemic has yielded some seriously unexpected results.

This study with self-explanatory title of the “Mental health assessment of Israeli adolescents before and during the COVID-19 pandemic”[1] was conducted by a group of researchers in Israel from the KI Research Institute in Kfar-Malal, based on data from Maccabi Healthcare Services in Tel-Aviv (the second largest Health Maintenance Organisation in the country), and it proved to be significant on a number of levels.

First, the researchers decided to forego the usual method associated with such research of conducting surveys with a representative sample of Israeli society for the “quantitative approach” of analysing the medical records of some 200 000 Israelis between the ages of twelve and seventeen from November 2016 to November 2021; paying attention, in particular, to “the incidence rates of psychiatric diagnoses and drugs in Israeli adolescents before and during the COVID-19 pandemic”. In particular, it looked at diagnoses of depressions, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, adjustment to stress and emotional problems, eating disorders, and prescriptions of antidepressants, anxiolytics (anxiety medications), and antipsychotics.

Of those 200 000 Israeli adolescents, around 7,5% were Arabs, 12,5% were Charedim, and the remaining 80% being “general Jews” that, presumably, run the gamut from secular chilonim to Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist with the male/female ratio being pretty evenly split with 51,1% being male.

Based on anecdotal evidence or our own experiences, one would be forgiven for thinking that the results should be more or less uniform across all groups, with there being a sharp up tick in most of these diagnoses during the Covid years. As it turns out, things weren’t quite so simple.

A Strange Discrepancy

To get the obvious out of the way, the pandemic and the constrictive measures put in place to contain it did, in fact, cause a noticeable and detrimental effect on the mental health of the 200 000 adolescents who were the subjects of the study. The change in mental illness diagnoses between 2017 and 2019 were negligible, whereas there was a noticeable rise between 2019 and 2021 in all areas, except the prescription of anxiolytic drugs – but considering how often anxiety disorders are treated with antidepressants that’s hardly surprising.

The other findings, though, were rather less expected. First, the increase was only really applicable to the general Jewish population, with neither the Charedi nor Arab populations showing much of a change from before pandemic times. For the former group, between an unwillingness to close schools and avoidance of secular media, on the one hand, and greater levels of faith in G-d and an existing emphasis on family and community, on the other, meant that the pandemic clearly didn’t hit the mental health of Charedi teenagers anywhere near as hard as it did the rest of the Jewish population in Israel.

Worth noting, though, that within Israeli Charedi society, there is a general reluctance towards seeking psychiatric help, in general. This is a weakness in this study in general that the researchers involved freely admit to: though using psychiatric records provides a more objective measure of the impact of the pandemic on adolescent mental health than subjective surveys, it ignores the significant part of a population that don’t seek professional help or who live just below the threshold of what is required to diagnose someone with a mental illness.

This might go at least some way towards explaining the strangest discrepancy in the results of the study: while there was a major increase in anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and stress in girls, as well as a much higher risk of developing mental illnesses for the first time during the pandemic, this was not reflected in Israeli boys. The study showed a noticeable but significantly smaller rise in anxiety diagnoses in teenage boys and almost no increase in stress, eating disorders, or depression.

Again, the researchers stress that such a discrepancy might simply be the result of the different ways in which teenage boys and girls seek help for their mental health. While girls are much more likely to confide in their parents or even doctors about their psychological struggles, boys are usually sent by their schools for professional counselling or psychiatric intervention, rather than seeking it out themselves. With Israeli teenagers facing recurrent school closures and spending plenty of time in close quarters with their parents, this would explain why the results of this study are as lopsided as they seem.

But perhaps there is more to it than that.

A Watershed Moment for “Gen Z”… and the Creation of “Gen C”?

Though social psychologists have developed more complex and nuanced views on social media after the pandemic all but forced today’s adolescents to rely entirely on social media to interact with friends, schoolmates, family, and teachers, it’s hard to ignore that one social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, noticed even before the pandemic that the increase in mental illness in those born after 1995 (“Gen Z”) affected girls far more than boys – something that he blamed overwhelmingly on the rise of social media. His research was not based on the hard data of medical records but by conducting in-depth and widespread surveys with adolescents themselves, which precludes, to a large extent, the question of the different ways in which boys and girls are professionally diagnosed.

Haidt’s point was simple: there is ample evidence to show that aggressiveness and bullying manifests very differently in girls than it does in boys. While boys express aggression through physical violence, girls do so mentally. Boys will beat each other up, but girls will shame and manipulate each other, psychologically. While the “shame culture” of social media has little effect on the prevalent way in which boys operate, it amplifies the worst kinds of teenage female aggression one-hundred-fold. No less importantly, girls are more sensitive to the sort of constant comparisons, especially physical comparisons, that are offered up by social media. These are, obviously, gross generalisations, but they do point towards general trends that are worth paying attention to.

Obviously, the whole idea of breaking age groups down into specific generations is no exact science and it applies overwhelmingly to Western culture, while being defined almost entirely according to mostly American and sometimes British cultural milestones. Each generation is said to have its own defining moments of crisis with, for example, the Greatest Generation being defined by World War I, Baby Boomers by the Civil Rights movements of the ‘60s, and Millennials by the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. These crisis points also tend to be (not quite exact) demarcation lines between the generations. Gen Z, for example, has been defined as the generation who either weren’t yet born by 9/11 or are too young to remember 9/11 or the world before it.

Though social scientists aren’t quite ready to call the next generation “Generation C” (guess what the ‘C’ stands for), there is a growing consensus that the next generation will probably be defined by those who can’t personally remember much about the world before Covid, and that Gen Z are living during a time right now that will amplify what they know of their present, while defining their future.

While the pandemic itself only buoys their existing belief that their parents and grandparents have neglected and damaged the planet beyond repair, a generation of young people criticised for being overly reliant on social media have been forced to rely on that same social media for everything from social interactions to their education. This would certainly suggest that the lopsided results of that Israeli study are no mere flaw in research methodology, but only more proof of the increasingly outsized part that social media plays in the lives of our young people.

Meanwhile, if Millennials were already the first group of young people in generations to face a reality whereby they are the first generation in decades to be worse-off financially than their parents, the uncertainties of the pandemic have only served to prove to Gen Z that their future is to be even less predictable and less rosy than that.

There is, however, a crucial flip side to all this that has been suggested by some social psychologists as well. COVID-19 and its aftershocks will make things tougher for our young people, but it will also make our young people tougher. It will take a generation that is already engaged in social and political issues and who are already unwilling to rely on the established order for a better tomorrow to become ever more resilient, more passionate, and less willing to take things for granted.

As ever, the future is unwritten, and it is as impossible to predict how Covid will impact today’s adolescents ten, twenty, thirty years from now as it is to predict what they will do with their new reality. One thing is becoming increasingly clear, though: this is only the beginning.


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