How social isolation and endless zoom meetings impact mental health

As area schools—including—Burke face the difficult decision of whether (and when) to bring students back to campus, one important consideration is student mental health. In a study by the Harris Poll and 4-H Clubs, 55% of teens (ages 13-19) said they’ve experienced anxiety since the pandemic began, 45% reported excessive stress, and 43% said they had felt depression. In addition, 61% of teens said that COVID-19 pandemic has increased their feeling of loneliness.

Those figures are not surprising to some teens. “I’ve been feeling somewhat socially isolated,” said Nathan Weisbrod ’21. “Every exchange has a ‘send’ or ‘enter meeting’ button, so the spontaneity is lost. Occasionally online kind of bums me out and other than the trees outside, there’s not much but the internet to help me regain my energy and positive attitude. There are definitely ups and downs.”

According to Lucy Kernan-Schloss, Burke’s School Counselor, these experiences are typical for many teens. “I think socially it’s been really difficult to be away from the support they get by being with peers both in school and out of school,” she said. Kernan-Schloss does not think Zoom can fill that void. “I think what’s interesting about Zoom in terms of social interaction is that it limits what we show of ourselves,” she explained. “It’s very hard to be spontaneous on Zoom,” she said, echoing Weisbrod. “It’s very rigid in what it allows us to do and that’s not how we interact when we are face-to-face.”

Other mental health professionals expressed similar concerns. “Adolescence is one of the most developmentally sensitive and challenging stages of life,” said Jennifer Finkel, a psychiatrist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Finkel thinks it’s very important for schools to keep that in mind as they contemplate whether and how to reopen. “In an already technologically-obsessed culture,” she said, “one has to ask: will there be deleterious psychological effects on adolescents’ mental well-being in the longer-term, and would reliance on socially isolated learning be sacrificing our children’s mental health for their physical health?”

James Huntington, a Bethesda psychologist, has similar worries about “Zoom fatigue,” which he describes as “the inability to sustain concentration looking at screens all day in comparison with  sustaining concentration when sitting in a classroom where there is greater multi-sensory stimulation all around you.” According to Huntington, “It is hard to stay alert just sitting there and listening to a teacher lecture. And, where is the humor and laughter? Most of the teens I talk with tell me they are not laughing and having much fun these days.” 

Huntington is particularly concerned about students with ADHD and executive function challenges. “In an obvious and direct way, those teens with any degree of executive functioning and/or attention skills deficits, and this is a large category, are now even more greatly challenged trying to navigate school websites to find homework assignments and due dates,” he explained. As a result, “their grades are a reflection of not just how well they understand the class subject material but also by how well they can navigate their school online homework systems.”

Interestingly, some students are enjoying remote schooling and finding it less academically and socially stressful. “For some it’s a relief not to have to interact with as many people in one day as you do when you are at Burke,” said Kernan-Schloss. These students may face a different challenge: getting used to being back in a bustling school building. “I must say I have some concern for how the re-entry will go for those students,” she added, “because it will be a lot to reintegrate into their every day.”

For those who crave more social interaction, however, Kernan-Schloss has several tips. First, she suggests that students should do homework together “side by side on your computer, so at least you can chat. That kind of thing can be hard to arrange, but well worth doing.” She also thinks that “safe pods,” where students interact in person with one or two other teens in their neighborhood, are really important. And finally, even though mental health professionals usually criticize social media, she says that “this is one time in our lives when texting and social media have really helped people. We worry about it being too much but without it the isolation of the pandemic would have been a whole lot harder.” Kernan-Schloss also says that one silver lining of the pandemic is that teens have been able to spend more time with their families. 

  In considering a hybrid schedule, she said the main consideration in deciding whether to bring students back to campus has to be physical health, not mental health, although mental health is obviously very important. Some students have said they are worried that the hybrid schedule will be stressful and actually make life more difficult, but others support it. 

Liam Donovan ‘21 says that he is concerned about the stresses of a hybrid schedule, since students will have to commute to school, while taking courses that are normally a year long but have now been compressed into a semester. “It will give more opportunities to ask questions and interact with classmates,” he said, but he also noted that “there would be much less time to work on the larger workload due to commuting time, considering the accelerated pace of content due to the shortened schedule.”

Sigita Puskorius ‘21 similarly said, “I don’t think it will be helpful because it’s very confusing and I think it’s going to slow down all my classes and the pacing for the classes a lot.”

Lara Catalina-Rebucci ‘22 said upperclassmen are feeling a lot of stress, and that “distance learning will never be as good as in person,” but she also said that “Burke has done a pretty good job at getting organized, especially compared to last year.” Catalina-Rebucci supports a hybrid model because “we don’t get as much out of online education, especially for art classes and some science classes.”

Huntington says that students in other schools that have recently adopted hybrid models have shared with him “how awesome it is to be back in school.” As a teen psychologist, that is not something he is used to hearing. “This is clearly an observation they would otherwise not be inclined to make in that pre-pandemic world we used to live in,” he added.

Editor’s Note: Burke recently announced a revised reopening plan at a second round of community Town Halls.