Despite pandemic, teens faring better with more sleep and family time: study

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While the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in declining mental health for many adults, teenagers, particularly those in two-parent households, have been faring better thanks to more sleep and spending more time with their families, according to a new report.

The new report, released Tuesday from the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution of Brigham Young University, is titled Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time, and Family Connection

It is authored by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, BYU professor of human development Sarah Coyne, Wheatley Institution Associate Director Jason Carroll and W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

The report cites data from a survey of 1,523 U.S. teenagers during May–July. The survey asked about their mental health, family time, sleep, technology use, and views on race-related protests and the police. The data from the survey was then measured against responses from teenagers to identical questions from the 2018 administration of the national Monitoring the Future survey.

“To our surprise, we found that teens fared relatively well during quarantine. Depression and loneliness were actually lower among teens in 2020 than in 2018, and unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life were only slightly higher. Trends in teens’ time use revealed two possible reasons for the unexpectedly positive outcomes: Teens were sleeping more and spending more time with their families,” the researchers explained in the report.

The report cited research showing sleep-deprived teenagers are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, and during the pandemic that risk factor was lower.

In 2018, only 55% of teenagers reported sleeping seven or more hours a night. During the pandemic, however, some 84% of teenagers who were still attending school said they were getting seven or more hours of sleep.

With many of them attending school online, the teenagers have also been able to sleep much later in the morning than usual.

“When school is held in person, the vast majority of middle and high schools begin classes before 8:30 a.m., and some as early as 7:00 a.m., requiring many students to get up very early to commute to school. This creates a mismatch between school schedules and the shift to a later circadian rhythm that occurs during biological puberty when teens find it difficult to fall asleep earlier,” the researchers wrote.

The report found that in 2020, only 16% of teens who regularly got at least seven hours of sleep were depressed, compared to 31% who didn’t. It was also suggested that being out of the normal school setting might have also reduced stress levels for teenagers.

"We don't want to discount the lived experiences of many families who were dealing with a teen who was melting down, especially those who come from abusive environments where they did not have the family support. Or those who may have lost family members as a result of the pandemic," Coyne, a professor of human development in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. "However, the majority of teens did better than expected and that is something to celebrate in a time of uncertainty." 

With more parents working from home and the cancelation of many outside activities, more than half of the teenagers in the study reported spending more time with their family than before the pandemic.

Some 56% said they were spending more time talking to their parents than they had before the pandemic. Other statistics showed that: 54% said their families now ate dinner together more often; 46% reported spending more time with their siblings; and 68% said their families had become closer during the pandemic.

"For teens fortunate enough to be in families that have come through the COVID crucible stronger, it looks like we’re seeing surprisingly good psychological outcomes in 2020," Wilcox, who is a senior fellow at IFS noted in the statement to CP. "One of the unforeseen outcomes of the quarantines is that teens spent more time with their parents than under normal circumstances. For all the difficulties this presents, this aspect appears to have been a gift."

The researchers suggested that high schools should consider moving their start time to 8:30 a.m. or later, as California will begin to implement in 2022.

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