Ella Henry should have sat her A levels this summer, but then the world changed. She writes for us about the impact of the pandemic on her and other young people.
The effects of Covid-19 have been huge. Although young people, as a cohort, are less likely to get the virus severely, the restrictions of lockdown have really impacted young people. It is particularly tough to feel that your future is slipping away from you and the plans and hopes that you had have been pushed aside. I understand the reasons for the lockdown and want to protect those around me who are older and more vulnerable, as well as support the NHS. And so, I diligently “followed the science”, clapped for the NHS on a Thursday night, learnt how to make banana bread, and spent more time at home with my family then I could ever have imagined possible.
I turn 18 in two weeks’ time and yes, the party plans have been shelved! I have just finished my final year of school and am looking to attend university in October of this year. On receiving my offer back in January, my plans for the next three years felt certain in my mind but over the last few months it is evident many things around me have changed. Most significantly, exams that I have been working towards for the last two years have been cancelled, and I did not even finish my courses before school ended. I switch between feeling relieved that I did not have the stress and pressure of performing on exam day, while also feeling oddly cheated that I couldn’t ‘prove’ my hard work. Meanwhile, the normal Year 13 routine of muck-up day, prom, leavers ceremony, and then summers of work, holidays, meeting up with friends, working like crazy for university; have faded to the background with the COVID-19 crisis. It has been a jarring ‘end’ of school for much of my year group and I’m sure lockdown has affected other young people up-and-down the country in similar ways.
In conversations with my friends and other young people, I think there are four key things that have been having a significant (mainly negative) effect on young people. While these may not be the same for each and every person, there are some clear areas to highlight in how young people are coping with Covid-19 and social distancing.
Firstly, issues around mental health. Even before Covid-19, mental health was something that I and I’m sure many young people were really concerned about. However, the last three months of lockdown have only exacerbated this. A mental health survey conducted by the National 4-H Council on 1,500 youths between the ages of 13 to 19 found that 7 in 10 teens have struggled with their mental health during lockdown. Most notably, the survey conducted in the USA in March of this year, highlights that 61 per cent of teens feel increasingly lonely. YouGov’s weekly polling of the national mood in Britain has shown that people aged 18 to 24 are more lonely, bored and stressed than any other age group.
For many young adults, the social interaction and the safe space provided by a school or college is not available anymore. This may be a relief for some, but for others, the isolation may have caused long term negative effects. For those young people who were receiving support, many of them have had to cope with therapy sessions being conducted online and other support networks may be completely unavailable. Many students may rely on their subject teachers or heads of year for support, or perhaps attend a club as an outlet for emotional energy, all of which they are unable to do. Not to mention, some schools provide therapy sessions, and these have proved difficult to continue. At an even more basic level, for many young people, myself included, school is where we spend time with our friends and have an emotional outlet through them. The inability to see people is something I have struggled with a lot and although young people generally have quite a good grasp on technology, it doesn’t compare to seeing people in person.
While I haven’t been attending ‘lessons’ from home, school closures have led to other difficulties. Many people who I have talked to have struggled to adjust to the switch to virtual learning and even more so if they do not have a sufficient, quiet or separate working environment in their home. Some struggle because they must share a computer or laptop with others in their house or in worst case because they may not have access to technology at all. While schools have been working to provide a high level of education and support for all students over the last few months, it is evident that many young people will be playing ‘catch-up’ when they return to school.
It is hard to know the long term affects that the lockdown will have on young people’s educational attainment, but it is likely to have widened the attainment gap around the country. This is particularly worrying for children in years 6, 10 and 12 who are preparing to move to secondary school and public examinations (at this moment expected to go ahead). School plays many roles in young people’s lives, and it has been a bizarre few months for me without it, and I was already preparing to leave! It is imperative that all these difficulties are acknowledged by parents, teachers, schools and government, and work is done to protect the future chances of the ‘COVID-19 generation’.
A group of young people that already had it tough before Covid and have really had to bear the brunt of the pandemic are young carers. It is estimated that there are over 800,000 young carers in the UK. The challenges to young carers at this time are monumental – caring for their loved ones, with issues around PPE equipment, fear of spreading the virus to them and the potential loss of other support that they currently receive. All while they are trying to keep up with their schooling virtually. Young carers have been advised to create an emergency plan if they fall too ill to care for family members but this may not be a realistic possibility if they are a last resort. The government has advised carers to contact their local authorities if they need assistance – but are they in too many cases to proud to do that? This group of young people need help both in taking care of themselves, allowing them to be children as well as ensuring the needs and health of their family members are met.
A significant cause for anxiety for younger people is how the economic impacts of Covid-19 may hinder their future prospects. Those, like me and some of my friends, may be reconsidering university as they are unsure what next year will look like, if they will be able to find work to support themselves, or if their parent’s income (which may be reduced) will be able to supplement them at university. Others who hope to go straight into work may fear an uncertain future. This month, more than a third of young people have said that during the pandemic, they expect to be made redundant or lose pay. In May of this year, 33% of those aged 16 to 24 were furloughed or lost a job and there is 13% less chance of graduates being in employment. A study conducted by the Resolution Foundation think tank shows that 41% of employed 16 to 24-year-olds work in sectors hit hard by lockdown. It is evident that for many young people they will end up at the centre of the upcoming unemployment crisis.
I have laid out quite a depressing picture. You have all probably got images of young people crying bitterly, slamming doors and saying dramatically that “THEIR LIFE IS OVER!!!!” But this might not quite be the case? The weekly polling of Britain’s youths has shown that the 18 to 24 demographic is the least scared of the virus – bored perhaps, scared no. Apps like TikTok give amazing insight into the mood of the (typically) Gen-Z population who use it. Since the outbreak, the hashtag #afterlockdown has attracted 3.4m views, with thousands of people posting their dreams of life returning to normal. One post depicts a user dancing flirtatiously in front of an image of 10 Downing St, with the text: “Me trying to reduce Boris into letting me go to Magaluf in July.” Others cite McDonald’s and Nando’s as their ideal post-lockdown activity (a fantasy I made real last week!). At the same time, generation Z-ers seem to think that life may not go back to the way it was. The dual threat of climate change and now Covid-19 has led to an explosion in creative and often irreverent posts bearing the hashtag #apocalypse, which has been watched 100m times. In my mind, this highlights a real resilience in the youth population and a determination to stay connected virtually despite the isolation of the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions.
For many young people, Covid-19 is just one of many issues that they are grappling with at the moment. The constant pressure and invigoration from the youth population in relation to climate change is now matched by youth presence at Black Lives Matter protests and the enjoyment of a virtual Pride month this June. Arguably, a new vigour for these movements highlights the potential young people have during this lockdown period. The excess of time that I have had over this period has allowed me to take a more active approach to protesting and researching things that I am passionate about. Local authorities will play an essential role, even more than ever, for assisting a struggling but hopeful youth population in the upcoming months. Equally, youth effort over the last few months have proven that when we are galvanised, we have a huge capability to push for change and be a force for good.
And for me, I am trying to stay positive. Life will get back to normal (whatever that means) and I know I must be patient. I have decided to take each day as it comes and look forward to what lies around the corner – for me it happens to be a trip to the pub with my mates on my 18th birthday to buy my first drink!