Listening to young people during Covid-19 challenges common adult assumptions about their peer relationships

dogbod2020, blog

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash
by Thalia Thereza Assan
The experiences and perspectives of children and young people are generally missing from coverage and discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects. This is not a unique situation, as children’s status in society positions them as a marginalised group. In this blog post, I will focus on what children and young people’s experiences of and perspectives on their lives during Covid-19 can teach us about their peer relationships, and how these insights challenge common adult assumptions on these matters. While I present here mostly positive aspects of peer relationships and friendships, I am in no way advocating for an idealised conception of these relationships but rather for adopting a critical examination of how they are understood and discussed.

First, one of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 on children, young people and their parents/guardians has been the closure of schools and the move to online schooling. Here, much of the discussions has focused on how studies and academic progression have been disrupted and the challenges parents/guardians face in trying to balance work and child-care. While these are certainly important issues, turning our attention to how young people have experienced this situation reveals the importance of school as an arena to create and sustain peer relationships and friendships. World Vision International conducted a consultation with 101 children and young people from 13 countries on their views about the Covid-19 pandemic. The study was undertaken by 2 adults and 12 young people who served as peer researchers. The findings reveal that 71% of the children and young people felt isolated and lonely because of school closures. Additionally, the dwindling of their peer networks was one of the causes of the emotional distress 91% of the participants experienced.[1] In the words of Christopher, an 8-year-old research participant from Nicaragua: “The coronavirus affects me a lot because I cannot go out to play like before; I do not go to school or church. I miss my friends and classmates. All the boys and girls in the community and the country are affected.”.[2]

The significance of school for peer relationships brings to the fore the importance children and young people ascribe to face-to-face interactions and the physical and embodied aspects of their social ties. This flies in the face of the popular adult assumption, which is often imbued with a judgemental tinge, that young people’s relationships operate exclusively through technological means and in digital spheres. In an article which focuses on the harsh consequences of Covid-19 for adolescents, author Christopher Null confesses that when the shift to online schooling began, he did not think his high-school-aged daughter would be much effected: “My daughter spends the vast majority of her free time in her room, on her bed, staring at her phone. Would shelter-in-place be any different, aside from not going to school for a few hours a day?”. However, his daughter’s distress quickly became evident. After speaking to a dozen high school students about their experiences during lockdown, Null realised that among other things, they missed meeting their friends face-to-face in school.[3]

Second, lockdown restrictions did mean that children and young people had to almost solely rely on technological means to interact with their peers and sustain their friendships during this time, which they sometimes did in innovative ways. Julie Beck interviewed a group of eight young people, aged 13-14, about the “PowerPoint Party” they initiated, where each of them prepared a slide presentation on a topic they were interested in and then presented it to each other via Zoom. Georgie Perello, 13, explained to Beck: “It’s a distraction from all that’s going on, and it’s not like we can really hang out with each other right now. This is a way to come together, in a different way—teaching instead of just talking.”.[4]

A group of high school seniors, whose final International Baccalaureate Social-Cultural Anthropology exams were cancelled, conducted a three-week-long auto-ethnography project of their lives during the quarantine.[5] Their findings highlight that while communication mediated through technology and social media was experienced as markedly different than face-to-face communication, it enabled continued interaction and showed how “humans rely on technological advancements in order to survive and thrive in our constantly adapting world”.[6] This positive framing of technology and social media in relation to relationships runs counter to adult condemnations of and/or moral panic over the harmful effects of technology on children and young people’s lives and relationships. It also implicitly shows that children and young people who do not have access to the internet and/or relevant technological devices are suffering not just academic-wise but also from the lack of contact with their friends and diminished opportunities for peer-support.

Finally, the implications of young people’s physical distancing from their friends have been discussed in various online articles aimed at parents.[7] While many of these articles acknowledge the importance of friendship for adolescents, a few implicitly portray peer groups as dangerous, with headlines such as “Keeping teens home and away from friends during Covid-19” and “No, you can’t see your friends: Getting teens to accept Covid-19 restrictions”. And while some authors encourage listening to young people during this time and validating their feelings and give suggestions for ways they can stay connected to their friends, most emphasise the importance of educating children and young people about Covid-19 so they would not break the rules of lockdown.

Although education about the virus is certainly important, it is curious that its main audience is thought to be children and young people. After all, we have had plenty of examples in recent weeks of adults (some of them senior members of governments and parliaments around the world) defying Covid-19 restrictions. Surely they could use some educating on the matter as well? Placing children and young people front and centre in these debates is similar to popular and academic accusations of youth as politically disengaged, which fail to examine whether adults, who hold much more responsibility for the present socio-economic situation, are similarly disengaged[8]. Additionally, focusing the debate on political apathy on youth may be an attempt to divert attention away from adults and is another in a long series of instances where youth are blamed for societal problems.[9] Could this be the case here as well?

In contrast to what these parental guides imply, the children and young people who took part in the World Vision International study understood the importance of Covid-19 restrictions. Not only that, but they were eager to raise awareness and disseminate information about the virus in their communities, particularly to their friends and peers. In the words of Ahona, aged 16, from Bangladesh: “I think we can educate children about the pandemic – why it is so harmful and why people are freaking out so much. Many children are still not taking the issue seriously as they are witnessing a pandemic for the first time. Also, their parents are not that concerned. So, if we educate children, they can, in turn, spread the information to their families.”.[10] These findings not only challenge the assumption that young people are politically apathetic but also the common conceptualisation of youth’s political socialisation as a process that should be undertaken by adults.[11] In contrast, research has found that peers play a major role in youth’s political socialisation, with teen activists arguing that teaching each other political knowledge and skills (rather than being taught by adults) engenders mutual learning and sharing.[12]

To conclude, there are important insights to gain from listening to and engaging with children and young people in these extraordinary times and beyond. The issues I presented here are just the tip of the iceberg.
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I thank Lynn Jamieson and the rest of the participants in the “Intimate Relationships under Lockdown” discussion group for the inspiring conversations and their helpful suggestions.

About the Author

Thalia Thereza Assan is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research examines how friendships of adolescent girls shape and play out in their political participation.

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