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The teenage years can be a challenging time under
normal circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic added a layer to the
challenge, but for some, being able to avoid difficult peer
interactions was a silver lining, according to UD researchers.
As the restrictions
imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have eased, and in-person school and
social activities resume, renewed interaction with friends and
classmates is widely seen as an emotional boost for most teenagers, a
group that reported increased anxiety and depression during the period
But it may be a different story for those teens whose social
interactions before the pandemic were especially problematic; perhaps
they were bullied or often got into fights at school. Are they happy to
be back in the classroom?
“We think that teens are universally
happy to be back to social interaction, because they are very focused on
their peers, more so than younger children or adults,” said Julie
Hubbard, professor of psychological and brain sciences
at the University of Delaware and an author of a paper recently
published in the journal Research on Child and Adolescent
Psychopathology. “We think that of course teenagers want to be around
their peers, but it’s really not that simple.”
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Prof. Julie Hubbard
Hubbard and her research team have been following a group of young
people for many years, beginning when they were in fourth or fifth grade
and continuing to their current time as high school students. Her lab
focuses on children’s and adolescents’ aggression, which research has
shown is often linked with depression, and on teens who have challenging
peer interactions, either as victims or aggressors.
By chance, her team had just completed a large laboratory-based data
collection effort with teens in February 2020, just before the pandemic
upended school and social activities. The researchers, Hubbard said,
decided to use that data to look into the effects of isolation on those
with difficult peer relationships. A group of about 100 of the teens
completed additional questionnaires assessing their depressive and
anxious symptoms several months later, in the early months of the
The researchers found that, while teens in general reported increased
depression and anxiety from pre- to mid-pandemic, adolescents who had
problematic peer relationships before the pandemic did not experience
“The COVID studies [conducted by other researchers] suggest that, for
most adolescents, reductions in face-to-face interactions with peers
during the pandemic likely have contributed to feelings of loneliness
and isolation,” Hubbard and her co-authors wrote in their paper. “In
contrast, the picture might look quite different for adolescents who
experienced particularly challenging peer relations” before the
“Of course, the pandemic was difficult for all teenagers in many
ways, just as it was for everyone,” Hubbard said. “But it’s possible
that some teenagers with particularly difficult peer relationships prior
to the pandemic actually experienced improved quality of life during
These findings should remind parents and teachers how stressful
interacting with peers can be for some teens, she said. From her
viewpoint as a clinician, in addition to being a researcher, she urged
schools and parents to keep an especially close eye on how young people
who struggled with peer relationships before the pandemic are doing as
they return to in-person activities.
Hubbard also expressed concern for the effects of the pandemic
isolation on younger children, who lost out on the kind of socialization
that occurs in in-person school at a critical developmental time in
their lives. She urged parents and schools to think about that loss and
to give young children time to play and adapt to renewed social
From solving problems with other children when they disagree, to
learning how to share, to figuring out another child’s facial
expression, “There’s a lot you learn in face-to-face kindergarten that
you just can’t learn over Zoom,” Hubbard said.
“Pre-Pandemic Peer Relations Predict Adolescents’ Internalizing Response to Covid-19” was published Oct. 18 in the journal Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology.
The first author is doctoral student Fanny Mlawer, with co-authors
Christina C. Moore, who earned her doctoral degree in May; Hubbard; and
doctoral student Zachary M. Meehan.
In the paper, the researchers suggest several areas that could be
explored in the future, including similar assessments at a later stage
of the pandemic. The isolation caused by the pandemic had a fairly clear
starting point as schools and businesses shut down in March 2020, but
pinpointing the end of the pandemic will be more difficult, Hubbard
Still, the research team noted that these kinds of studies can do
more than examine how adolescents responded to COVID. In addition, they
wrote, the research can provide insights into the emotions of teens who
struggle with their peer interactions more generally.
Article by Ann Manser; photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Dec. 1, 2021