It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 hit the US. For boys that means nearly a year of mandatory social isolation, online schooling, less physical exercise and outside activity, and over-reliance on technology.
Sports are cancelled, parties a thing of the past, and “hanging out” relegated to members of the immediate family. Significant events such as awards ceremonies, school plays, prom, and graduation have all been missed.
As the pandemic continues, more research on the effects of COVID-19 and social isolation has come to light. And the news isn’t good. Social isolation is taking a heavy toll on boys.
What the Science Says
In writing this piece, we searched many academic sources, including a recent systematic review of 63 studies of the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of previously healthy adolescents. The report concluded that social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, both immediately and in the future.
According to research, loneliness can impact adolescents and young adults in a variety of negative ways:
- Increased stress
- Increased anxiety
- More likelihood of depression
- More negative thoughts and emotions
- Possible of PTSD
- Increased conflict at home
- Loss of self-control and rule-breaking
- Poor sleeping habits
- Decreased self-care, such as lack of grooming and poor nutrition
- Developmental changes
- Greater risk of alcohol and drug use
- Greater risk of self-harm and suicide
Social isolation doesn’t always equate loneliness, and loneliness doesn’t always result in increased anxiety or depression. However, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, more than one-third of adolescent boys have reported high levels of loneliness. That number increases to nearly one-half when talking about older teens and young adults.
What Social Isolation Means for Boys
Humans are social by nature. The negative effects of loneliness are well established. Loneliness in adolescence in particular is closely related to both poor mental and physical health.
The period of male adolescence (age 10-19) is marked by a heightened sensitivity to social stimuli and an increased need for social interaction. Consequently, social and physical distancing may be particularly detrimental on adolescent boys, both in the short and long term.
Along with the risks to all adolescents described above, boys have unique needs not being met during COVID-19 and social isolation. These include the loss of rites of passage, and the lack of teamwork and healthy competition:
Rites of passage and milestones hold a particular place of importance in a young man’s life. According to Dr. Michael Gurian, rites of passage are a “primal need” of every boy as they journey to being a good man.
Among other things, they:
- Create appropriate physical challenges to overcome
- Pass on wisdom, skills, and knowledge
- Give boys individual recognition their worth and accomplishment
- Give boys a sense of belonging to something bigger than them
- Acknowledge and celebrate the transition from boy to man
Boys may be mourning the loss of modern rites of passage and important milestones such as middle school and high school graduations, Boy Scout advancement ceremonies, school awards nights, summer camps, Bar Mitzvahs, and birthday parties.
Healthy competition is another need not being met in isolation.
Throughout the nation, school and private sports clubs have canceled or curtailed practices, games, and tournaments. Robotics and chess competitions have been postponed.
While both boys and girls benefit from teamwork and competition, boys especially use competition to test their limits, let off steam, and face and conquer challenges.
Boys bond through being part of a team, and the physical contact often displayed in competition, whether a high-five, chest bump, or tackle. The physical distancing measures mandated to contain the spread of COVID-19 keep boys from engaging in activities where they can reap these benefits.
Loneliness Looks Different in Boys
Contrary to stereotypes, boys want and need social connectedness just as much as girls do. But whereas girls express intimacy through conversation, adolescent boys can struggle to communicate verbally. Often, shows of attachment and connection are done physically, such as slapping each other on the back and roughhousing— none of which can be done in isolation.
Former school counselor, now professor of developmental psychology at New York University, Niobe Way has studied the emotional lives of boys for over 30 years. She concludes that despite common male myths, boys have enormous capability for connection, and value their friendships greatly.
Many are even aware enough to know that friendship is essential to their mental health. As 14-year-old Kai told her, “You need a friend or else you’d be depressed, you won’t be happy, you might try to kill yourself.”
Boys are also quite expressive of pain and sadness, even if it doesn’t look the way we think it should. Although boys may cry or express that they are lonely, more commonly they will manifest these emotions with irritability, outbursts, risk-taking, or withdrawal.
Another way boys are more likely than girls to manifest loneliness or pain due to social isolation is substance misuse. Boys may be more drawn to using drugs and alcohol as ways to numb the pain and anxiety during this time of instability.
Even as restrictions ease and mandates are lifted, boys are still at risk. Studies show boys and girls are more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety both during and after the period of isolation ends.
One study even found that loneliness during adolescence impacted anxiety and depression up to eight years later. And the risk of experiencing long-term mental health consequences increased as the duration of isolation increased.
All of this can seem overwhelming to parents and caregivers who already know instinctively that their boys are not OK.
It is possible that the challenges of COVID-19 will help your teen become more resilient, self-sufficient, and better able to deal with future obstacles. You may discover that you become closer as a family, as you support your teen through this stressful time.
But if you–like many parents– find that your current coping strategies aren’t working, there is help. For ideas you can use today to fight the harmful effects of social isolation, click here. To speak with someone about your teen’s mental health or behavioral concerns, reach out to us at 866-330-0351 or here.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice.
The suggestions herein should be adapted to local and state laws and mandates, and your own individual and family circumstances.