The Social Effects of COVID-19 on Young People

Corey Seemiller
Apr 22, 2020 · 5 min read

In this stay-at-home era, we seem to be well aware of the amount of social interaction we are having. For those who are by themselves, that sense of quiet may be a little lonely. However, for those staying home with others, their interaction may be on overdrive, as everyone in the household tries to find a quiet spot in a bustling space. With schools and many workplaces closed, the day-to-day interaction we have been accustomed to with those outside our homes has greatly waned. Even the casual conversations at the grocery store or a restaurant are on hold. This imbalance is very striking to Gen Zers (born 1995–2010). They may have an overdrive of connection at home and little social interaction with their friends, classmates, or others not living with them. So, how is this affecting Generation Z today and how might it shape the way they engage with others as they grow older?

Family Connection

Although some young adults say that they feel that temporarily moving home has been like going back in time to their adolescence, the overall sentiment of many in Generation Z of all ages is that they like being home and spending time with their families. Many already had expressed having a high regard for their parents as role models and mentors. Who then would be better to hunker down with than the very people they look up to the most?

In addition, these young people are watching their parents and older loved ones survive this tenuous time. Gen Zers are witnessing their family members handling the stress of jobs and finances, trying to acquire food and supplies, and putting other pressing obligations aside to assist with schooling their children. This balancing act likely won’t go unnoticed by young people. As a generation that already had expressed a desire to hold jobs with high work-life balance and flexibility, navigating this crisis as a family now may reinforce how to best balance their commitments to face adversity with their own families in the future.

Community Connection

In addition to family connection, it is also important to consider relationships with the community. In Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, the author points out the transformation of our neighborly and community connections to one of more distance and isolation. He tracks this decline by looking at decreasing rates of participation in bowling leagues, a symbol of community. Today, many of us don’t even know the names of our neighbors, let alone are able to borrow a cup of sugar from them. Many of us hope that no one talks to us as we head outside to get the mail and then attempt to scurry back inside with maybe an obligatory wave to that person whose name we should know.

While social distancing has prevented gatherings with those who don’t live with us, a lot of people are now spending time outside in their neighborhoods going on walks and bike rides or even gardening or sitting on the front porch. For some, this might have been the first time they have ever seen their neighbors. Although these interactions may not be significant, there is an awareness of life, of community, of people all around us facing this pandemic. We are not alone. There are “hellos” and “waves” and even a bit of chitchat from six feet apart. It seems as though there is now a social norm that expects this friendly interaction, given the situation.

After the distancing restrictions lift and people head back to their jobs and schools, will the friendly behavior continue? Will young people see the value of talking to their neighbors?

Hyperconnection

While there are opportunities for most people during isolation to interact with those in their households and even their neighbors, the lack of ability to connect with friends, coworkers, classmates, and other family members has been challenging. But, thanks to technology, video chatting has become a staple of what it takes to keep those connections alive.

Most in Generation Z have been comfortable and savvy with technology since they were toddlers. Members of this hyperconnected generation, with their phones only an arm’s length away, are able to easily jump onto any number of apps and platforms to keep those relationships alive.

But, is “Zooming,” for example, really the key to unlock our connections during social distancing? Perhaps. But, can we experience video fatigue? Yes. And, our young people are feeling it a lot. Imagine having gone to school in-person your entire life and now, with no real transition, spending 7 to 8 hours a day on a video chat, virtually moving from one class to the next without ever getting out of a chair? Ben Harms, director of insights and strategy from Archrival told Teen Vogue, “All the Zoom parties, Instagram Lives, FaceTime calls — is just not enough. They’re really eager to reconnect with friends in the real world.” Without in-person interactions, many just feel isolated.

But, even before social distancing moved us to video chatting in nearly every arena of our lives, many in Generation Z had expressed concern that their hyperconnectivity may get in the way of developing critical interpersonal skills. In our 2017 study, we found that many worry that in the future, they won’t be able to strike up an in-person conversation or read body language because they will have spent too much time using technology instead of interacting face-to-face. One Gen Zer noted, “I am afraid that no one will go out for lunch and talk like normal people anymore. Instead, they will just FaceTime or Skype while they eat take-out at home.” With social distancing now, this scenario seems to be the norm.

Given that this generation prefers face-to-face communication, their lack of practice to date, and their lack of practice now provides a challenge for them in learning the savvy it takes to engage in-person with others. Perhaps the close quarters that many in Generation Z are living in will give them the opportunity to engage in skill-building around interpersonal dynamics.

And, after distancing restrictions are lifted, the notion of being “zoomed out” may be the impetus for many young people to put down their devices more often and take advantage of the opportunity to connect in-person with others.

Continue reading the remainder of articles in this series:

1. How COVID-19 Could Change a Generation Forever
2. The Political Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
3. The Economic Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
4. The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
5. The Sociological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
6. The Social Effects of COVID-19 on Young People-you are reading this article

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Corey Seemiller

Written by

Dr. Corey Seemiller is an award-winning professor and author of four books on Generation Z, including Generation Z: A Century in the Making.

The Gen Z Hub

Stay up to date on the latest on Generation Z and politics, the economy, jobs, education, technology, health, and relationships.

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