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Teens, Saturday nights and COVID-19: Challenges and opportunities

The Australian Government has made it clear it wants us to stay home. If we want to ‘flatten the curve’ and prevent more people dying we must all play our part by ‘social distancing’. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning, if 80% of people stay at home for the next three months – for most of the time – Australia “has a chance to get the upper hand” on COVID-19. It goes on to say that currently we’ve managed to cut our social contact by about 50%. So, put really simply, if we want to get back to some kind of normalcy, we need to do more …

I’m sure many had a similar response to me when I read ‘three months’! I had to read the article a couple of times to make sure I got it right and wasn’t spreading so-called ‘fake news’. Three months is a long time to isolate yourself from others and stay inside your home if you’re single or a couple, it’s going to be an eternity if you have children, particularly teens.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents with a couple of toddlers who live in a small apartment (or in a huge mansion for that matter) who are trying to navigate through this period of social distancing. It must be an absolute nightmare but the reality is that children of that age do not necessarily need to socialize with others of their own age. They’re going to survive without a playdate or spending time with other 3- or 4-year-olds at the local park. In the primary years, friends certainly start to become much more important but it is during adolescence that socializing with peers becomes vital. Whereas parents were once the most important people in their life and their opinion had so much influence on what they thought and what they did, teens will start to pull away and identify far more with their peers. Teens develop a growing need to be around their friends and gain ‘peer acceptance’ whenever they can – so research strongly suggests that parents giving teens opportunities to hang out with their friends is important. At the moment parents are being asked to try to do just the opposite. As much as your 15-year-old may desperately want to spend this coming Saturday night at a mate’s house with a few friends playing video games, the message from the government is clear – you need to say ‘no’ … Stay at home!

In addition, parents face possibly even a greater challenge, for as Michelle Obama was quoted as saying earlier this week – “This is like no other time in history, particularly for our kids, who are so used to being occupied and stimulated all the time …” In a world with a 24-hour-news-cycle where everything is broken down into 30-seconds or less grabs or 280 characters, we have a generation of young people who expect to be constantly entertained. Young people rarely have to wait for anything – they wouldn’t remember that we once had to wait for a computer to actually ‘start-up’, and many of us have already forgotten that Netflix bingeing is a new phenomenon (we once had to wait a week to find out what happened next when we watched a TV show). Asking our teens to spend the next three months at home in isolation and not spend face-to-face time with their friends is going to be extremely difficult …

Yesterday I posted a video on Instagram asking teens to send through ideas (in an image format) of how they plan to spend this coming Saturday night – the first weekend under the government’s new restrictions. I asked them to send them through by Saturday lunchtime but I’ve already received piles of them! Not surprisingly, social media features prominently in many of their ideas. I’m certainly no expert in that area and every family is going to have their own rules and boundaries when it comes to online behaviour but it would appear at a time like this age-appropriate social media platforms provide a great opportunity for teens to satisfy their biological need for some kind of connection with their peers. Some of the ideas that the teens have shared so far include the following (some of which I know nothing about) – silent parties on Google Hangouts; virtual gatherings (‘gathos’) on Skype or Zoom; group Skype calls through the night; and Netflix parties (watching shows with friends while you are all in different homes). Online gaming with friends was another popular proposed Saturday night activity.

This response supports what we know to be true for most young people in that no matter what is thrown at them, they usually tend to adapt fairly well. They are going to need that connection with their friends (it’s almost impossible to fight the biological changes they are going through) and they will use any tools at their disposal to ensure that it happens. Social media and online gaming provide teens with opportunities to socialize with their peers but protects them from actual physical contact with those who potentially may have the virus and then inadvertently passing it onto others who may be far more vulnerable than them. Hopefully parents have got the message that parties and gatherings should not be held in the coming months and it is vital to try to keep your children at home as much as possible. It’s not going to be easy but we’ve all got to do our bit …

I’ve talked about the challenges, (i.e., teens have a biological need to interact with their peers and today’s young people expect to be constantly entertained) what are these so-called opportunities?

In the responses I’ve had from teens regarding what they’re doing this Saturday night, what was particularly great to see was the number of young people who talked about doing something with their parents. A few of them had a family game night planned and one Year 11 young man said he was looking forward to Saturday evening because his Dad was finally going to teach him and his younger brother how to play cards. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I believe families are suddenly going to be sitting around a piano on a Saturday night singing show tunes to one another or all learn how to knit or whittle wood but, for the moment, we live in a very different world to the one that existed just weeks ago – like our teens, we’re going to have to adapt. The important thing to remember is that we’re all in the same boat – young and old. It’s not like your children have to stay at home and you and your partner can drive across to your friends for dinner. You are all in the house together and the fact of the matter is that this is not going to change anytime soon – realistically you’ve got to find a way of making this work so you all don’t go insane …

I very much doubt whether you know all the ways that you can connect with your friends online. I guarantee your teen knows of far more options than you do – get them to teach you. Once you’ve learned, be a good and responsible role model and use those tools to keep connected with your friends. Lead by example – if they have to stop physical contact, so do you. Take the time to learn from your teen – you may be surprised how useful it may be in the weeks and months ahead.

Planning events and activities that take place in the home that involve the whole family is going to become increasingly important, particularly if we end up in a full lockdown which is looking more and more likely as the days go by. In the article featuring Michelle Obama that I mentioned a little earlier, after she had discussed the challenges families around the world were currently facing, she ended the interview as follows:

“But on the positive side, I know for us, it’s forced us to continue to sit down with each other, have real conversations, really ask questions and figure out how to keep ourselves occupied without just TV or computers. It’s a good exercise in reminding us that we just don’t need a lot of the stuff that we have. When times are bad, having each other, having your health (is most important). We can do with a lot less and I think that’s an important lesson I want my kids to understand … Be grateful for what you have and be ready to share it when the time comes.”

The coming months are going to be challenging for everyone. It is difficult for adults to completely understand what is currently going on in the world, how hard must it be for our children? Teenagers have a biological need to be social, to have regular contact with their peers. We are now being asked to try to prevent this contact, at least physical contact, and keep them at home. It’s not going to be easy and in all honesty we’re most probably talking months, not weeks. Most young people are pretty resilient and, with the help and support of their parents (and their peers) they are likely to get through this relatively unscathed. This is far more likely to be the case if parents see this time as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with their children, or possibly even reconnect with teens who may have ‘drifted away’ in recent times.

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future we can look back at this time, wearing our ‘I survived COVID-19’ and smile. Sadly, that’s a way away yet and it’s going to be tough for everyone for a while. Stay safe, keep your family close and remember, whenever possible, stay at home.

Published: March 2020

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