How family support — and a good night’s sleep — are helping teens navigate pandemic

Almost two decades before “home church,” “quarantine” and many other pandemic-related terms became part of the Latter-day Saint vernacular, an Apostle spoke prescient words on the power of families.

“In a world of turmoil and uncertainty, it is more important than ever to make our families the center of our lives and the top of our priorities,” said Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the April 2003 general conference. “Families lie at the center of our Heavenly Father’s plan.”

The key role that family relations play in helping teens navigate today’s “turmoil and uncertainty” is a defining element of a research study released recently by Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.

Dubbed “Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time and Family Connection,” the study surveyed 1,523 U.S. teens, asking about their mental health, family time, sleep, technology use and views on the race-related protests and the police.

A common (and evidently false) narrative is that today’s teens are fragile and ill-equipped to deal with tough times. The research tells a different story.

“We found that teens fared relatively well during quarantine,” noted the study’s authors. “Depression and loneliness were actually lower among teens in 2020 than in 2018, and unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life were only slightly higher.”

Tyler and Sheree Godfrey watch the 190th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with their children Maddy, Boston, Gracie, Noah and T.J. from their home in Holladay, Utah, on Saturday, April 4, 2020.
Tyler and Sheree Godfrey watch the 190th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with their children Maddy, Boston, Gracie, Noah and T.J. from their home in Holladay, Utah, on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The study’s findings “were very surprising,” noted BYU professor and co-author Sarah Coyne.

According to the study, “trends in teens’ time use revealed two possible reasons for the unexpectedly positive outcomes: Teens were sleeping more and spending more time with their families.”

Parents, Church leaders, social scientists and educators were, of course, concerned for the mental health of today’s teens long before the pandemic arrived. Past studies confirm challenges such as depression, anxiety and suicide have become increasingly prevelent in recent years.

Given those teen mental health trends, “our speculation was that the pandemic would make things worse … that was not the case,” one of BYU study researchers, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, told the Deseret News

Twenge and Coyne co-authored the study with BYU professor Jason Carroll and University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox.

Teen resiliency during a pandemic

The research team hoped to find answers to a question many began asking when COVID-19 began upending lives last March: So, how are American teenagers faring?

A fair question. Because of the virus, teens were no longer going to school. They suddenly couldn’t hang out with their friends. Meanwhile, sporting activities and other important social events were postponed or cancelled.

American teens are experiencing the stark realities of the pandemic like anyone else. They are full-fledged participants. The BYU study indicated nearly one out of three teens knew someone diagnosed with COVID-19. More than one out of four said a parent had lost a job, and one out of four worried about their families having enough food to eat.

Nearly two-thirds were worried about catching the virus.

Nevertheless, more than half of the teens felt they had become “a stronger and more resilient person” since the early days of the pandemic.

That’s not to suggest that teen mental health challenges are no longer wide-spread in the United States. “Many teens are still in need of mental-health services, and the pandemic has not changed that reality,” the study reminded. 

But ultimately, the study revealed “a nuanced picture of teens” during the pandemic quarantine. They were resilient yet worried, isolated yet connected to family, and well-rested yet concerned.

The power of loving families — and a good night’s sleep

Researchers identified a couple of key factors for many teens successfully meeting the mental health challenges of the pandemic. 

First, teens have been sleeping more. Research confirms that teens who are sleep deprived are significantly more likely to suffer from depression.

In a similar 2018 study, only 55% of teens reported they usually slept seven or more hours a night. That figure jumped to 84% among those for whom school was in session.

Sleep, said Coyne, remains “a major protective factor in teen mental health.”

The second key factor confirms Elder Perry’s 2003 declaration championing the importance of families as surveyed teens reported spending more time with their families.

Elder L. Tom Perry speaks at a BYU Devotional on Oct. 30, 2007.
Elder L. Tom Perry speaks at a BYU Devotional on Oct. 30, 2007. Credit: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

With many parents working from home — and with many other “outside the home” activities on hold for family members of all ages — the majority of teens reported increased family time. Fifty-six percent of them said they were spending more time talking to their parents than they had before the pandemic, and 54% said their families now ate dinner together more often. Forty-six percent reported spending more time with their siblings. 

Perhaps most striking, 68% of teens said their families had become closer during the pandemic. 

Those increases in family time are linked to positive mental-health outcomes among surveyed teens, the study reported. Only 15% who said their families had become closer during the pandemic were depressed, compared to 27% of those who did not believe their families had become closer.

“There is such a strong family-focus found in this study,” said Coyne.

As a parent, the BYU professor hopes the data found in the study will prompt her own family “to slow down and focus on what matters most” long after the pandemic has passed.

Another significant finding from the study is that teens from two-parent families were least likely to be depressed, both before and during the pandemic. 

“This is consistent with other research on child well-being and suggests that teens in two-parent families are more likely to benefit from the additional attention and financial resources that two parents can invest in adolescents,” according to the report.

Coyne added she has deepened regard for the resilience of young people to handle COVID-19 and whatever challenge comes their way, particularly when they enjoy the support of a loving family. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, many reported, “I feel like a more strong and resilient person.”