What do young people need in the wake of Covid-19? Learning sciences expert Anne Frenzel, child and adolescent psychiatrist Gerd Schulte-Körne, and Sabine Walper, director of the German Youth Institute (DJI), on a post-lockdown generation.
For a long time, little attention was paid to children and adolescents. Then they were seen as potential vectors of the pandemic. Comparably little attention has been given to how they are faring in the coronavirus crisis, how they are coping with the isolation. Now, however, some experts are speaking of a ‘lost generation’ growing up in the shadow of Covid-19. In the interview published now in the LMU research magazine INSIGHTS, Anne Frenzel, Gerd Schulte-Körne and Sabine Walper outline scenarios for children and adolescents after the lockdown.
What are the things that changed dramatically for children and adolescents in Germany when the coronavirus crisis hit?
Sabine Walper: As the pandemic proceeded, with its ongoing restrictions on personal contact, children and adolescents felt increasingly lonely. Numerous studies and our own data show how much of a psychological burden this was for them. Having contact with one’s peers is crucial, especially for adolescents. To find their position, their role, to figure out who they are and who they are not, adolescents need to be in direct contact with their peers. This is crucial for them in order to progress on in the social field and in the development of their personality. And that is exactly where the pandemic hit them hard.
Gerd Schulte-Körne: We’re always talking about adolescents and children as a collective, but of course it’s not a homogeneous group. A large proportion of the children and adolescents have coped well with the crisis. But quite a few of them have had a really bad time. And that’s not only those who already had mental health problems before Covid-19. Young people from deprived families, who live in cramped housing, who have no resources, they’re the ones who’ve been particularly badly affected. They were just barely managing before the crisis, but then they were completely overwhelmed by the whole homeschooling situation. Many parents who probably wouldn’t ever have come to the clinic before have since visited us and said, “We can’t do this anymore.” These are families that haven’t got the money to support their children’s learning, families where both parents must work and there’s no one to look after the children at home. These children and adolescents were then sitting in front of the television or the computer screen all day long. They didn’t get enough exercise, didn’t get any education, and had no social or physical contact.
Summer in the city
Young people in the English Garden in Munich in 2021.
Adolescence as a developmental phase is underestimated
Is it possible to say how many have been affected in this way?
Schulte-Körne: Studies have shown that normally between eight and ten percent of children and adolescents require treatment for mental health problems. The figure has risen to 12 to 14 percent since Covid-19 hit.
Has there been any feedback on how young people in general felt about this time?
Walper: We know from surveys which have been conducted that the majority of adolescents did not feel they were being heard. Young people accuse politicians of completely disregarding what it was actually like for them during the lockdown. There has been much discussion about the division of labor in families and whether we are currently experiencing a rollback to the 1950s. There has also been intensive discussion about very young children and the situation around their childcare. But teenagers? They came last. It was as if those in this age group were left to manage all on their own.
Walper: People totallyunderestimate how important adolescence is as a developmental phase and what young people’s needs are. It was not just families who went into the lockdown in very different positions — the same applied to young people themselves. Some of the traits that are considered strengths actually made them more vulnerable during the pandemic. For example, we’re seeing a marked increase in depression among adolescents, particularly among the outgoing ones, the extraverts who normally have their social network sorted and manage perfectly well. It’s precisely their need to be with others and to have close relationships that accentuated their feeling of being cut off from their world during the pandemic.
Frenzel: To this day, young people have not only not been asked about their needs. On top of that, they are subject to tougher rules than many other group in our society. Even during the lockdowns there were exceptions for many employees — but none for students. Closing schools and - by the way - also universities was obviously politically easier to implement.
The world around them was only interested in the Covid-19 hygiene measures — it seems that no one cared about what was going on in some of those families.
Prof. Dr. Gerd Schulte-Körne
Departure to autonomy — blocked
Puberty and adolescence is the phase when children separate from their parents. But in the pandemic, parents and children were forced together. What are the consequences of that?
Walper: The atmosphere in the family is incredibly important. How do the parents get along with each other, how do they act as parents? In family situations where the atmosphere deteriorated significantly and where there was more stress and anxiety — I’m not talking about big conflicts — well, the young people were definitely affected by that too. In addition, the outside interaction, which is so important to have, was hardly possible. Those first tentative romantic relationships, for example, often end quickly if adolescents are unable to see or touch each other for a couple of weeks. That whole sphere of romantic development was more or less cut off.
Schulte-Körne: Young people’s development of autonomy as a whole was massively disrupted during this period. In our clinic, one of the key treatment goals is to help adolescents who are having difficulties in this respect. With the young men in particular, we noticed an incredible amount of tension. They were angry and they were asking: Is anyone actually interested in us? Does anyone care about our totally normal needs? And saying: We’re being painted as the rule-breakers.
What about the younger ones?
Schulte-Körne: Many of them also struggled in their emotional development. How were they supposed to learn to deal with fears they had never known before? For example, if their grandparents were sick and they weren’t allowed to go to visit them at the hospital. They couldn’t understand that. So, you had to work with them to help them understand that a loved one might die, and they wouldn’t be able to see them anymore. This put them under a lot of strain, and it sometimes caused a normal grief response to turn into severe depression that had to be treated with psychotherapy. There was silent suffering within families. The world around them was only interested in the Covid-19 hygiene measures — it seems that no one cared about what was going on in some of those families.
What things specifically were overlooked?
Schulte-Körne: Sure, many families were able to cope with the stress to some extent and rearrange their daily lives. But other families failed. In some cases, parents lost their jobs, and their livelihoods were threatened. There’s data revealing the emotional stress families were exposed to during that time. For example, the use of legal and illegal substances by adults increased significantly during the Covid-19 crisis. Domestic violence rose sharply, and with it, threats to children’s well-being. We also noticed elsewhere in the clinic how children’s care services malfunctioned. Often, when we discharge children and adolescents, they move on to the care of youth services, the appropriate treatment setting for the next stage in their recovery. But in the pandemic, youth services signaled that they couldn’t take anyone. So, we had to release the children back to their families, who were already not coping. Often this led to the children very quickly needing to come back for inpatient treatment.
Celebrating after the lockdown
Teenagers and young adults in Munich's Türkenstrasse
On the one hand, young people don’t feel heard, and yet they’re being blamed for many of the things that we adults haven’t managed to get right. And now they are supposed to rescue the waning vaccination rate. What does that do to young people’s sense of justice?
Walper: When the measures were first relaxed, it felt like the lid had come off the pressure cooker. There was a tremendous amount of pressure being released. In the streets there was a lot going on, like in Munich’s Türkenstraße near the University, young people were running over the roofs of cars, there was garbage and broken bottles everywhere. That seems to have calmed down a bit now.
Schulte-Körne: The anger was certainly partly an expression of despair, of emotional crisis. Many young people became stressed most of all because they noticed they were also falling behind at school. More and more adolescents are now coming into our counselling appointments in despair because the pressure to get good grades is back.
Young people realize that school is an enjoyable place where they can meet like-minded people. Everyone took this so much for granted that it was only during the crisis that they learned to appreciate it at all.
Prof. Dr. Anne Frenzel
Are there also some factors that have made children and adolescents more resilient?
Frenzel: There is qualitative data indicating that certain values have crystallized for young people. They are more aware of who their good, reliable friends are — people with whom they were able to keep in touch despite the restrictions. They realize that school is an enjoyable place where they can meet like-minded people. Everyone took this so much for granted that it was only during the crisis that they learned to appreciate it at all. Hence: Students now face learning deficits from the Covid-19 period. However, perhaps they’ve also learned to see school differently now.
How do you mean?
Frenzel: To put it bluntly, school in Covid-19 times had something of a progressive educational slant about it. During homeschooling, the requirement to achieve a certain performance standard virtually disappeared. No grades were given. Learning contexts were much more open, students were expected to organize themselves; but they were trusted and granted a lot of autonomy. And in the new situation, which came as a shock to everyone, there was almost a fraternization in some cases, certainly teachers and students came together — against an external enemy, the virus. School and learning were in some respects being done a way that some educational reformers would like to see them: learning opportunities that teachers and students work out together and with wide scope for self-determination
That sounds good.
Frenzel: The only problem is that school had previously functioned in a completely different way — instead of providing opportunities for learning, it was often basically just communicated what needs to be known and what will be tested in the next assignment; under the constant threat of bad grades. Given that this had been the case, self-regulation worked surprisingly well for many students during homeschooling, and this is something that can actually be stored as a resource.
During the lockdown, many young people got themselves well established in the digital world and exploited and expanded their networks there. Internet usage has always been viewed rather critically by adults. Has the verdict on that softened now?
Walper: It was one of the few ways of keeping in touch, keeping busy at home, and learning that was accessible to people. And that’s better than nothing. That’s why we all experienced a strong digitalization surge, not just the schools, although some of them are still lagging behind. For adolescents in particular, the internet was naturally an important medium. But I don’t think it allowed them to compensate for everything.
Schulte-Körne: They were already extremely well connected before. Smartphone ownership and the amount of time kids and teens spend online is constantly rising. The average time elementary school children spend online was recently measured at 3.5 hours a day — for elementary school kids!
But isn’t it a vital response to being cut off for teenagers to spend their evenings on the internet, not just gaming but also using chat platforms?
Schulte-Körne: The unstoppable boom in social media — excuse the clinical lens I’m now viewing it through — is also linked to an increase in cyberbullying. There’s no data yet on whether that increased further in the Covid-19 crisis. The opportunity to be socially connected may also have raised the risk of being exposed to bullying. And in the pandemic, victims were struggled even more to defend themselves because the internet offered the only form of contact.
As adults, we’re used to saying that face-to-face contact is good and digital contact is at best a substitute. But does this separation of real and virtual even exist for young people today, quite apart from the value judgment? Isn’t it more the case that what they see as belonging together is indeed converging?
Walper: The two do indeed belong together for teenagers. There’s only a very small group of them that doesn’t spend time online with their friends. For teens, it’s precisely this interplay between physical presence and digital contact, the rapid exchange of short messages. The free-flowing back and forth that happens until they’ve arranged a meetup is totally normal communication among adolescents. And there’s many technical aids that have been developed to foster virtual togetherness — from playing games to watching TV series together, everyone in their own room.
Schulte-Körne: I wouldn’t talk about ‘one world’ and compare it to ‘the other world’. Things have already changed in the real world, it’s we adults that have to catch up. It’s just a question of what we recommend when looking at it from different perspectives. A lot of communication naturally takes place online, that’s real, but it isn’t a substitute for meeting face to face — that has a different quality and intensity about it. The digital world does, in sensory terms, provide visual, maybe auditory, satisfaction, but it doesn’t stimulate the other senses. The experience is impoverished.
So did we leave young people all on their own in the digital space as well?
Schulte-Körne: We actually need to engage much more with these different realms of experience and become more competent in them. Just pulling the plug, that won’t work.
What might turn schools into a social spaces
Young people spent a lot of time online in lockdown and they were much less occupied with school-related matters than before. But school is not only a place for accumulating knowledge, it’s also a social space. How can that be promoted?
Frenzel: I don’t think that’s the real question. Everything I’ve seen shows me that school is currently being valued much more highly than usual among adolescents. Many were looking forward to being back. And that has been my mantra for some time now: Schools must give space to this new attitude among young people, encourage school to be a resource for them, a place where they can meet their friends and learn together with their friends. What it must not be is a place where people sit still, a place where all the talk is only about the missed learning that they need to catch up on quickly. Otherwise the situation may soon tip again. Teachers feel the same: They are happy to have their students sitting in front of them again and they’re glad to no longer have to upload lessons onto platforms.
Schulte-Körne: If you really want to make school a social space, you have to design it differently. It starts with how they’re built. There usually aren’t any places to meet up in, and if there are, they’re small schoolyards. But above all, the lessons are not designed to be social encounters but primarily to impart as much knowledge as possible within strict confines. The main aim of the whole education system is to qualify students for the next phase of education. But the question is, how much sense does it make to rely on qualifications as a guarantee of education? That automatically creates an enormous amount of pressure.
Walper: I think what we’ve just experienced is that teaching differently can be really good for everyone involved. The simple scheme of the flipped classroom, where students are given the opportunity to work things out for themselves first and then to use the lesson to talk about it, that’s a social space you’ve created right there, unlike what happens in traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching. I hope these experiences can be used as a way for schools to evolve. To do that, we need a certain amount of calm. But at the moment, what I am observing is an agitated debate about all the missed learning and a supposed lost generation. That threatens to fuel a panic and just see everything fall back into old patterns.
Frenzel: I think there are two obvious options. One is to have a longer school day — all-day schooling. Being able to use school as a social space is pretty much about time: periods of being together. The other option would be to have a sort of moratorium. Why can’t we turn back the clock by at least half a school year in terms of the expected level of achievement for students? That would take some of the pressure off. At least in the Gymnasium schools that would be an obvious solution, but to some degree you could do it in all types of schools. I’m surprised that that’s not part of the debate.
Schulte-Körne: Schools would also have to open up. All-day schooling offers the opportunity to cooperate with other partners within the network of public services. Especially in a city like Munich, there are so many mental health services available. If schools were given the space to offer them, so much could be achieved.
Walper: Some schools are already doing this intensively, but it’s time for a broader initiative. It’s probably easier to do it at the elementary school level than at the high school level, because that’s where the right to all-day schooling is now enshrined in law. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is currently establishing 40 family elementary school centers, pursuing precisely that kind of concept and bringing counselling, parenting seminars, and other services into schools and embedding them there institutionally. Sports clubs will also have to be brought into the all-day program, because otherwise the children will only get to go to soccer practice at eight in the evening. And we need good concepts for structuring all-day schooling in such a way that it’s not just a learning program from nine to five.
Most young people would probably subscribe to your criticism of forced catch-up programs. In one of the media surveys about how adolescents currently feel about life, one girl put it this way: “We need a catch-up program in lightheartedness.”
Frenzel: I think we all need that.
Schulte-Körne: Very true.
But the teenagers were the first to say it. What might something like that look like?
Schulte-Körne: It would involve taking the pressure off, first of all. You can’t make up for everything, compensate for everything they’ve missed. Less pressure means lower stress levels. And that, I think, is what the young people actually mean. They’ve had pressure the whole time, including during the Covid-19 lockdowns. And they want a period where the pressure is reduced, they don’t want to constantly feel or be made to feel like they’re not good enough and they’re falling short of something that’s unachievable. It’s important to remember that they are exhausted.
Exhausted from what?
Schulte-Körne: We adults are better at anticipating what’s going to happen next. Children and adolescents were very overwhelmed by not knowing what was coming next. And the younger they were, the less they were able to foresee what was about to turn their world upside down. All of us, after all, want this tense situation to come to an end. If we all just think that we have to get back to where we were before the pandemic, then we haven’t learned anything.
Walper: That’s why I think it’s very dangerous to talk about a lost generation. That is tantamount to waving goodbye to the idea that young people can be resilient. The pressure that comes from the education system is extremely bad for many of them. Even in the first lockdown, education was the issue that most concerned young people. Rarely did any other topic come up so consistently in the open-ended statements in our questionnaires. For almost half of the adolescents, the big worry was: What will become of me? Do I even have a fair chance anymore? And the closer they are to moving on to the next stage of education, the more preoccupied they become. I believe that youth work urgently needs to start up again in order to provide students with different experiences of community, of play and creativity through its offerings. So much has gone undone there. Child and youth services are extremely relevant to the way the system works, but that was a message that first had to be communicated.
Frenzel: The message that schools need to stay open has been heard now. It will likely support our lightheartedness if we can trust that schools won’t close again.
Before the virus came along, there was a huge sense of optimism among young people around the world. Fridays for Future, for example, was on its way to becoming a genuine mass movement. Then, unavoidably, it all stopped. Will it be possible to have something like a successful reboot now? Or is what we have now, after Covid-19, perhaps not a lost generation with regard to their attitude to life, but certainly a more restrained generation?
Walper: Yes, this has already been described how it’s taking quite a bit of effort for some adolescents to be able to take it easy around other people again. But it’s those ideas, issues, and values that young people are committed to that can be the bridge. I am very confident that these movements and the debate around political or environmental issues will bring young people together again and give them the necessary momentum.
Schulte-Körne: This phase of depression has to be overcome first of all. That’s not going to be easy. But perhaps it’s not such a bad thing for society as a whole to not be able to rely on young people’s enthusiasm to sort things out, but to need joint initiatives instead to deal with the challenges facing society. To not have the young people on one side, the adults on the other.
Prof. Dr. Anne Frenzel is Professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences in the Department of Psychology at LMU. Born in 1977, Frenzel studied psychology at the University of Würzburg and at LMU Munich. She completed her doctorate and habilitation at LMU. She worked at the University of Augsburg as a professor in teacher training before returning to LMU, where she is now Academic Director of the Psychology: Learning Sciences Master’s Program and Co-Director of Graduate Education in the Learning Sciences.
Prof. Dr. med. Gerd Schulte-Körne Is the holder of the chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy and is the Director of the Clinic and Polyclinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics, and Psychotherapy at the University hospital of Munich. Born in 1961, Schulte-Körne studied medicine at RWTH Aachen and the University of Marburg and completed his doctorate and habilitation at the University of Marburg. He was instrumental in developing the websites www.corona-und-du.info, www.ich-bin-alles.de, which provide children, adolescents, and their parents with important information on mental health and depression.
Prof. Dr. Sabine Walper is Director of the German Youth Institute (DJI), Munich, and Professor of Education and Youth Research at LMU (currently on a leave of absence). Born in 1956, Walper studied psychology and education at the University of Düsseldorf, TU Berlin, and the University of California in Berkeley. She completed her doctorate at TU Berlin and her habilitation in psychology at LMU Munich. From 2012 onward she was Research Director at the DJI before being appointed Director of the Institute in 2021.
Read more articles of the current issue and other selected stories in the online section of INSIGHTS. Magazine.