Pandemic, isolation exacerbate struggles
Quin Carmicino, a junior at Haldane High School in Cold Spring, remembers the lengths she went to trying to preserve some normalcy during the pandemic.
Sitting with friends on a brick wall at the West Point Foundry Preserve, each of them 6 feet apart. Dyeing a friend’s hair in her garage, with masks on and the door open, on a frigid January afternoon. Getting to know every nook and cranny of the nearby public parks.
At the time, Carmicino, who was in eighth grade when schools in New York closed in March 2020, took it in stride. “I accepted it quickly and became close to a few people,” she said. But now, two years older and with the benefit of perspective, she recognizes it wasn’t the smooth transition that it seemed.
“I’ve just now realized how terrible my mental health was” during the pandemic, said Carmicino, 16, in an interview last month. “I was so isolated. I didn’t realize how much I’d shut that part of my life out. I think there was so much wrong with the world, that I wasn’t able to deal with anything that was wrong with myself.”
As we reported last week, students in the Highlands struggled mightily during the pandemic. While the 2022-23 school year began last month with no COVID-related restrictions, it’s not as easy as the flick of a switch to get back to “normal.”
In this series, which will conclude next week with some ideas about what can be done, we hope to provide insight into what’s happening with children and teenagers.
By the last week of March 2020, students in the Highlands were attending class virtually, limping to the finish line of a school year they’ll never forget. That fall, Haldane students in kindergarten through eighth grade returned to school full time, while high school students started the year in a “hybrid,” two-days-on, two-days-virtual schedule. (Everyone was virtual on a fifth day.)
In Beacon, a much larger district than Haldane, all students began that year either hybrid or all-virtual. Garrison, with 215 students on a 60,000-square-foot campus that allowed distancing, offered a full-time, in-person option, as well as virtual.
Because she only saw half of her classmates through virtual learning, Carmicino said she felt unable to connect with others and expand her social circle. “I was basically stunted at the emotional maturity of an eighth grader,” she said. In 2020, “I had this instinct to shy away from people physically, but when you’re always shrinking away, you can’t get close to people. I’m only now making all the connections that I should have made two years ago.”
Study: Children Especially Vulnerable
How do children and teens respond to adverse events? In 2005, researchers at Columbia University released the results of a study of New York City public school students following one of the most traumatic days in U.S. history — the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Researchers interviewed more than 8,200 students in grades 4 through 12 during the six months after the attacks, including an oversampling of children who were closest to the World Trade Center and in other high-risk areas, such as neighborhoods where a large number of the residents were first responders.
They found that 29 percent of the students identified with one or more of six anxiety or depressive disorders. The most prevalent were agoraphobia (a fear of crowded places, or of leaving one’s home), separation anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Girls and children in grades 4 and 5 were the most affected.
The research team, which was led by three members of the Department of Psychiatry, said that one of 9/11’s most profound consequences was “a direct assault on the population’s mental health” and that the results of its survey “support the need to apply wide-area epidemiological approaches to mental health assessment after any large-scale disaster.”
Earlier research suggested that, in the context of mass disasters, children may be especially vulnerable, they said. Post-disaster studies also reported a greater prevalence of physical symptoms among youth dealing with post-traumatic stress.
“What we understood from 9/11 is that the effect of extreme stress is not limited to only one condition,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Yuval Neria, the director of Columbia’s PTSD research program, said in an interview published by the university in September 2021. “With COVID, like 9/11, you see effects on sleep habits, you may see an increase in consumption of alcohol and drugs, you can see both depression and PTSD and, of course, you can see grief among those who lost loved ones.”
In-person learning was expanded for high school students at Haldane in the spring of 2021. Everyone was in person, with masks, for the 2021-22 academic year, but the atmosphere was far from normal, Carmicino said.
The current class of seniors at Haldane, students Carmicino would have normally looked up to, are “these people I’ve only just met,” she said. “It’s like I fell asleep one day when I was 13 and now I’m 16.”
Denise Angelo, a licensed clinical social worker based in Cold Spring, said the dramatic shift brought on by the shutdown led to more sustained anxiety than she was used to seeing among teenagers.
“I used to see a lot of kids with short-term anxiety,” said Angelo, who was a social worker for 23 years in a Westchester County school before going into private practice in 2014. “Say their parents were getting a divorce. What happens with kids is they’re anxious about what’s going to happen, but once they have some kind of agreement, the kids will say, ‘OK, he’s still my dad, she’s still my mom and I’m still going to see them,’ then everything settles down and they get back to a new normal.
“I’d see a teenager for a couple of months to get them through that transition,” she said. “But now, they have this anxiety that continues. Sometimes it permeates everything.” The pandemic shutdown, and the isolation, “rocked their world,” Angelo said.
A ‘toxic’ space
This week, a federal task force recommended that children and teenagers from ages 8 to 18 be screened by their primary doctors for anxiety. The volunteer panel, which focuses on preventive medicine, also affirmed a previous recommendation that adolescents from 12 to 18 be screened for depression.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before the pandemic, 5.8 million children had been diagnosed with anxiety and 2.7 million with depression. Both diagnoses are more common as children get older. In 2019, a national survey found that 9 percent of children and teens between ages 3 and 17 were taking prescribed medications to address emotional or mental health issues.
At Haldane, Superintendent Philip Benante said students have demonstrated more social and emotional problems than academic ones over the last two years.
One of the unintended consequences of pandemic learning, Benante said, was the increased amount of time students spent online. While virtual schooling was structured,
with a teacher leading students through lessons via Google Classroom, “I don’t think when school ended our kids were inclined to just turn it off,” he said. “They were switching over to Snapchat or TikTok and interacting with one another.” When negative interactions occur online, “things can exacerbate or spiral because it’s an uncontained environment,” Benante said.
Ryan Biracree, a Beacon resident who is the digital services librarian at the Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison, held a workshop last month to teach parents and children how to use social media in a healthy way.
The program, which will be held again Nov. 16, provides instruction on the differences between online and in-person interactions, what information to share (and not to share) and how sites like Facebook use algorithms to push content to users.
Biracree noted that his presentation differs from a course on online safety, which might educate users on sites to avoid or red flags that could identify a scam. Those topics are important, he said, but may not match up with his audience’s typical usage.
His message is that online life is real life for teens or younger children who have never known a world without the internet. “You have to treat it like real life, because in their brain, it is just as real as their offline interactions,” Biracree said.
As an example, he discusses the online relationships that he maintains with friends from graduate school. He may never see those people in person again, but the relationships are meaningful to him. “It’s not the same as an in-person relationship, but that doesn’t make it invalid or worse,” he said. “It’s something that’s just different.”
It’s also important to recognize what online communication lacks, such as tone of voice or body language, he said. Take perceived slights, for instance. “There’s a lot more space to overanalyze your relationship if it’s preserved [such as through text messages or other digital mediums] and it’s not supplemented by something in person,” Biracree said.
With more “cultural permission” today to discuss emotions and mental health, Biracree encourages parents to help their children engage with others online in a balanced way. “Parents shouldn’t feel like this is going to be a fight with their kids to talk about these things,” he said. “Kids are talking about it with each other.”
In fact, since students returned full time, school social workers and psychologists have been “seeing a significant increase in students dealing with anxiety or things outside of school that carry over” into the classroom, said Nick DeMarco, a psychologist at Beacon High School. “Kids aren’t feeling like they’re comfortable in their own skin.”
Social media impacts on impressionable children and teens were a concern before the pandemic, especially for girls. A study published just before the shutdown that analyzed the social media habits of nearly 11,000 14-year-olds in the U.K. found that girls were more likely to be involved in online harassment (either giving or receiving), have low self-esteem or body weight dissatisfaction and to be unhappy with their appearance than boys. It also found that girls slept less while reporting more social media use than boys did.
Another study, released earlier this year, found that U.S. children between 8 and 12 years old average 5½ hours per day on screens, not counting school or homework. For teenagers, it’s about 8½ hours a day. Both were increases over two years earlier. Girls were also found to post more often about emotions, dating or accomplishments — topics related to peer acceptance — than boys.
Through airbrushed photos of perfect skin and images of micro-waisted women, children were exposed to “distorted beauty standards and pushed even more into a totally impossible realm” while isolated, Carmicino said. Now, she said, “people are more attached to their phones than ever. It’s like tearing your leg off” to get teenagers to put them down.
Voluntary annual state testing in language arts and math provides metrics for student progress but may not yet be a good measure of the effect of the pandemic on learning, educators say. The tests weren’t given in 2020 and few students took them in 2021. More took them in 2022 but not at pre-pandemic levels.
With that caveat in mind, the numbers below show the percentage of students in grades 3 to 8 who met or exceeded grade-level standards. (Eighth-grade students in accelerated math classes take Regents exams, not the state assessment.) Statewide figures have not been released for 2022, but in 2019, 45 percent of students in grades 3-8 were judged proficient in language arts and 47 percent in math.
Children and teens lack the emotional maturity to weigh the unrealistic and unhealthy expectations they see being set online versus the natural desire for acceptance at that age — a problem exacerbated when students had few options for in-person interactions during the pandemic, said Sagrario Rudecindo-O’Neill, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and student support for the Beacon school district.
“They’re living in this space that isn’t even real,” she said. “Our kids are on Instagram or TikTok and they’re trying to find self-worth through these artificial realities,” such as amassing followers. Describing some of the content on social media as becoming “more and more toxic,” Rudecindo-O’Neill used the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, won this year by 14-year-old Harini Logan of Texas, as an example.
“I follow the Spelling Bee every year and I read an article and happened to scroll down to the comments,” she said. “Most of them were positive, but there were some people saying, ‘Oh, she won $25,000 — maybe she can fix her teeth now.’ These were adults tearing apart a 14-year-old girl. That’s the space our kids are living in.”
What could be done
This series was funded by contributions from readers to our Special Projects Fund.