The researchers have urged the policymakers to consider the effects of physical distancing measures introduced to tackle the spread of COVID-19 on young people’s social development and wellbeing.
The study was published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal.
The researchers warn that adolescence is a sensitive period in young people’s lives when their social environment and interactions with peers are important for brain development, mental health and developing a sense of self.
They believe that reduced face-to-face social contact with peers may interrupt this and might have long-term detrimental effects.
Adolescence is a period of heightened vulnerability to mental health problems, with 75% of adults who have ever had a mental health condition reporting that they first experienced symptoms before the age of 24 years.
They also discuss how the use of digital technologies and social media might mitigate some of the negative effects of social distancing, by helping to maintain social connections between young people and their peers, but further research is needed.
Many questions about the impact of physical distancing on young people remain unanswered, and there is little understanding of how other stressors experienced during the COVID-19 crisis may be affecting young people, such as economic pressures, uncertainty and loss of public events marking key rites of passage.
Nevertheless, the authors argue that policymakers should give urgent consideration to young people when considering easing of physical distancing measures, and that reopening schools and other social environments for young people should be a priority when it is considered safe to do so.
Lead author, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK, said: “Owing to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many young people around the world currently have substantially fewer opportunities to interact face-to-face with peers in their social network at a time in their lives when this is crucial for their development. Even if physical distancing measures are temporary, several months represents a large proportion of a young person’s life. We would urge policymakers to give urgent consideration to the wellbeing of young people at this time.”
Dr Livia Tomova, one of the authors of the Viewpoint, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “It is important to note that physical distancing measures may not affect all young people in the same way. Adolescents living in a family environment, who have positive relationships with the parents, carers or siblings, may be less affected than those who do not have positive family relationships or are living alone. Given the widespread use of physical distancing policies worldwide, there is an urgent need to understand the short and long-term effects of reduced face-to-face social interaction and increased use of digital technologies on human adolescent development and mental health.”