‘It’s like a sci-fi show where people went to sleep and woke up two years later.’ Lockdown is over, but the scars of isolation aren’t going away.
Lily May Holland, 16, remembers the long, lonely days during lockdown when her parents, both doctors, were at work. She’d watch “Gilmore Girls” and “Gossip Girl” and “Grey’s Anatomy” over and over. She stopped eating and started doing Chloe Ting workouts. “I’d have gum and a smoothie all day,” she said. They lived in the sticks north of Charlottesville, Virginia, on a dirt road between farms and trailer parks and the occasional Baptist church, and she didn’t have a license, so she couldn’t go anywhere or meet any friends. Teachers would post assignments online, but it was like—who cared? Everything happened in isolation, like they were atoms. “I would’ve gone to parties, and me and my friends were planning to go to concerts, and homecoming,” Lily said. “I had crushes freshman year. But all that fell away.”
Teenagers need a social life. Every single study and report and piece of data tells us so. But we don’t need studies to tell us what we all already know. Ask yourself: What would it have been like if you had spent your thirteenth year in solitude?
It was more than a year, actually. Millions of American kids had gone a year-and-a-half mostly alone. And every single girl I spoke to said the same thing about the experience: They felt like they were sinking, or being swallowed up.
So it almost seemed like an understatement when, in December 2021, the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said the effect of the lockdowns had been “devastating” for young people’s mental health.
“Usually, kids would be learning to disobey their parents and stay out late and figure out the consequences, but there was just none of that,” said Regine Galanti, a clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in adolescents with anxiety disorders. The impact of all that emptiness—the zig-zagging from one hazy, blue-ish screen to another and then to another—was starting to come into focus, and it was scary. Lily said that, at some point mid-lockdown, she got sick of communicating with other human beings via iPhone. So then she stopped communicating at all. Galanti said, “It’s almost like a volcano that we set ourselves up for.”
It was an unprecedented volcano. In the past, Earth-shaking events—the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam—had forced kids to grow up. Teenagers got jobs or were deployed overseas, and when they came back they settled down and had kids or left home and fled to the big city. The point is that they started their lives.
Covid did the opposite. Instead of nudging young people out the door, it anchored them to their parents, to their bedrooms and to their screens. And now that the madness is finally ebbing, they’re unsure how to proceed. Galanti said, “it’s like a sci-fi show where people went to sleep and woke up two years later, and the world has moved on but they haven’t.”
Holland said that, when school started up again in person, “I didn’t feel like I belonged. I felt like I should still be a freshman.”
“Lately she has expressed some other unusual anxieties which we are seeking help for her to deal with. I am left to wonder if they are related to the general amount of elevated anxiety in our culture, especially among teenage girls.”
This came from Amy Volk, a former state senator and mother of four in Saco, Maine, which is an hour-and-a-half north of Boston and known for its amusement park, Funtown Splashtown USA. Volk had posted a comment, in January, in response to a Common Sense essay by a teacher worried about her kids. Volk was worried about her youngest, Serena, who is 18.
Recently, I spoke with Serena. She’d spent the previous few days in bed watching “Euphoria” and “Shameless.” The week before, she’d tested positive for Covid for the second time. “Monday I had a brutal headache for about four hours,” Serena told me. Her mom left sandwiches, ibuprofen, and vitamins at the bottom of the stairs. “I didn’t have any energy to do my hair or make TikToks or anything.”
We were chatting on the phone as she drove back from a solo trip to the beach—her first excursion out in four days. “I just sat in my car for a while, then I got Panera,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Volk was a cheerleader. She’d been cheering since second grade, but she quit at the end of her sophomore year, when the cheering team stopped traveling to compete because of Covid. “There was no pride in winning,” she said. “I started to hate going to practice.” It was the same with class, which became an ambient, digital, white noise machine—an iPad tuned into English, geometry, chemistry or American history, but with the camera off.
The tangibleness of high school—sweaty locker rooms, polyester prom dresses, the cool metal of a first-place trophy, the puff of a contraband cigarette—was gone. It no longer mattered how high schoolers dressed, or whether they dressed, or even whether they showered.
Volk described that time as “just so much emptiness.”
“All of their freedom and autonomy went away with the lockdowns,” said Lily’s mom, Dr. Eliza Holland, a pediatrician who sees teenage girls suffering from suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and drug overdoses. “I recently had a patient who was sent up from the Emergency Department who kept telling me, ‘I will kill myself if you send me back to my family.’”
It’s hard to know how seriously to take that kind of threat. Eliza Holland pointed out that the share-it-all, hyper-vulnerable format of the internet has different mores than real life. “When you say something like that online, you get a lot of positive reinforcement and you never have to look anyone in the eye. Even if you’re joking, it lands very differently in person.”
Holland spends a few weeks each summer as a volunteer physician at Lily’s sleepover camp in North Carolina. The past two summers, more girls have been homesick than usual. For the older teens, she’s had to send a few home who expressed desires to hurt or kill themselves.
This didn’t start with Covid. “People are growing up more slowly,” said Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and the author of the 2017 book “iGen.” Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist and author of “The Coddling of the American Mind,” traces the downward spiral to 2013 and the explosion of social media. That’s when the helicopter-parented 18-year-olds started to leave home with their iPhones and not much else.
But Covid has dramatically compounded these forces. Being hermetically sealed off from bad dates, bad breakups, awkward conversations, tough teachers and mean bosses has left young people even less capable of navigating the hiccups of daily life.
The CDC said that, from 2019 to 2020, the incidence of girls ages 12 to 17 who were rushed to the Emergency Room after attempting suicide jumped by 51 percent. E.R. admissions for eating disorders doubled among the same group, according to the CDC, and tripled for tic-related disorders, which experts trace in part to TikTok. (During roughly the same period, the overall U.S. suicide rate, which skews heavily male, dropped by about 3 percent.)
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“I got really into social media during lockdown,” Haley Shipley, a 14-year-old in Springfield, Missouri, told me. “I changed how I did my makeup. I’d stop eating.”
Haley’s mom, a medical coder, and her mom’s boyfriend were always stressed about money. One time, her mom threw a chair across the room. Haley got headaches from staring at the Chromebook her district had sent to every student. She had to take on more chores, and she could barely hear the teacher on Zoom while her siblings were running around and screaming.
In September 2020, Haley started cutting her arms. “A lot of girls did,” she told me, saying that social media “gave a lot of us depression.” She added, “I couldn’t sleep without feeling pain.” She retreated into her room except for meals and chores. She would wear hoodies to hide her cuts and scars. She checked out from friends. “I had visions of drowning in the bathtub,” she said.
Toward the end of summer, her mom saw her cuts. “I forgot to wear a sweatshirt one day, and my mom freaked out,” Haley said. She got her a therapist, and she texted the suicide hotline, which suggested that Haley journal and write down things she liked about herself on sticky notes, which helped her feel better and work through her emotions.
Courtney Connolly, 50, a mom from the Chicagoland area who has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago over its vaccine mandate, said her three kids “missed out on everything, and I don’t even think they understand how fucked they got.” She said her younger daughter, Emma, now 16, went from A’s in eighth grade to failing her fully-remote freshman year. “I asked her, ‘What’s going on? You haven’t turned in 20 Spanish assignments,’ and she would say, ‘So what?’”
Around Christmas 2020, Connolly said, she’d find her older daughter, then-16-year-old Maisy, sobbing alone in her room. “She felt like she was rotting in her bedroom.” Connolly offered to move Maisy, then a sophomore, to another school, or pull her out of school, or anything. “I called her academic counselor and said, ‘Maisy is dying,’” she said.
When she was going to school online, Maisy told me she wouldn’t get out of bed all day.
One day, her math teacher took her aside to check in on her. “Technically, she just put me in a breakout room on Zoom,” Maisy said. That’s when the floodgates opened, and she couldn’t stop crying. One of her friends drank a bottle of vodka alone in her room and had to get her stomach pumped. Another tried to overdose on her parents’ pills.
Maisy was lucky. Her dad is in tech. Her mom doesn’t work. The family went to Arizona for a month in mid-April to do distance learning from there, and eventually bought a house in Naples, Florida so the youngest could go to school in-person. The big question is what comes next.
Serena Volk’s mother, Amy, in Maine, was worried about that, too. The future. Serena had lost a ton of weight during the lockdown. One day, at her boyfriend’s place, she spotted her ribcage and spine in a mirror. She’s supposed to go to the University of New Hampshire next year. But she’s not a motivated student, her mom said. “I have massive concerns about the gaps in her education, especially in math,” Amy Volk told me.
Adam lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife and two daughters, now 15 and 17. He didn’t want his name in print for fear of upsetting them. It had been a long, horrible two years, unimaginable really, and the last thing he wanted was to upset them. They seemed fragile.
When he was their age, in the mid-eighties, he said, “I was focused on soccer, Van Halen, and tear-assing around Long Island with my friends and my 16-year-old girlfriend.” He said it seems as though his girls “have the weight of the world on them.”
He didn’t know how bad things had gotten with his older daughter until softball practice started up in the fall of 2020—she plays second base—and he noticed that her uniform was hanging off her body. “She could barely pick up the bat,” he said. “An irrational being crawled into my wonderful, cooperative, never-lied, straight-A student daughter,” he said. “There would be an hour-and-a-half breakdown over an English muffin with margarine.” His younger daughter would hide under her bed to escape the screaming and the tears.
Around Thanksgiving of that year, Adam rushed his daughter to the hospital. It was Sunday morning, and they called their doctor since she seemed like she was about to pass out. He told them that if they didn’t get her to a hospital soon, her heart might stop.
When they got there, they learned she was 74.6 pounds. “I’ll never forget that number as long as I live,” he said. They gave her a feeding tube, and she stabilized after a week. She was supposed to star in the play at summer camp, but camp was canceled. She was supposed to go out for debate, but that was off, too. She was supposed to do Model UN, but then Model UN went remote, and it was just sad. She was supposed to go to the beach with her grandparents, but would she ever put on a bathing suit again? There were so many things that were supposed to happen and just didn’t, and now everything was going back to normal, but it wasn’t.
Adam says, “I say to my wife all the time, ‘What have we done to our kids?’”