‘Fear and anxiety’ from 2020 stunted social development for millions of young Americans

MAINZ, Germany — The year 2020 was so traumatic for young Americans that their social development has been stunted, according to a new study. Researchers report that young adults experienced lower levels of satisfaction with their relationships and felt less supported by their friends in the year of the pandemic compared to 2019.

As a result, younger adults may struggle to form lifelong friendships and relationships, and could even have more issues succeeding in their careers. The differences were not drastic, but the study authors say that young people experienced enough missed opportunities for their development to be put at risk. They also experienced more stress and anxiety than people growing up in more normal years.

Interestingly, researchers were surprised to find young adults in 2020 did not feel much more lonely than they did in other years.

For the study, researchers with The Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz looked at the social development of 415 Californians ages 18 to 35 over eight months in 2020 and compared it to that of 465 young Californians in 2019. Participants shared updates on factors relating to their development.

Researchers say that participants’ reported less contentment in romantic relationships, along with a decline in intimacy. Social support and inclusion among friends also decreased.

“If everything goes well, young adults select into social networks, initiate friendships and romantic relationships, and find their occupational niche,” says lead study author Dr. Janina Bühler in a statement. “Our findings, however, show that external stressors and environmental variations may set young adults on a less fortunate path.”

Of course, 2020 was a year of tumult for the United States. From the start of the coronavirus pandemic to a stock market crash to the killing of George Floyd to one of the most polarizing presidential elections in American history, there was no shortage of stressful times for citizens young and old. Even if these events caused only a moderate level of stress, scientists say the effects can still cause problems for years to come.

“Environmental conditions and contexts are critical for development, because they provide the opportunities that people need to grow in a healthy way,” says Dr. Bühler. “In the case of 2020, the average young person may have had fewer of these opportunities, causing fear and anxiety while potentially hindering their development.”

The team says that further research examining coping skills among people who were less affected could lead to better resources and support for struggling youngsters being developed.

The findings are published in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science.

Report by South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright

YouTube video