Young during Covid: ‘They still have enough time to develop themselves'

Photos: Ivar Pel
Now that the Covid pandemic-19 seems to have eased somewhat, it’s time to reflect on the past two years. What has gone well? What could have been done better? This article is part of a DUB's series of dialogues about Covid, in which scientists from different disciplines sit together to talk about some of the toughest questions brought about by the pandemic. In the second article in this series, Margo Trappenburg and Susan Branje take a look at the impact of the pandemic on young people from an administrative and pedagogical angle.

Trappenburg: “At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I noticed that the political debate was bizarrely constricted. Usually, there are attempts to do justice to the different interests. There are other interests apart from health care interests, such as economics, the quality of education, and freedom of choice, which includes the freedom to make unhealthy choices. But, in the Covid-19 pandemic, whatever the Outbreak Management Team (OMT) judged best at an epidemiological level was prescripted by the government. At first, there was little parliamentary debate. If there were any opposing voters, these usually argued for even stricter measures to limit damage to public health. That's strange, we’ve never experienced that before. During the Q fever epidemic in the Netherlands, for instance, both public health interests and the economical interests of the agricultural sector were taken into account, with the latter eventually prevailing."

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the political debate restricted itself to public health damage: first in the most constricted sense and later with a broader interpretation. At some point, people with a medical background proposed broader medical reasons to ensure there would be some kind of consideration. Physicians also started noticing how isolation could be detrimental to people's health. Only the things that could harm (public) health, be it caused by the coronavirus or the measures to contain its spread, were allowed to be discussed. Saying that the measures harmed education or took away the experience of being a higher education student was not considered a valid argument, but saying that students were depressed or suicidal because of the pandemic was, as it is a medical argument.”

Branje: “We saw many adolescents struggling because of the measures against Covid. Negative emotions and feelings of loneliness increased, while academic motivation and wellbeing decreased. As the pandemic progressed, the extent of the psychological complaints grew along with the scale of the anti-Covid measures: you can see them increase and decrease. That gives us hope, as it shows that teenagers are resilient. As soon as normal life resumes, teenagers manage to recover their interest in doing things. But these are averages. A closer look reveals that there are significant differences among young people. Those who were already in a difficult situation before the pandemic, because they had psychological issues or a difficult living situation, for example, are suffering more."

“The long-term effects are still unclear. If they were limited in their exploration of certain life areas, this could harm young people's identity development. If you can’t go on nights out, how will you meet a partner? And how will you discover which partner suits you? Although the effects are not just negative. Some young people deepened their friendships and really thought about what their priorities are, which can also help with identity development."

“It’s particularly worrisome for me that the pandemic – and the measures to curb it – lasted for so long. The choices that were made were sometimes one-sided, less directed by wellbeing and mental health considerations, even though I think the latter became more important as time went by. It’s really not right that we’ve left teenagers to study alone in their room for so long. That’s a crucial phase of their lives, where they discover things. We should have thought better about what young people could do safely, ways in which we could have spared this group, whose health was not at risk as much.”

Margo Trappenburg
(1962) is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Management & Organisational Science. She researches the healthcare field and has written about ethical questions, among other topics. In addition, Trappenburg is an endowed Professor of Foundations of Social Work at the University of Humanistic Studies.

Trappenburg: “To be honest, I thought it was an improvement when we started discussing the broader health interests. But a good political debate concerns economics, education, culture and other things too. All kinds of unequal things that matter. With other health questions, such as the smoking policy or Q fever, people never said that health goes before all else. It’s a great thing that other things matter as well, and that in a democratic entity, a consideration is made. Society must think about a matter before the government makes a decision. In that case, people understand why a certain measure is being taken, even if they disagree with it. But in the Covid pandemic, there were other concerns that were declared indisputable. The only thing that was allowed to be brought to the fore was that the Covid measures caused more health damage too."

“Taking away education from students, for instance, is not bad only when Susan discovers that it causes them to become depressed. It was also bad before that discovery, as it’s important to get a quality education. Adolescents are resilient, but even if they do not get depressed, it’s still bad to take that away from them. Students are only in their early twenties once. There is not a second chance in life to make a graduation trip, be a first-year Bachelor’s student or experience an introductory week. Politicians should consider that and not just establish that the virus dictates policy, and that is why we do this or that. There should have been a deeper political debate about what it tore up.”

Susan Branje
(1973) is a Professor of Development and Socialisation in Adolescence at Utrecht University. She researches the relationships young people have and the way they relate to personality and identity development, among other topics. Branje has studied the psychological wellbeing of young people during the pandemic.

Branje: “But the health risks were considerable, something had to be done. The restrictive measures were necessary, but some of the decisions pertaining to young people were very strict. As time progressed, we could have organised more things for young people while respecting the measures or made an exception for them so they could meet up in small groups sometimes. We could have challenged young people to do things together on a small scale."

“At the same time, you also see that adolescents have learned a lot in the Covid pandemic, even the children who have, as we say, a ‘disadvantage’. That term bothers me. Our education system is very rigid, and we can’t cope with big events such as a pandemic in a flexible way. That creates disadvantages too, as we stick to an education programme and won’t adjust it to the children’s development. We make up all kinds of things to get them up to speed, like government subsidies, but structurally, the problem remains: young people must be able to participate in the normal programme again. It’s also difficult to build that flexibility into our education system, though it did happen at the university, for instance. It should have been a larger and stronger response.”

Trappenburg: “They have a disadvantage too, don’t they?”

Branje: “If you keep clinging onto the system, they do. Because with regards to what are they disadvantaged? That is a comparison to others and other people’s achievements, not with your own development. As a teenager, I think it’s incredibly difficult to constantly hear that the group you belong to hasn’t done well. Like something is wrong with them. Really, you would just want them to continue with their development. Sometimes they are called a ‘lost generation’. I wouldn’t use that label. It’s a generation for whom we must facilitate their further development in a different way. There is plenty of time for that development to happen, but if you keep on communicating to the young people: you have a disadvantage and your results are not good enough – that is very demotivating.”

Trappenburg: “My main point was: have the Covid-19 measures been proportionate for the young people? You can also pose the same question regarding the elderly, a high-risk group. A report from the Research Security Council, led by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, notes that it would have been better for the elderly living in nursing homes if we had made a broader consideration of their interests and asked them what they themselves wanted. Do you want a maximised opportunity of growing old, even if your family won’t be able to visit? Or do you prefer being at a higher risk but living a happier, more meaningful life? I think we’re not just looking back in a positive way at the closing of nursing homes to visitors. It was safer, but the elderly have suffered from loneliness. The same goes for young people."

“If we want to learn from this, we must say: the OMT represents the interests of a particular sector. An important one, as healthcare and public health are extremely important, but it’s not the only important thing in life. If we all had a high risk of dying from the virus, it would have been inevitable to saddle young people with the same draconian measures. But now the younger generation has paid a high price to save the healthcare sector and the elderly. I agree with Susan that it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy when you tell young people they have a disadvantage. However, objectively, it’s a generation that is never going to get back certain things. That’s a tragedy, I think.”

Branje: "Your first year of studies and your introductory period are fun things. It’s a pity that they were missed, but I think we should be able to do without them. I think it’s more about the small things: the daily contact with peers, getting support. Most adolescents have tight-knit friend groups, or were able to compensate for the lack of physical get-togethers with social media. Students, generally, suffered more, because they had to study online. Young people that already had difficulty finding connections were especially vulnerable to becoming isolated. We should have paid more attention to that. Psychological wellbeing did not get its place on the political agenda until much later.”

Trappenburg: “At a certain point, it has been framed as psychological wellbeing, a health issue. Then it was allowed in the discussion. In my opinion topics like happiness, freedom and good education matter too, even though a lack of those doesn’t lead to health damage. For instance, it was not an argument that people minded the closing of gyms, just because they ‘like’ working out, but when people got more unhealthy and gained weight – a risk factor for a more severe Covid infection disease course – it was. I would have preferred a broader debate about Covid policy, with more arguments in favour and against. At a certain point that debate was held, but then it mainly concerned extremes. The side against the measures argued that they didn’t believe in the vaccine or the virus, oftentimes. What I missed was the reasonable voice against the measures. There were few people saying: I believe in the virus and science, I’m happy with the vaccine, but despite these facts, I wonder whether the policy is still proportionate. That discussion was not held much.”

Branje: “In the Covid pandemic there have been a few wins for young people, but not a lot. It’s important to consider these wins too, as it says something about the things our youth ran into during the pandemic. Young people in the Netherlands are generally very happy when compared to other European nations. At the same time, we see that stress levels are rising, which has to do with the rising pressure to achieve and with educational stress. A lot of things fell away mainly in the starting phase of the pandemic: young people were no longer required to do all kinds of things every day and had more time to sleep better and spend time with friends, even though that had to happen online. Many adolescents saw those things as positive sides to the pandemic. We can learn from that. It’s nice that we can return to our old lives, but we must also look at the good things so that we don’t go back on those. Also, there is a lot of heterogeneity in the study results. We have all had a difficult time, but some have really had a difficult time. It’s important, from here on out, to find those youngsters who suffered a lot during the pandemic. We must offer them additional support.”

Photos: Ivar Pel