After finishing writing a letter to her then boyfriend of a year, she waits for a response during his two weeks away at camp. She wonders whether his lack of communication is on purpose, but just excuses it as ‘He’s at camp, he’s busy.’ However, the response that she eventually ends up receiving was an unexpected one. A break up call.
Over the summer, junior Virginia Nussbaumer found it hard to spend time with her boyfriend between summer jobs, family time and following social distancing guidelines. She convinced herself that they would be able to work through it, despite having long shifts and the risks of COVID-19 clouding over her mind.
Teenagers are finding it hard to maintain their same social interactions prior to the pandemic. Relying more on social media, phone calls and FaceTime, teens have resorted to virtual tools to act in place of face to face interaction.
“I started relying more on phone calls and texts messages, but I wasn’t receiving as many as I needed during that crazy time, which contributed to the breakup,” Nussbaumer said. “This summer there [were] constantly things pulling us apart, and we didn’t have school to hold us together either. We [saw] each other every day for the past year, then, just like that, we both don’t see each other for two months.”
Finding time for each other is not the only problem. Students are having trouble agreeing on how safe they should be, and their families have different rules regarding social distancing. Junior Caroline Teegarden and her boyfriend did not see each other for long periods of time at the beginning of quarantine and agreed that in order to see each other, they both had to be safe and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.
“We disagreed about how safe I was being,” Teegarden said. “He told me, ‘It doesn’t only affect you, it affects other people too,’ and I [realized] that’s a good point. It got me thinking, and I started being more safe because I realized it affected him and his family too. It wasn’t a problem, but it was a good conversation.”
But despite the pandemic affecting and severing relationships, it has also allowed for new romances to sprout through social media. Forty-seven percent of students reached out to new people during quarantine. Junior Mary Grace Altizer, for example, talked to her now boyfriend online over the course of three months before finally meeting in person. By talking over Snapchat for extended periods of time, they got to know one another and knew that meeting face to face was what they both wanted.
“I wasn’t really talking to anybody, and I wasn’t really looking for anything,” Altizer said. “It kind of fell into my lap. We both knew that we liked each other, but we just needed to meet. When we met, it was so much better, and then we went on a few more dates.”
At the beginning of the quarantine, many teens did not go out with their friends and stayed home, causing many friend groups to dissolve and people to reach out and make new online friends. As a result, the Eagle Edition poll showed that 33 percent of students met new people online during quarantine.
“Not being able to do many activities has forced us to get to know each other a lot better,” Altizer said. “We really have to talk because there is not a lot else to do. I kind of hate saying that I met him over Snapchat because that sounds so cheesy, but for us it was actually a really good way to kind of get to know each other. I feel like I know him really well, even though we’ve been dating for a month.”
Meeting new people during the pandemic
But not everyone has been affected in a negative way; the pandemic has also helped teens. One of these teens is upper school Emmett Sandell*, who found different people around Dallas that he would not have reached out to if not for being under quarantine restrictions.
“Social media started and helped me [talk to different girls],” Sandell said. “Mostly texting and FaceTime, but it became more in person.”
For someone who was very single when the pandemic reached the U.S., Sandell took advantage of the lack of entertainment to meet and talk to new people. He had more than one fling over the summer thanks to social media.
“[Being quarantined] honestly [helped me],” Sandell said. “People weren’t exactly looking for a relationship but more of something to do. I knew [the people I was talking to], but I didn’t know them that well. It was mostly through mutual friends.”
After a summer of meeting and making new friends across North Dallas, Sandell found someone outside of ESD that he connected with.
“I guess I am in something serious right now,” Sandell said. “It just kind of played out to be that way. It started out very lenient and casual, and it worked its way into something more serious.”
Sandell and his girlfriend go to different schools, and are unable to see each other on a daily basis due to school, sports, work and other social activities, but COVID-19 has not been a limiting factor. Being in a new relationship can be tricky considering the circumstances, but Sandell believes it’s all worth it.
“[A more serious relationship] is always a good thing,” Sandell said. “It’s not always good to start things fast. I’d much rather start things slow and see where things go from there. Having someone to be there for you and talk to you is very nice. Whether it’s serious or not, it’s nice to have someone.”
Sixty-one percent of students feel the same way and reported that they have been able to connect with someone, despite it being online. Many students, however, have not been as lucky. Sixty-six percent of students said they had not made any new online friends during quarantine. Being able to find someone to spend time with has helped with feelings of isolation and loneliness, despite couples not expecting to hold onto something long term.
Dating during the pandemic
Some couples have been able to maintain their relationship throughout the pandemic by turning to phone and FaceTime calls as well and using social media as a form of communication. However, with online school in the spring and summer break, many couples who were used to seeing each other at school every day struggled to adjust to seeing each other much less. Teegarden and her boyfriend attend different schools, making them accustomed to seeing each other less and easier for them to work around each other’s schedules.
“It is more difficult, especially for couples that are used to seeing each other every day,” Teegarden said. “Some couples weren’t able to see each other for two to three months. I think it really tested their communication skills and their trust in each other. Communication is key because, during the pandemic, sometimes you can’t see your significant other for days in a row, so making time to talk to each other really helped us.”
Due to stay-at-home orders and safety guidelines, couples have had to find new ways to go out on their typical dates. Forty-five percent of students believe that the pandemic has affected the way they date. Previously, teens relied on football games, dances and mixers as ways to have fun nights with their partner, but with COVID-19, most schools have either rescheduled or cancelled these events. So, couples have found new “date spots” in order to go out but still comply with safety guidelines. Top Golf, drive-ins and picnics have been Teegarden’s top choices for new date spots.
“Because we had to get creative with dates and hangouts, it made us think of stuff that we normally wouldn’t have done before,” Teegarden said. “It’s good and different. It was super fun to do things other than our normal activities, and we will definitely keep going on more fun dates!”
However, the pandemic has caused an increase in social anxiety, leading to more breakups and an expected 15 percent increase in filings for divorce, according to the Wall Street Journal, as couples struggle to find common ground. According to a Sept. 26 poll of 249 students, 17 percent of couples experienced a breakup during the pandemic. Though the pandemic has hurt some marriages and other relationships, others found it very helpful. Alumna Madison Willox ‘18 has been dating her boyfriend for three-and-a-half years. They did long distance for 18 months before quarantine, so being home was a positive for their relationship.
“Normally during the year, we usually see each other once a month because that’s the only chance we have to fly and see each other, and that would only be for a few days,” Willox said. “For our relationship it was good, just because we got to spend more time together, which was the best thing about quarantine for us.”
Willox is a student at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, while her boyfriend attends Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, so while they were home from college, they tried to maximize the amount of time they spent together.
“We pretty much lived together,” Willox said. “His family lives in Corpus [Christi], so we would spend two weeks at my house and two weeks at his house, so we weren’t apart that often.”
Mental Health and Social Interactions:
Lacking significant physical connection and normal social settings, teens have turned to social media. Teenagers, more than other age groups, thrive in extremely social situations, thus this time of isolation has greatly affected their mental health in a negative manner.
“The majority [of teens] are really missing and lacking social interaction, and it has added more strain, more challenge, more isolation [and] more depression than pre-pandemic,” Psychologist Ashley Kuehne ‘93 said. “And certainly if someone was struggling prior to the pandemic, this has exacerbated it.”
During times of crisis, human brains are in a constant state of fight or flight and thus are not functioning how they normally should. Continuously being in this state of mind causes people’s brains and neurological systems to accept this as the new normal mental state. However, this adjustment can actually create more harm than good.
“This has gone on for months, and our nervous systems start rewiring and living in that context,” Kuehne said. “We’re trying to be healthy and prevent disease, but we’re actually struggling with the mental health aspect that is affecting our bodies and lowering our immune system.”
In addition to the negative effects of our neurological systems rewiring, the use of social media as a crutch has stimulated more stress and anxiety when trying to build and maintain relationships. Seventy-nine percent of students believe that the increase in usage of social media during the pandemic has caused negative mental health effects. As screen time surges, so does added anxiety, stress and depression that come with societal image standards and online relationships.
“We have been forced to pivot and find ways to connect,” Kuehne said. “I am still very aware and concerned about social media and the dangers of it, but I think that teens, especially, and adults are trying to find avenues to connect.”
Online relationships are also under scrutiny as they can be dangerous, especially during COVID-19. Oftentimes, people misread tones and messages as a result of mis-communication over social media. However, the nervous system’s susceptibility to make mistakes is heightened as our brains adjust to a different social lifestyle, especially after months of quarantine. Experts are cautioning against online relationships because without having experienced in-person contact, it is hard to know if one can truly trust and read their intentions.
“So much of what we say to each other is nonverbal,” Kuehne said. “Our central nervous system responds to facial expressions, body language, and that is really hard to pick up online. We can pick up some of it, but we often misinterpret it.”
Teens are, however, prospering in these online sparked relationships. Oftentimes, it has given people something they could dedicate themselves to during the period of uncertainty and some mental stability knowing they could have someone to talk to.
“Quarantine wasn’t terrible for me, but I am a really extroverted person,” Altizer said. “It is really important for me to be able to make connections with people. Nick, [my boyfriend] is somebody that I know I can constantly have conversations with throughout the day. It makes me happy to get to have that connection with somebody.”
Despite warnings, many teens are jumping in to new relationships and severing old ones over the course of this pandemic. Sustaining social connections during this time has become a game of balancing social media and in-person relationships in the safest and healthiest manner to prevent an escalation in negative mental health effects.
“I’m going to be positive that this comes to an end at some point, and my hope is that we go back to face to face connection and limit screen time,” Kuehne said. “My fear is that it’s going to become the new normal, and I don’t think that is healthy.”
*name has been changed to protect the student’s identity