The COVID-19 Lockdown through the eyes of teenagers
80 % of Teenagers in Bulgaria feel angry but act responsibly
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Authors: Assoc. Prof. Margarita Bakracheva, Education and Arts Studies Faculty, St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia
Ivaylo Spasov, Communication for Social Change Officer, UNICEF Bulgaria
What do Bulgarian teenagers feel and think and how do they act in the COVID-19 setting? How are they coping with physical isolation and what are their online experiences like? What are teenagers’ expectations in times of crisis and who do they recognise as authority figures? What do they say they miss and what do they need? An online knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and practices (KABP) survey organised by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bulgaria attempts to answer all these questions. The survey covered 810 students aged between 15 and 19 (grades 8 to 12) from all of Bulgaria in the context of full-blown lockdown. The purpose of the survey was to outline a model that may be used in the event of another crisis. That would enable all stakeholders (institutions, teachers, parents and teenagers themselves) to prepare their response and coping strategies better.
The lockdown prompted teenagers to experience strong emotions, most of them negative: :‘I feel completely lost in my own thoughts.’. Therefore, compared with the period before the pandemic, Bulgarian teenagers feel:
- 5 times more irritation;
- 5 times more boredom;
- 4 times more loneliness;
- 4 times more nostalgia and sadness;
- 3 times more anger;
- 3 times more disappointment;
- 2 times more fear and anxiety;
- 2 times more helplessness and uselessness.
The share of youths who reported positive experiences during the crisis was smaller: ‘Thanks to the Internet, I have remained in contact with all my friends. I do not feel the need to go outside’. In other words, the mainstays of teenage life were shaken to their core: ‘My feelings tend to fluctuate. One moment, I may feel incredibly happy and the next I may be terribly sad or depressed’.
COPING STRATEGIES FOR THE EMOTIONAL ROLLECOSTER
How have teenagers managed to cope with this emotional rollercoaster? They seem to have found comfort and a measure of balance by appealing to a sense of autonomy typical of their age: ‘I have an opinion of my own.’ - and focusing on the ‘here and now’ without worrying too much about the abstract future. The preferred activity of over 80 % of teenagers during self-isolation – watching videos on social media - is indicative of this. It illustrates the way in which teenagers went about satisfying their three basic needs: on-the-spot, real and quick stimuli; sharing experiences with others; and a sense of being in control. Other activities that introduced balance into their lives included greater communication with friends and acquaintances: ‘We miss one another more and we tend to write to one another more often.’ This was complemented by other activities that structured their daily life and kept boredom at bay (73 % stated that they had begun to perform certain chores at home). Teenagers’ adaptation to their new reality was also made easier by a greater sense of humour, with half of them sharing that this was their regular strategy for coping with stress.
Sense of humour, however, does not mean that teenagers took the lockdown lightly or that they were smug about it. ‘I associate it with discipline and patience because these are especially needed these days. I also take it as an opportunity to develop other qualities and perhaps discover new ones, too’. 80 % of teenagers acted responsibly and adhered to the imposed public health measures (64 % did not go outside and 89 % wore facemasks when they did). This sense of self-discipline persists in spite of the anger brought about by isolation: ‘I feel like an animal kept at a zoo’; ‘Humiliation, rights being infringed, and the opinions of others being shoved in our faces’. This is important since half of teenagers did not believe that there was an immediate danger to themselves, yet remained willing to follow the rules in order to protect their adult relatives and their health (however, teenagers did feel increasingly angry when adults themselves did not follow said rules): ‘I stepped away from all manner of activities that made me happy just to see people that form part of the highest-risk group casually stroll in the streets (some not even wearing a facemask in spite of the new regulations and the sanctions provided for)’.
Overall, teenagers approached the COVID-19 pandemic in a rational manner and looked for arguments to allow them to adopt positions of their own, something they highlighted as being important to them: ‘My opinion as regards the virus is founded on facts and verified information’. This process required them to begin to look for verified data, not merely the opinions of influencers and social media groups. Teenagers underscored that they based their own stances on expert positions and that they trusted their parents the most. However, teachers remained outside teenagers’ trusted circle of authoritative figures. Opinions diverged wildly as regards school and education. They missed school because they could no longer communicate face to face, but distance learning was a source of fatigue and left them with a sense of quantity being emphasised at the expense of quality. ‘I would like to appeal to the Ministry of Education and Science to reduce the workload in distance learning and make the process less stressful and time-consuming. Indeed, some teachers have overdone it on the task end’.
Since teenagers spent so much time online, be it studying or enjoying some form of entertainment, how did this affect their overall experience: were they susceptible to cyberbullying over the course of the pandemic or to the ‘infodemic’ of fake news? On the one hand, teenagers reported a positive trend, with 62 % considering that the lockdown did not see an increase or a plateau in aggression online but rather a decrease. They shared that aggression gave way to more meaningful communication between students, which was reflected in their willingness to help one another. Nevertheless, this trend ran parallel to a negative one, which reveals that where cases of cyberbullying occurred some teenagers considered these ‘normal’ and part of their daily life, i.e. something that did not merit all that much attention and was even denied: ‘There is no such thing as cyberbullying. No one would take offence if they were told that everybody hated them and that they had no friends’. This proceeds directly from a social norm revealing high tolerance towards violence in Bulgarian society. Still, it is encouraging that 57 % of teenagers state that they were more active when it came to warning friends in case they detected any fake news.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
The overarching trend concerning preferred sources of information reveals that during the lockdown teenagers resorted mostly to Bulgarian sources (TV and radio) and followed the data availed to the public by the competent institutions. These were used as a source of reliable information by 68 % of the teenagers surveyed: ‘Arguments are important but who issues these arguments is also important’. Depending on how logical or logically flawed the official information made public was, teenagers either trusted it, which accounted for their disciplined behaviour, or they did not trust it, their emotions escalating into anger and prompting displays of recklessness such as sharing conspiracy theories to account for discrepancies in the information provided. Hence, it is of extreme importance that all messages communicated by the responsible stakeholders to the general public and teenagers in specific should be clear, accurate, logical and consistent. Making controversial information public and imposing disproportionate measures exacerbates teenagers’ sense of frustration and their conviction in the existence of a ‘media bubble’: ‘I can associate this with instilling unnecessary panic and hurling false information to the public. At some point, all social media, TV stations and online hubs droned on about the coronavirus’.
It is precisely this sense of the situation being blown out of proportion (a low number of persons infected coupled with measures that were all too stringent) that prompted teenagers to resort to conspiracy theories to account for the behaviour of public institutions and the media: ‘In my opinion, this virus was artificially created to eliminate the weaker links in the population’. The majority of teenagers (two-thirds of those surveyed) were inclined to believe that the coronavirus was the result of a controlled experiment with a new bioweapon, while a small fraction of them (around 16 %) were of the opinion that it was related to 5G networks. Standing between these extremes were the hypothesis of around half of respondents to the effect that the coronavirus was a tool used to impose a new social and political order, or to plunge the world into a pre-planned financial crisis. Here are explanations they have offered for the discrepancy between facts and the disproportionate panic instilled: ‘Due to the low mortality and infection rates, declaring a lockdown is not necessary. Indeed, it boggles the mind why COVID-19 should be said to afflict people with ‘a rage hitherto unwitnessed’. Has the world not already been through the plague, or the Ebola virus... and many other diseases with an outrageously higher death toll?’. This also is particularly important with a view to trust in the media and messages sent to teenagers in general. Blowing the situation out of proportion translates into teenagers avoiding media content and turning to social media in search of peace and quiet.
LACKS AND EXPECTTAIONS
What do teenagers share they miss the most? Friends, ‘strolling about’ and travel. ‘It is not at all the same over the phone because sometimes you just need a hug from a friend, often because of things you cannot share with your parents’. In light of this, what did teenagers care about the most? ‘Will there be graduation galas?’ (45 %), ‘When do we get to go outside?’ and ‘How do we cope after this?’ (42 %), as well as the health of relatives (45 %). The vast majority of teenagers (85 %) anticipated that after the lockdown is lifted a grave financial recession would set in: ‘I do not know why but there are people who believe that we could not care less whether out parents, or indeed our friends’ parents, will stay in employment and continue to receive an income, or not’. Yet, teenagers anticipated that the following changes would take place as a result of greater public focus on healthy lifestyle (72 %) and the change in human values towards greater humanity (71 %). ‘In my opinion, after this crisis people will come to understand that they cannot survive without their friends and acquaintances and thus they will see one another more often and think more about their relatives and friends than they do about themselves’. Nevertheless, there are voices that considered that the public would not emerge wiser out of this experience and that the opportunities offered by the crisis would be squandered: ‘People in the 21st century prefer to forget bad experiences, believing that not thinking about them would be as if they never happened in the first place and not taking responsibility for the ensuring consequences’. We are yet to see which of their forecasts will come true... and whether this and the messages sent by their immediate environment will lead to their anger escalating, thus changing the trend of their responsible behaviour.