“You had a sort of a sense of resilience and ‘grit,’ even prepandemic that I think served them well,” she said. “I do see an ability to pivot.”
In Dr. Luthar’s research, reports of loneliness actually decreased for seventh and eighth graders between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2021 — a reflection, she hypothesizes, of how alienating and lonely middle school is for many of them during “normal” times. (“The loners, the introverts, the kids that weren’t popular — they’re fine, thank you,” she said.)
Other new data suggest that the youngest adolescents may have pulled through the pandemic year with somewhat less wear and tear than older teens. In the fall of 2020, a research team led by the psychologist Angela L. Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania surveyed more than 6,500 high schoolers in a large, demographically diverse school district that allowed families to choose whether their children would attend classes remotely or in person.
They found that, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, students who attended school remotely showed significantly lower levels of social, emotional and academic well-being — except for ninth graders, whose levels stayed about the same. (And who, for most of the 20th century, were considered to be in the same developmental category as seventh and eighth graders, and taught in junior high schools.)
Over all, Dr. Steinberg said, the adolescents who have fared the best during the pandemic have tended to be those who have been able to stay connected to their friends. And that, for many middle schoolers, has meant having parents who are willing to relax their usual rules about social media and screen time.
“Social media is mitigating some of the effects of isolation,” he said.
That message, frequently repeated by experts and educators, should offer some relief to the many parents who feel guilty about the amount of screen time they’ve allowed their children this past year.
Rabiah Harris, a public middle-school science teacher in Washington, has a doctorate in education, which permits her, as the mother of an almost 12-year-old, to take a philosophical view.