Spotlight Exclusives

How Teens Navigate School During COVID-19

Colleen McClain Colleen McClain, posted on

Teenagers found their worlds completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps most dramatically by the sudden switch to online school. A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that the experience and teens’ feelings about it differed drastically according to their demographic group, with Black and Hispanic teenagers reporting more difficulty along with lower-income families. For example, a quarter of teens from lower-income families reporting that they at least sometimes had difficulty completing homework during the pandemic because of a lack of reliable computer or internet access. Colleen McClain, a Pew research associate who focuses on internet and technology research, spoke with Spotlight recently about the study and its findings. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Why don’t we start with an overview of the study

Pew Research Center has a long history of studying teens and especially how technology shapes their lives. With this report – which is the first in a series we’ll be putting out from a nationally representative survey of teens and their parents – we wanted to explore their experiences with schooling amid COVID-19, given how the pandemic has upended life from school closures to missed milestones and fears of losing ground academically. The project gives voice to these teens – we wanted to hear what they themselves have made of navigating school and navigating their relationships.

We really find that the experience of teens is not “one size fits all.” One of our striking findings is that teens favor in-person over virtual or hybrid learning; the majority say that after the pandemic is over, they would like to be completely in-person. But views are not the same for all teens — they vary by race and ethnicity, for example. At the same time, we find that while a majority of teens aren’t very worried that they’ve fallen behind because of the coronavirus outbreak, other teens are concerned, and we see that Hispanic teens and lower-income teens as well as their parents are more likely to be worried about this.

One of the other important things to keep in mind is the digital divide some teens face. These issues are not new to the pandemic – we certainly saw in prior research that some teens face a homework gap, meaning tech challenges to getting their homework done. But we see in this new survey that tech struggles — things like lack of access to computers, lack of reliable access to the internet — are problems for teens today, especially teens in households with lower incomes.

I want to go deeper on each of those points, but I’m also interested in what you found in terms of socialization—making and keeping friendships, which we know was such a challenge for teenagers during this period.

We have a really interesting set of findings around how teens perceive the closeness of their relationships compared with before the pandemic, and one of the most striking things is more of a “non-finding.” We asked teens how close they feel to their parents, to their friends, to their classmates, to their teachers, and so on compared with before the pandemic. And the most common response is that about half or more teens in each case say those relationships are actually about as close as they were before the pandemic.

We do see though that there’s some variation there, as 45% of teens say they actually feel closer to their parents or guardians than pre-COVID-19. And then we see that for groups like classmates and teachers, about a third of teens are saying they feel less close to these people than before the pandemic. So certainly, it depends on the relationship in question and the circumstances teens found themselves in during the pandemic. We wanted to ask teens what they thought about this because so much has been discussed about how teens have been navigating their relationships – their friendships, their relationships with family and teachers – that we felt it was really important to give teens the chance to tell us how these might or might not have evolved.

And did you find the same variations on those sorts of questions in terms of income levels and ethnicity?

We found very similar patterns across demographic groups – teens are generally saying similar things about the closeness of their relationships – though we did find some differences by race and ethnicity. One example of that is that Hispanic and Black teens were more likely than White teens to say they feel less close to their friends.

 How would you describe the overall experience of low-income teens during this period of time?

We really found consistent patterns in the experiences of this group. One striking data point is greater concern about falling behind in school due to the pandemic — and to be clear in this study, we’re defining lower-income teens as being from a household making less than $30,000 a year. We see that both teens and their parents are more likely to express concern about falling behind when they live in a lower-income household — about a quarter of teens and 44% of parents say that they’re at least very worried.

As I mentioned, this pattern also comes into play in areas related to the digital divide and the homework gap. We asked about three different tech challenges a teen might face related to the homework gap — having to do their homework on a cellphone, not being able to complete homework because they don’t have reliable computer or internet access, and then having to use public WiFi to do their homework because they don’t have internet at home. And as we looked at these individual challenges as well as across the board, we find that teens from lower-income households are more likely to say that they at least sometimes have to do each of these things.

To take just one example, about a quarter of teens from lower-income households say that at least sometimes they’re not able to complete their homework due to lack of reliable computer or internet. Teens who face these types of challenges tell us they do indeed make it harder to keep up in school. We see the same thing when it comes to things like doing homework on a cellphone – a majority of teens who have to do this say it makes keeping up harder.

The last thing I should mention – and again, we see this as more common among teens from lower income households – is that while most teens have access to a computer at home, there is a non-negligible share of teens who don’t. One in 10 teens say they don’t have access to a computer at home and that increases to one in five teens from households making less than $30,000 a year. So, some teens, and especially lower-income teens, just do not have this access.

And are those low-income groups are more likely to want in-person school?

Not quite, according to our data. It’s the opposite pattern – we see that teens who are from higher-income households making $75,000 or more are more likely to say they’d like to be completely in person versus those in lower-income households.

Will there be additional studies based on this data?

 Yes, the survey explored a range of topics aside from experiences with school, and we plan to release additional work as part of this series in the future that will focus on a range of teens’ experiences with tech and social media.

One other thing I should mention is that we also supplemented this nationally representative survey with focus groups of teens, which is a really exciting addition for us and insights from those will also be part of our series of releases.



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