The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Adolescent Brain Development 

By: Rochel Leah Itzkowitz  |  April 21, 2023

By Rochel Leah Itzkowitz

The COVID-19 pandemic’s side effects include social isolation, online schooling, and economic hardship. Unfortunately, these side effects have profoundly impacted the maturation of teenage brains. The typical maturation of adolescent brains involves thickening the hippocampus and amygdala while the cortex begins to thin. However, the pandemic has accelerated the process and affected teenage brains beyond their typical development. 

Ian Gotlib, a clinical neuroscientist at Stanford University, and his team conducted a small-scale study of approximately 64 brain scans of teenagers before and after 2020. The comparison revealed that the brains of teenagers who experienced the pandemic appear three years older than their actual age. Although the cause of this advanced brain maturation is unknown, it is apparent that the pandemic significantly impacted teenage brain development. Gotlib believes that the pandemic’s associated stress and mental health issues may have caused this maturation.

Moreover, the pandemic has worsened the psychological development of young adults worldwide. The disruptions caused by the pandemic have negatively influenced young adults’ personality development, as many felt socially isolated and had to forgo significant life milestones. Typically, as people age, they become less neurotic and more conscientious, undergoing a process of psychological maturation. However, those under 30 who lived through the pandemic seem to follow the opposite trajectory. 

The new study analyzed a decade’s worth of personality change in about three years, and the findings suggest stunted development. Rodica Damian, a personality psychologist at the University of Houston, commented on the study, emphasizing that young adults’ opposite development pattern shows disrupted growth. 

Barnard University held a virtual informational session about the immense impact of  the pandemic on teenagers. The conversation not only gave the attendees a big-picture rundown of the pandemic’s consequences, but also gave helpful suggestions on how to emotionally and physically support teenagers after the pandemic. Advice included motivating teenagers to keep up physical exercise in their free time as it may decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. The panel also recommended pushing teenagers to engage in activities that stimulate the reward center of their brains such as socializing and hobbies. Teenagers should also be allowed to find their personal voice and passions to become more confident in their abilities. 

The director of the Anxiety Mastery Program at Mclean Hospital, Dr. Elkins asserts, “We need more sustainable federal and public investment to increase mental health access for youth. Believe our kids that these issues require action.” The pandemic’s detrimental effects on young people’s physical and psychological well-being are undeniable. Our collective responsibility is to ally with those struggling to overcome the pandemic’s aftermath. Therefore, we all must shed light on their gloomy trackway and offer support to pandemic-affected teenagers.

Sources Used