Rocket Science’s training and support for young peer researchers has been an effective method for exploring this cohort’s needs. As the current pandemic causes fundamental shifts in day-to-day life across society, Dina Papamichael examines the current and potential impacts of COVID-19 for those under 25.

Rocket Science’s engagement with young people has shown the unique pressures they face relating to career success, mental health and social media. COVID-19 has disrupted day-to-day life for young people who must now access education and training online; are confronted with insecurity in future employment; and face an indefinite period indoors without their usual connections or routines.

Young people face uncertainty about their education and career prospects

Rocket Science’s pre-COVID-19 research with over 200 young people in one London borough showed that ‘doing well in school or exams’ and ‘getting a job or having a successful career’ were the most frequent areas of worry for 16-25 year olds. The current pandemic is likely to have increased these worries as education provision is shut down (or moved online), workplaces are closed, and recruitment is frozen across sectors. Beyond these immediate impacts, young people face uncertain futures while headlines warn of global recession resulting from COVID-19. Seven in ten 18 to 24 year olds now worry that the coronavirus will harm the job market and cause higher unemployment for a long time [1].

An April 2020 IFS study has highlighted that the current lockdown will hit young workers the hardest:  Employees aged under 25 are about two and a half times more likely to work in a sector that has now shut down (such as non-food retail or hotels) when compared to other employees, with young people who are not living with parents left particularly vulnerable through lost employment. Some at school or college are concerned that their hard work will go to waste as they are not able to sit exams, while others may experience relief from being able to avoid a stressful exam period [2]. There will be disruptions to graduate employment with many employers now reporting that they will be recruiting fewer entry-level employees as a result of COVID-19 [3].

Social distancing has disrupted regular social engagement and routines

Young people are being asked to stay at home for the foreseeable future, and while 83% of over 65s feel positive about their living situation at this time, only 56% of 18-24 year olds feel this way [4]. In an open letter to the Government, several youth organisations have outlined concern that despite the best efforts of youth organisations, young people at present do not have access to the range of sports, arts and social activities that they would usually have through youth services [5]. While many young people are staying connected through social media and video calling apps, not all youth have digital access, and this can leave the most vulnerable further isolated [6].

Rocket Science’s recent youth consultation demonstrated that 16-25 year olds do not generally see social media as having a negative impact on their lives. They described growing up with social media and feelings of knowing how to safely navigate online spaces. Despite this, over half of young people stated that they would want to spend less time on social mediaWhile social distancing measures are enforced, young people face unlimited screen time as their phones become their primary method of staying connected. In this context, young people are being advised to limit time spent checking the news and ensure that they are following positive online content to prevent low mood [7].

Existing mental health needs will likely be exacerbated in the current climate, but support is available

Mental health issues amongst young people are prevalent: one in 10 primary school children, one in seven 11-16 year olds, and one in six 17 to 19 year olds experience mental health difficulties in the UK [8]. Many young people with existing mental health issues including (but not limited to) anxiety, depression, a panic disorder or eating disorder are likely to find the current pandemic particularly challenging. While access to face-to-face mental health support is limited, a range of online chat or text support services are available including The Mix, Shout and Beat Eating Disorders.

Young people are well equipped to navigate online spaces; however, it will be essential that services extend their offer to those who have previously relied on in-person support. Boosted funding to online support services will be important in light of increasing demand – for example, Beat Eating Disorders has reported a 30% increase in use of their services during the current crisis. Charities and funders have been quick to collaborate and respond to the crisis – for example, UK Youth have released a range of resources, #iwill are inviting organisations to share information about their responses to the pandemic and the London Community Response Fund has been made available to support organisations responding to the needs of communities affected by the current crisis.

How can youth organisations successfully adapt during the current pandemic?

Youth organisations can adopt a range of approaches to best meet the needs of under 25s during and after COVID-19 including:

  • Moving face-to-face services online utilising the apps and software that young people are comfortable accessing, ensuring appropriate safeguarding arrangements are in place
  • Promoting and facilitating peer support (particularly in light of increased demand for services and limits to youth worker staff capacity)
  • Collating and sharing updated resources as they become available (for example, government guidelines or advice on wellbeing)
  • Engaging directly with and empowering young people to co-design adapted youth services and content
  • Providing additional support in translating policies that will impact young people into language that is easy to understand, for example benefit changes and legislation relating to housing
  • Encouraging the use of this time for skills development, for example promoting online learning opportunities and providing templates for young people to plan their next career steps
  • Gathering feedback and recording learning points throughout this period to support post-COVID-19 service improvements, for example around the types of online content most frequently sought by young people and the extent to which face-to-face services can be effectively provided online.

Dina is a Senior Consultant at Rocket Science. For more info about our research with young people, please get in touch at [email protected]

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