The numbers of youth and young adults with COVID-19 is now increasing. News reports are using such terminology as “COVID fatigue” and most public health officials are ominously warning about a second wave of the pandemic. Many older adults are wondering, “Why do young people not understand the need for isolation?”

At times when I see the number of cases of COVID-19 rising in younger populations, I do feel frustrated, but it is becoming evident that, while youth are worried about COVID-19, they are much more worried about their mental health.

Many of us will reach out to family and loved ones when we are feeling anxious and depressed. The contact that we have with people who care about us is a comfort and helps us to stay grounded. The same is true for youth. For adolescents, however, research has shown us that friends are particularly important.

Friendships have several important functions for youth, functions that family relationships do not address.

Let’s start with the most basic reason for having friends outside of family members and that is companionship – companionship that is different from that offered by family. The intimacy offered by a friend can be nonjudgmental in ways that a parent cannot be. After all, aren’t there situations you would rather not discuss with your mother?

In the same way, a friend is someone with whom an adolescent can discuss difficult situations intimately, often working out solutions that would be impossible to consider with parents or other adults. You cannot necessarily go to your teacher when you are trying to figure out how to confront a person in your project group who is not doing any of the work.

When you’re a teenager or young adult, your friends are the people who can help you get a different perspectives on sex, drugs, failing classes or how to ask your Mom whether you can borrow the car. You probably cannot go over all those perspectives with your brother or sister – even your favourite aunt may not be completely trustworthy in some situations.

Friends also help adolescents and young adults to understand how others see them. This is important at a time of life when peers have a great influence. Friends also support each other emotionally, especially in situations when they’re being bullied or just not feeling confident.

Finally, and most important, friends are fun to be with, stimulating and exciting. I certainly remember laughing more with my friends when I was a teenager than with anyone else in the world. Even now, the people I have known since I was a teenager and young adult can still make me smile, and often laugh, when we remember foolish things that we did.

For all these reasons, youth need to socialize with their friends. This is especially true if they are worried about their future. Will they finish school? Will they be able to find a job? If they are depressed and anxious, youth can help each other find ways to manage. This alone can stave off more serious mental health problems. Youth become more resilient when they are with each other. When mental health is the illness that worries you, COVID-19 may not seem so scary.

Isn’t it better to spend a few hours with a friend, talking and laughing and diffusing your negative emotions? With all of this in mind, instead of telling youth not to get together, maybe we can ask them to practice safety at the same time as they catch up.

I watched teens where I work today comparing the features on their new iPhones and can remember doing the same when I was their age and our families were getting the latest new phone.

The device we were excited about looked very different from an iPhone The best thing then would have been to have  a phone like this – imagine having one in your own room!

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