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2020 youth research trends

Mary McIlrath

With much of 2020 in the rearview mirror, and youth looking ahead to a gradually healthier, more normalized 2021, we pause to look back at the milestone events that shaped the past year. Even while many adults say they’d like to forget 2020 and start from scratch, for youth, each year is a lifetime that they can’t forget, and its events deserve to be acknowledged.

1.    Word of the Year: Pandemic

Both Merriam-Webster and selected the same, albeit obvious, choice for 2020’s Word of the Year. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted youth and adult lives worldwide and caused ripples of disruptions for all and silver linings for some. Read on for our take on the most important impacts.

working from home with children2.    Generation Z(oom)

With many U.S. schools closed throughout the spring and fall, kids (not to mention teachers and parents) had to adapt to online learning. It was a difficult challenge for many students, particularly those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), those receiving specialized teaching or therapies, and low-income students without reliable access to the devices and Wi-Fi necessary to complete classes and assignments. Parenting advice popped up from many corners to help with the learning curve; this one from the National Center for Learning Disabilities is our favorite.

3.    Moving in a Pod

kids playing at home during covidWhen schools first closed in the spring, we asked youth about the biggest changes the pandemic had brought to their lives, and a quarter of them (24%) said they were playing outside less.* This worried us, as we expect a likely surge in childhood obesity given activity restrictions and easy access to snacks during the quarantine. Some very thoughtful teachers have created a clearinghouse of virtual PE activities that families can use to get those bodies moving again. Other families embraced the “togetherness but separate from everyone else” of nuclear family living and made active group TikTok or YouTube videos to make the most of home confinement. To watch our favorites, search for “Pirates of the Caribbean Family” and “Jessica Alba Blinding Lights challenge” (the Weeknd).

4.    STEM “in the Wild”

Glass-half-full observers will say that the rapidly evolving scientific knowledge around COVID-19 and the race for vaccines provided hands-on scientific knowledge updates in a newsworthy and unique way this year. More somber views of the same time will point to the painful reality of sickness and/or losses of family members that will undoubtedly create watershed memories for today’s school-aged kids in the same way that 9/11 did for Millennials. On a more positive note, SpaceX made NASA cool again by launching the first manned rockets to space and taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since the Space Shuttle program was ended in 2011. And those Storm Trooper-looking astronaut uniforms are the hottest thing since Han Solo. 

5.    Summer Music

Creators keep creating, no matter the external circumstances. It could even be argued that living in strife, like a global pandemic, inspires some of the most brilliant output from creatives’ minds. Two of the most prolific and popular artists in the U.S., Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, each dropped new works this summer. Beyoncé’s Black is King movie on Disney+, inspired by The Lion King, highlighted pride in the diaspora at just the right time in the U.S. when the conversation about racial inequality was growing all summer. It’s an important POV that keeps the discourse going. Youth favorite Taylor Swift also penned a COVID-19 pandemic-inspired album this summer, Folklore, to mixed critical reviews but consistent fan love. 

deliveries during covid6.    Shopping Shifts

This year put shopping for families in a blender and hit “high.” In certain times and places, only a single family member could go into a brick-and-mortar store at a time—so much for kids noticing new items on the shelf or trying on clothing. Costco suspended food samples. School shutdowns also locked down the lunch trading market and cool-new-item grapevine. Don’t even get us started on Back to School or the early urgency of holiday shopping—you can read our multiple blogs about those dynamics here:

7.    Finding Purpose

We always have our hearts warmed by youth who step into opportunities to help others when they see suffering—by attending a peaceful protest to affirm that Black Lives Matter, donating food to a local pantry for neighbors in need, or even adopting a shelter pet. One national resource if you know a child who wants to get involved is the Youth Volunteer Corps. At YouthBeat®, we’ve been saying for a few years that Generation Z is the most civic-minded and active one since their grandparents were protesting the Vietnam War. When we talk to them, we are inspired by their care for others—and the way they use proactive kindness to cope with the stresses of what has been an uncertain year. Adults can all take hope, and a lesson, from them as we all hold hands (metaphorically, from a safe social distance) and ring in 2021. Cheers!

*Source: YouthBeat Special Survey, May 2020

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