But then, the pandemic happened. I was forced into the reality of learning isolated in my room, staring at a bunch of people confined in tiny boxes on the screen. I felt closed off from the world. Every day was the same as if life was on loop. It was hard to maintain the friendships that once thrived under normal conditions. I, like millions of other teenagers, had to spend half my high school life in quarantine. We were alone in our bedrooms and stared at laptops and phones for hours at a time. Truthfully, we all missed out on two solid years of education, socialization and growth.
When I returned to physical school, I no longer recognized the old, social me. Instead of chatting up a storm, I found myself avoiding conversations with people down the hall. I even had a hard time asking the girl next to me for a pencil to borrow. For some reason, I could not go back to the social butterfly I used to be in the past. In fact, I became incredibly shy and closed off from people. Talking to people felt exhausting and uncomfortable. Before the pandemic, I never, ever felt that way about socialization.
Is it just me, or did the pandemic change my personality?
It’s not just me. Students around the globe have been trying to find themselves after lockdown. A national poll conducted by the University of Michigan revealed that 3 out of 4 parents of teenagers believed the pandemic altered their child’s social interactions.
Additionally, a study by Penn State concluded that in comparison to pre-COVID-19, generalized anxiety among teens was 45% higher and school anxiety rose 143%. This statistic uncovered the genuine struggle many students have faced upon the return to normalcy.
While we are all familiar with social anxiety and have experienced it before the pandemic, there is no question that the pandemic has exacerbated all our insecurities. Lots of students, including myself, have felt the added pressure of trying to socialize upon return from isolation.
In other words, we have all become rusty at talking to one another.
The pandemic related disruptions that have negatively impacted socialization amongst high school teenagers are so severe that the U.S. Surgeon General had described this as a “youth mental health crisis.”
Even to this day, my hands start to sweat as I try to join a casual conversation happening next to me. What if they won’t like me? What if I bore them? These questions have grown louder in my mind, especially after feeling socially withdrawn during the pandemic. It feels as though all the socialization and chattiness that used to come natural to me has left. I want to go back to who I used to be. The girl who was much more carefree about living. But I find it difficult to do that. I find it difficult to let go of all my fears and insecurities and just be “me.”
In 2021, Swansea University sociologist Dr. Simon Williams told BBC News she believes that people can change their behavior, but it takes time. Given that we had gone from over two years of strictly wearing masks and staying at least six feet away from each other, changing behavior to go back to normalcy can take time.
For anyone who is struggling with post-pandemic socialization, NPR offers great tips. For one, embrace the awkward. Do not set expectations to be this social butterfly. Be who you are. I found that advice to be incredibly helpful, for that allowed me to let go of my expectations on how I thought I was supposed to act.
Although it is hard to come back to normalcy after years of feeling socially disconnected, I now see that it is possible. It helps to remember that we are not alone in this struggle. We can always take a deep breath and remind ourselves that it will be okay. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable, but such growing pains will help us get back to the world we once thrived in.