The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, George Floyd’s death, and a contentious US presidential election made 2020 a very stressful year. According to recent studies, these crises may have affected young adults’ social development at a critical moment in their lives.
While other studies have looked at how stressors affect social development over the course of a lifetime, this study emphasizes the significance of early adulthood and how it may be influenced by external events.
“If everything goes well, young adults select into social networks, initiate friendships and romantic relationships, and find their occupational niche,” says lead author Dr. Bühler of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. “Our findings, however, show that external stressors and environmental variations may set young adults on a less fortunate path.”
Researchers compared the social development of 415 young adults in 2020 to that of 465 young adults in 2019. Participants, ages 18 to 35, submitted updates on several factors influencing their development over the course of eight months.
While the group examined in 2019 reported slightly increased levels of social support and inclusion over time, the participants in the 2020 study reported declining levels of intimacy and relationship satisfaction with time. Even if the changes weren’t drastic, Dr. Bühler points out that even minor changes may have lasting consequences.
“Environmental conditions and contexts are critical for development because they provide the opportunities that people need to grow in a healthy way,” says Dr. Bühler. “In the case of 2020, the average young person may have had fewer of these opportunities, causing fear and anxiety while potentially hindering their development.”
It’s also important to remember that these disruptive events are not limited to national or global crises. The study’s participants were based in northern California, where they grappled with wildfires throughout the region.
Researchers noticed a great deal of variation in the effect of these stressors on individual participants and Dr. Bühler highlights this as an important area of future study. Examining the coping mechanisms of those less affected, she says, could lead to more effective resources and support for young adults.
When asked if researchers were surprised by any of the findings, Dr. Bühler cites one aspect of social functioning which did not appear to be affected by the stressors of 2020: loneliness.
“Irrespective of whether young adults were exposed to collective stressors or not,” she says, “the degree and development of their loneliness were similar.”
Reference: “Collective Stressors Affect the Psychosocial Development of Young Adults” by Janina Larissa Bühler, Christopher J. Hopwood, Adam Nissen and Wiebke Bleidorn, 19 September 2022, Social Psychological and Personality Science.
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