By Sarah Han, MPH | November 19, 2021
Youth Centered Health Designer, ETR
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of teens and young adults in countless ways. Milestones like prom and graduation were skipped. Many youth and their families worked on the frontlines – in retail, restaurants, farming, or healthcare. Some experienced economic instability or difficulty accessing basic needs, such as education, nutrition, housing, and healthcare.
However, as public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates, we still don’t know much about how the pandemic has affected the romantic and sexual relationships of teens and young adults. Last month, a new study examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people’s relationships was published in BMC Public Health, shining a light on this important, yet understudied, issue.
This study was based on our In The Know (ITK) project in Fresno County, California, conducted by our partners at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies (IHPS) at the University of California, San Francisco. For the past five years, the YTH Initiative of ETR has worked with IHPS and Fresno Economic Opportunity Commission to develop and implement a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum as a part of a cluster randomized control trial. Our ITK curriculum focuses on four main areas: sexual health and contraceptive use, healthy relationships, educational and career development, and life skills. We leverage youth-centered health design methodologies and web-based wraparound technologies to deliver relevant, responsive, and accessible content.
The study analyzed the survey responses of 351 teens and young adults from the ITK cohorts about their experiences in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its findings reveal how young people’s relationships have been impacted and highlight the importance of ensuring that they have continued access to sexual and reproductive health education and care.
Researchers found that more than a third of teens and young adults were dating or in a romantic relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of those who were dating spent time in-person with their partner, although they hung out less often than before the pandemic. While 59% of teens and young adults agreed that “it is okay to see each other during shelter-in-place restrictions as long as they’re only dating one person,” 42% disagreed with this statement. Those that didn’t see their partners said their parents’ rules, fear of COVID infection, and lack of transportation were the greatest barriers to meeting up with each other. Several participants mentioned that the pandemic made dating more difficult and created tension in their relationships.
For example, one participant said, “At first, we didn’t see each other for over a month just for the fact to be safe because we both work around a lot of people.”
Another mentioned, “It’s made things more difficult; we’ve become more distant and fought way more than usual.”
Although most youth were not having sex before or during the pandemic, 22% of respondents said they had sex during the social distancing period. Of all those who were sexually active, they reported having sex slightly less often.
One teen remarked, “Some people want to wait until the coronavirus is over before they hangout so it blocks the act from happening.”
Another participant mentioned that their parents being strict was a barrier to being sexually active both before and during the pandemic, ““I haven’t had an extremely sexual relationship because I have strict parents. I seen my partner once ever[y] week so there wasn’t a huge impact.”
Similarly, while most youth were not involved in sexting or online dating before or during the pandemic, about a quarter did report sexting and about 13% said they used online dating. These findings contradict the idea that many young people turned to online dating because of shelter-in-place restrictions posing barriers to meeting in-person.
Pandemic or not, youth will always need access to comprehensive and holistic sexual health education and services. With fewer resources and the increased demands on schools transitioning back into in-person learning, sexual health education curriculum may be deprioritized.
As we work to recover and “catch up” with missed educational opportunities and important milestones in youth development, it is now more important than ever to provide these resources while centering the voices and experiences of youth. This study shines a light on the challenges that teens and young adults went through last year and gives us insight into how projects like In The Know can equip youth to build strong, healthy relationships.
Sarah Han (she/her/hers) is a Youth-Centered Health Designer for the YTH Initiative of ETR where she supports research and design projects developing innovative health solutions for young people around the world. She received her Master’s in Public Health in the Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health track from the University of California, Berkeley. Sarah is passionate about how technology, design, and innovation can be leveraged to move the needle on entrenched or overlooked sexual and reproductive health issues. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.