2016 election stressed out some teens and young adults

During and after the U.S. presidential race, some teens and young adults reported fear and anxiety

Teens and young adults reported feeling stressed, anxious and fearful in the weeks before and months after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Women and girls tended to report stronger negative emotions.

Antonio Guillem/iStockphoto

All teens face anxieties. Friends, family and school can contribute to feelings of stress. But the 2016 U.S. presidential election triggered a new level of negative emotions in some teens and young adults. Those feelings affected people across the political spectrum. That’s the finding of a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor have been using weekly text messages to survey more than 1,000 U.S. teens and young adults. The volunteers they’re studying are between the ages of 14 and 24 and live across the United States. The text messages ask these young people about topics ranging from sleep and exercise to politics and gun violence.

The newly published data come from three related surveys early in the program. At that time, there were only 100 active participants. The researchers asked these teens and young adults to share their reactions to the presidential election. The first survey went out one week before voting day. Follow-up surveys went out two weeks and four months after Donald Trump’s win. In all, 80 participants responded to at least one of the texted surveys. Forty responded to all three.  

Among the people who responded, most expressed strong emotions. They tended to describe being stressed, anxious, worried, fearful and disappointed. Such reactions were most common before the election, when 86 percent of the respondents shared these feelings. After the election, 63 to 71 percent of respondents described stressful emotions.

Females were more likely than males to report negative feelings. “This may be because female participants described being personally affected by changing policies related to women’s safety and rights,” says Melissa DeJonckheere. She and Tammy Chang co-led the study. Both researchers study adolescent health.

People reporting stress and anxiety included supporters of both Democratic and Republican candidates.

Before the voting, some participants said they felt stressed out by how much news was focusing on politics. Others felt neither major candidate was good enough to be president.

Not everyone felt strongly about political events. “In the months following the election, some teens felt happy with changes that were being made,” DeJonckheere says. Others claimed not to care about politics. “But the majority,” she says, “felt stressed out.”

Political talk dominated social media for months before and after the election. “Nearly all teens and young people use social media,” Chang says. So they were constantly exposed to political news and arguments. That could have been a big source of their stress, the researchers now say.

The team’s report appeared February 13 in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health.

Some of the responses

The minimum age for voting in U.S. federal elections is 18. That means many respondents had heard the debates and campaigning but could not vote.

Race, religion and immigration status were all big issues during the campaigning. Some respondents worried about these issues.

For instance, one white 16-year-old boy said four months after the election: “I’ve felt terrible for those who are more directly negatively affected by Trump’s policies and rather guilty that they would benefit my family, which I don’t want.”

One 15-year-old girl said the candidates’ campaigning “makes me lose faith in Americans.” This girl identified as white and appeared to be Muslim. Two weeks after the voting, she reported that she was “scared for my safety. It makes me think that in the future Americans will think it’s ok to discriminate against minorities. I’m worried that when wearing a hijab, that me or my mom will be attacked verbally or physically.”

One 20-year-old male, an Asian college grad, said four months after the election: “It seems like racism and violence are on the rise, and the rich and powerful have found their greatest ally in our government. I’ve given up and just hope people make it out alive.”

Before the election, one 23-year-old woman in graduate school said that hearing about the campaign has “contributed to my stress levels, which has made me feel more overwhelmed.” She added that “my poor coping mechanisms involve stress eating and exercising less.” Four months later, she said: “I feel upset and overwhelmed. I’ve disconnected from the news a lot recently, which has helped.”

These early findings come from when the study still had a very small sample size. That means it did not include enough people to reveal patterns that would represent the country as a whole. Still, its findings match what Mary Alvord has seen in her own patients. Alvord is a clinical psychologist near Washington, D.C. She says she’s been hearing similar reactions from people of all ages — even children.

“The election and political climate affect almost everyone,” she says. Every day there seems to be something in the news that journalists and political experts describe as unprecedented. By that, they mean these events are unlike anything that has come before. So every day, Alvord says, people find themselves responding to unusual events.

It can be especially hard for people to deal with big issues, she notes. For example, President Trump has made several proposals for a travel ban on people coming from mostly Muslim countries. “Minorities and ethnic groups feel as though they’re not good enough to be here,” Alvord says. Some of President Trump’s comments (such as those in an infamous Access Hollywood video) can make women feel devalued, she says. She adds that even people in science feel they’re being attacked.

Issues like these are beyond any one person’s control. That makes coping with them especially hard.

How to cope

People can deal with stressful times by becoming more resilient, Alvord says. That means learning to bounce back from tough news. To do this, she suggests spending time with supportive people. Choose people who understand what you’re going through, she says.

Taking action also can help, she says. Young people can express their views by going to a march or writing letters to politicians. If you can’t yet vote, she says, remind politicians that you’ll be able to vote soon.

Chang agrees. “Teens should continue to voice their opinions, because their opinions matter!” She notes, “What youth say and do can have an impact on the national conversation.” She points to the conversation around gun control in recent weeks. It has been driven by rallies and interviews with survivors of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school on February 14, 2018. “They should keep that up and continue to speak out for other important policies,” Chang says.

The key to dealing with stressful social and political issues, Alvord says, is figuring out which things you can do something about. Then, she says, “Figure out how to cope — or ask for help.”

Alison Pearce Stevens is a former biologist and forever science geek who writes about science and nature for kids. She lives with her husband, their two kids and a small menagerie of cuddly (and not-so cuddly) critters.

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