“It's been a good time to reflect on…who isn't worth keeping around”: COVID-19, adolescent relationship maintenance and implications for health education

Alanna Goldstein (Environmental and Urban Change, York University, Toronto, Canada)
Sarah Flicker (Environmental and Urban Change, York University, Toronto, Canada)

Health Education

ISSN: 0965-4283

Article publication date: 15 July 2021

Issue publication date: 1 March 2022

556

Abstract

Purpose

This paper adds to the growing body of research examining the impacts of COVID-19 physical distancing measures on the everyday lives of young people. It draws on theories of “digital intimacies” and “relationship maintenance” to argue that young people’s reflections on COVID-19, physical distancing and online relationships expose larger gaps in sex, relationships and health education pedagogies.

Design/methodology/approach

Five semi-structured online focus groups were conducted with Canadian adolescents aged 16–19 probing their experiences of dating and platonic relationships during COVID-19. Narrative thematic analysis methods were used to develop themes outlining how physical distancing measures have affected young people’s relationship norms, expectations and values.

Findings

COVID-19 physical distancing measures and school closures appeared to create the conditions for some young people to productively reflect on the labor involved in the maintenance of their relationships in relation to considerations of proximity, reciprocity and distance. This labor was particularly articulated by female participants, many of whom expressed that life disruptions caused by COVID-19 catalyzed learning about their own relationship needs, desires and boundaries.

Research limitations/implications

Results from this research are not widely generalizable, as each participant had a unique experience with COVID-19 physical distancing measures, schooling and in-person contact. Due to anonymity measures implemented, participant narratives cannot be confidently associated with demographic surveys that hampered the ability to offer an intersectional analysis of participant experience.

Originality/value

Discussions of relationship maintenance and digital intimacies elucidate the limitations of health education’s tendency to construct adolescent relationships as existing along binaries of “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Health education might benefit from more meaningful integration of these concepts.

Keywords

Citation

Goldstein, A. and Flicker, S. (2022), "“It's been a good time to reflect on…who isn't worth keeping around”: COVID-19, adolescent relationship maintenance and implications for health education", Health Education, Vol. 122 No. 1, pp. 62-72. https://doi.org/10.1108/HE-01-2021-0010

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Globally, restrictions implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 have had deleterious impacts on youth wellbeing. In North America, lockdowns and school closures have negatively affected young people’s mental health (Singh et al., 2020) and exacerbated existing educational disparities (Montacute, 2020). Silliman Cohen and Bosk (2020) suggest that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning youth, as well as youth from other historically marginalized populations may be particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of increased isolation due to diminished access to essential community supports.

We conducted a series of focus groups with Canadian adolescents to explore experiences with platonic and romantic relationships during this period of social distancing. Using the lenses of “digital intimacies” (Scott et al., 2020) and “relationship maintenance” (Dindia and Canary, 1993) theories, our analysis of participant narratives suggests that COVID-19 restrictions have provided the space necessary for some young people to reflect on the quality of their relationships in new and potentially productive ways. We contend that the COVID-19 crisis may therefore present unique opportunities for health educators to rethink and refine strategies for educating around young people’s relationships.

Digital intimacies, relationship maintenance and COVID-19

“Digital intimacies” refers to the degree to which our social and intimate relationships are increasingly intertwined with new media technologies and social media platforms. According to Scott et al. (2020), digital intimacies include a range of activities and practices such as “sexually explicit image sharing” and “meeting sexual partners,” and also refers to “how young people engage in communications via digital platforms/technologies to forge intimacy” (p. 676).

Here, we examine young people’s reflections on digital intimacies as they relate to experiences of relationship maintenance. The concept of relationship maintenance derives primarily from the fields of psychology and counseling and refers to the people’s behaviors engage in “to keep a relationship in existence, to keep relationships at a specific state or condition, to keep a relationship in satisfactory condition, or to keep a relationship in repair” (Dindia and Canary, 1993, p. 163). These behaviors can be both strategic and routine. Strategic maintenance behaviors are those that are intentionally undertaken to sustain the relationship, while routine behaviors tend to operate at “a lower level of consciousness” and are “not used intentionally for maintenance purposes” (Dainton and Stafford, 1993, p. 689).

Inherent to all relationship maintenance is the need for some degree of reciprocity. Rousseau et al. (2019) suggest that “individuals are motivated to perform relational maintenance behaviors (costs/input) as long as they see their relational investments reciprocated (rewards/outcome)” (p. 175). However, maintenance behaviors are also used to develop and preserve a communal bond, and to reduce “relational uncertainty” through enhancing one’s ability to read, understand and predict a partner’s behavior (Forsythe and Ledbettter, 2015). Together, these motivators indicate that reciprocity, interdependence and meaningful communication are key to developing high-quality relationships.

The enactment of relationship maintenance behaviors is not neutral but deeply gendered. Women tend to engage in more romantic relationship maintenance behaviors than men; a discrepancy rooted in socialization processes that lead both men and women to “perceive women to be more relationally oriented” and to have “higher expectations for women to employ relationship maintenance strategies” (Aylor and Dainton, 2004, p. 361). These gendered differences intersect with practices of digital intimacy: women are also more likely than men to use social media and online communication technology to engage in relationship maintenance behaviors, such as “liking” posts, sending personal emails or commenting on photos (Muscanell and Guadagno, 2012; Kimbrough et al., 2013).

Relationship maintenance may be particularly important for young people. Adolescence is a time when many young people seek increasing autonomy from familial relationships (Ellis and Zarbatany, 2017) and rely on their relationships with friends, peers and romantic partners both for emotional support and to produce their social, gendered and sexual identities (Collins et al., 2009). A large proportion of young people’s relationship behaviors now take place online (Wang and Edwards, 2016). However, physical proximity remains important. Proximity enables the kinds of nuanced individual-to-individual and individual-to-group interactions that support the development of burgeoning adult identities (Epstein, 1983). In-person interactions also facilitate routine maintenance behaviors such as sharing laughter or engaging in physical forms of contact, both of which have been shown to produce endorphins and improve relational bonds (Dunbar, 2018). Prior to COVID-19, young people’s online relationship interactions were primarily used to supplement, rather than replace, in-person engagements. Wang and Edwards (2016) found that most adolescents they surveyed indicated that social media was not their preferred method for exploring or building new relationships or for engaging in relationship maintenance (p. 1,213). Instead, respondents used social media primarily to “develop social capital by exploring existing relationships” (p. 1,213). Khan et al. (2016) similarly found that “the benefit of having an online social life is contingent upon also having a supportive face-to-face peer network” (p. 943). The value of physical co-presence to romantic relationship satisfaction was also evident in our own recent study of young people’s dating relationships during COVID-19 (Goldstein and Flicker, 2020).

However, as adolescents have found themselves isolated at home during the pandemic, their ability to interact with others in-person has been curtailed. In this context, many young people have been required to engage with romantic partners and friends almost exclusively through digital means. For instance, Ellis et al. (2020) found that following the implementation of physical distancing restrictions and Canadian school closures in Spring 2020, approximately 65% of adolescents were spending between 5 and 10 h on social media every day (p. 181), while 12% of adolescents reported spending more than 10 h per day online. During these many hours spent online, over 50% of teens indicated that they spend 1–2 h/day texting with friends, and 40% reported spending 1–2 additional hours video chatting with friends (p. 183).

Yet even as quantitative research indicates that young people are spending their time during COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions engaged in increased online communication with friends, peers and loved ones, there are little data illuminating how they make sense of the quality of those interactions, nor how those interactions relate to broader considerations of young people’s digital intimacies. We examine how moving (almost exclusively) online has shaped young people’s relationship experiences during COVID-19.

Study details

Participants (aged 16–19 years) were recruited from across Canada through ads posted on Facebook and Instagram for a week at each timepoint. We conducted two sets of focus groups: three in the beginning of June 2020 (n = 25) and two at the end of November 2020 (n = 13). We chose to conduct online focus groups to accommodate public health restrictions around in-person gatherings, and because online focus groups are ideal for exploring sensitive subject matter due to increased options for anonymity and fewer barriers to participation (Forrestal et al., 2015). The first set of focus groups occurred at a time when all provinces and territories in Canada had been under varying degrees of lockdown; all schooling was suspended. The second set of focus groups took place amidst the “second wave” of COVID-19 when most secondary schools remained open for a combination of either in-person, hybrid- or virtual learning, albeit under strict physical distancing mandates. Consequently, participants in the second phase of the study were experiencing varying schooling and social environments that involved different levels of in-person contact.

Interested participants were emailed an online consent form and a link to complete an anonymous demographic survey. The 57 people who returned the signed consent form, completed the survey, and met age and residence eligibility criteria were emailed a secure Zoom link for their preferred focus group slot. During the focus groups, participants were encouraged to “rename” themselves using pseudonyms and to provide their gender pronouns (which we use here to refer to them throughout). Only 38 participants ultimately attended the focus groups. Based on the pronoun participants used at the time of the focus group (she/her, they/them, he/him) as well as information provided in demographic surveys, 32 were female (84%), 3 were non-binary (8%) and 3 were male (8%).

Each focus group lasted 90 min and was facilitated by the first author, a Postdoctoral fellow with experience in focus group moderation (Goldstein, 2020) using a semi-structured interview guide. Undergraduate research assistant note takers were also present for most focus groups. We followed best practice guidelines for synchronous online facilitation including: over-recruiting, keeping groups small, testing equipment, providing detailed instructions, monitoring participation, encouraging the use of mute, reaction and chat features, and using electronic incentives (such as email gift cards) and integrated recordings (through the use of Zoom’s embedded recording function; see Abrams and Gaiser, 2017; Fox et al., 2007). Most participants chose to leave their cameras off but made liberal use of the microphone and chat features. All were sent a $20 gift certificate of their choice following the session. To capture the discussions, we utilized the Zoom auto-transcription and recording features in conjunction with our own transcription practices.

Each transcript was reviewed by both authors who engaged in a series of inductive thematic analysis discussions (see Riessman, 2008). Data (including audio and chat transcripts) were then coded by the first author into categories that included narratives and conversations. Here, we analyze narratives that fit within the broader category of “relationship labor,” (i.e. ones that indicate participants’ reflections on the actions they or their friends and partners undertook to maintain their relationships at a distance). Through an iterative coding process, we further divided the category of “relationship labor” into three subcategories of “proximity,” “reciprocity” and “distance.”

Results

Theme 1: proximity

Many participants reflected on the role that physical proximity typically plays in their ability to enact relationship maintenance behaviors. For instance, Joy explained that “before Covid, a lot of my friends met in school and we kind of like hung out every day.” Bridget shared that her friends “used to go to the mall, or go shopping, or have sleepovers and hang out after school and like that’s what we really relied on for our connection.” Penny added that while she regularly talked to her friends during COVID-19 restrictions, “I do not necessarily have fun the same way I would if I was able to see them in person.” For those who had returned to in-person schooling, physical distancing restrictions and masking requirements continued to interfere with the proximity necessary to create and maintain friendships. For instance, Nat, who had recently transferred schools, explained that “I find it’s a lot harder to make new friends and everything, just because like, the six feet thing…the masks and everything, like you cannot see people’s faces, you have to stay away from them.”

Several participants also reflected on the impact that a lack of proximity was having on their love lives. For instance, Sophie described how starting a dating relationship during COVID-19 restrictions was difficult because, “I do not think you can fully replace the experience of meeting someone in person, …[it] plays a huge part in your attraction and your compatibility with that person.” Chloe too shared that, although she had returned to in-person schooling, physical distancing restrictions designed to control the movements of students meant that getting to know a new crush remained difficult. She explained that “I met this guy about a month ago and it’s really hard to like get to know him, because…I have to sit in a completely different area…and I cannot move my chair to go by him and get to know him.”

For those already in relationships, a lack of physical proximity to their partners was impacting relational intimacy and communication. Contemplating these effects on her partnership, Anna offered, “I do not really like being vulnerable with her over FaceTime, because I'm such a physical comfort seeker…I'm like, being vulnerable and I'm talking and then I just cannot have a hug.” Karen too suggested that “it's just been really hard on like the communication part and how like you cannot truly express your feelings because texting, you do not hear that tone…You do not, like, see their face. It's just words on a page.”

Across all focus groups, participants lamented the loss of routine relationship maintenance behaviors, such as sharing activities, listening and communicating, and providing/receiving physical contact. However, some participants also explained that COVID-19 restrictions had enabled them to see that many of their relationships were rooted almost entirely in the conveniences afforded by proximity. For instance, Mia explained how prior to COVID-19, “I would talk to a bunch of people. But then during Covid, where school is cancelled, I just stopped talking to them because I could not see them every day. And I realized those people were just probably peers or classmates, rather than real friendships.” By contrast, Bridget reflected that distance was not only affecting some of her friendships adversely, but also activating others, stating “I’m kind of enjoying more the friendships where I do not have to always do things with people, where I can have a conversation over text.”

Participants’ narratives highlight the centrality of physical proximity for young people’s ability to start and maintain routine romantic and platonic relationships, as well as the inability of digital communication to adequately replace that proximity. The absence of proximity as mandated by COVID-19 restrictions, however, did appear to give some participants the literal and emotional space to reflect on the degree to which their relationships depended on physical proximity and highlighted for some the value of those who communicate well and can continue to express care from a distance.

Theme 2: reciprocity

Participants also indicated that this period had heightened their awareness of the importance of reciprocity in their relationships. While certainly most young people were using communication technologies to connect with friends and partners prior to the pandemic, the exclusive use of mediated technologies during school closures meant that all relationship maintenance behaviors became more purposeful. That is, relationship maintenance enacted at a distance requires some degree of intention, planning and execution. For some teens, the effort involved in enacting that maintenance suddenly became visible. For instance, Hope described that during COVID-19, she had “lost a lot of friends because they did not put as much effort into our friendship as I did.” Farah too shared that “since Covid-19 started…I’ve noticed that there’s so many people that actually do not really care about you and like, I would like always message them.”

It should be noted that a lack of reciprocity in relationships – whether friendships or otherwise – can also cause problems if one partner appears over-invested in the relationship. For instance, Rose shared that during COVID-19, she “lost so many of my friends” due to inequities in their need for her time and attention. She explained that “I had a friend show up to my house…right in the peak of the pandemic and be like, ‘I need you to come out right now.’ And I'm like, ‘No, no, we're not co-dependent. Leave me alone.’”

Relatedly, some participants, such as Kaia, reflected on the difficulties of engaging in relationship maintenance behavior at a distance, stating that,

Personally, I’m really bad at texting and stuff, or like keeping up conversations and I feel like if you’re like me, or someone who’s just like, not able to speak online, and is just better at talking to people in person, it’s so hard to keep up with friends and keep up with relationships.

Kaia’s narrative points to how relationship maintenance during COVID-19 requires a degree of comfort with and competency in mediated communication that not all young people possess.

For those in romantic and dating relationships, the effort put in by each partner also became more obvious. For instance, Elizabeth attributed her break up during quarantine to her partner’s lack of effort in maintaining the relationship:

While we're in quarantine, he just stopped like putting in any effort, which was really annoying. And he just kind of thought that he did not have to talk to me because like we're not seeing each other. So, I found like that was kind of hard to deal with.

Blair too explained that she had broken up with her boyfriend during the first wave of COVID-19 when she realized that “the communication that was going on in the relationship was all me…it was so one-sided; I was the only one putting effort in and it became really apparent.” For other participants, physical distancing restrictions forced them to find novel ways to engage in romantic relationship maintenance. Sophie shared that, unlike Elizabeth, quarantine had “really made me kind of value and appreciate my boyfriend more, because these days I’ve been in a really bad mental state, but he was always very supportive. Like, you know, even if it’s just a sweet text or whatever.”

These narratives all describe how physical distancing necessitated by the pandemic has enabled some young people to see, with increasing clarity, relationship maintenance behaviors, particularly as they intersect with the labor involved in communicating via new media technologies. This newfound visibility has highlighted both the intentionality inherent to that maintenance, as well as the importance of relationship maintenance reciprocity. Participants’ narratives indicate a burgeoning awareness that care and love are not only feelings, but are exemplified through acts that are deliberately performed.

Theme 3: distance

Several participants also shared that they had learned a more diffuse set of lessons about their own relationship patterns, values, needs and boundaries as a direct result of the physical distance necessitated by public health measures. For instance, Sarah expressed learning that she should have engaged in more in-person relationship maintenance when she had the chance, claiming that in the past she and her friends “would be in the same room but with all of us on our phones. It kind of makes you realize that during that time, you should have been like acknowledging everyone’s presence.”

Joy too shared that she had gained a deeper appreciation for in-person relational encounters:

If you have, like, a social distance meetup in the park, everybody's standing far away, like saying “hi” to each other. Like those interactions become a lot more rare, so they become a lot more meaningful and you like appreciate those times a lot more.

To the extent that in-person contact now carries with it a certain degree of risk from COVID-19 infection, it can be assumed that in-person meetups might be reserved for those relationships that are considered most vital. Determining who is considered risk-worthy might be a kind of yardstick, then, for which relationships are most valued. As Sophie summed it up: “It’s been a good time to reflect on…who isn't worth keeping around.” These calculations appear to similarly extend to starting new romantic relationships. For example, Charlie explained that, prior to COVID-19, dating “was a fun thing to do, almost like a pastime” but now “it's a lot bigger of a deal to be going out with someone, like to actually find someone that I want to spend time with, because I'm exposing myself to someone else.”

For other participants, the lessons learned during COVID-19 distancing restrictions came from having the time and space necessary for deeper self-reflection. For instance, Christa explained that “one thing that’s good…about Covid…[is that] it does definitely give us time for ourselves to check in on our mental health…taking time for myself is really helpful in all my relationships.” Meanwhile, for Karen, who described her immune system as “kind of crap,” COVID-19 had “definitely been a time to reflect and see who your true friends are.” Other participants reflected that COVID-19 restrictions had similarly provided them with the distance needed to finally end toxic relationships. For instance, Sierra shared that “I’ve lost a lot of friends during Covid…I've kind of been you know reevaluating myself and, you know, putting myself first and thinking more…And it's heartbreaking. But at the same time, it’s really eye-opening.” Nat too shared that he had had a fight with a close friend prior to the implementation of physical distancing restrictions and had realized “with the time away, I guess not being close to each other’s face all the time, that we were both kind of toxic to each other.”

Participants’ narratives of the lessons they learned during COVID-19 distancing measures suggest that this time has provided young people with unique opportunities to better ascertain their own needs and wants within their relationships. Furthermore, for some young people who were embroiled in toxic relationships prior to COVID-19, the imposition of isolation measures appears to have given them the distance they needed to analyze and end those relationships safely.

Discussion and relevance to health education

Even as COVID-19 isolation measures have undoubtedly caused immense relational and emotional harm for young people around the world, participants’ narratives also indicate that they may have created the conditions for youth to reflect on the quality of their relationships and the labor involved in maintaining those relationships, in new and potentially productive ways. These reflections have several important implications for health and relationships education.

First, findings evince the value of introducing concepts of relationship maintenance more explicitly into school-based health education curricula. Historically, school-based health education has tended to be preventative or protective in focus, emphasizing the risks and dangers of adolescent romantic and sexual relationships, including risks relating to sexual health, sexual abuse, harassment and teen dating violence (Bay-Cheng, 2003). To protect against these risks, many curricula now include discussions around what constitutes “healthy” and “unhealthy” relationships and provide skill-building activities aimed at helping young people improve their communication and conflict-resolution competencies and avoid danger (Janssens et al., 2020). Binary constructions of adolescent relationships as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” and emphases on the biological aspects of sexuality do not, however, necessarily reflect the nuance associated with most young people’s romantic and platonic relationships. This limitation is indicated by Penny, who stated that in her health education “They really did not talk about relationships…they more just talked about the sex part of it…they did not really talk about how to maintain a healthy relationship.” Similarly, in a survey of 3,000 American young people, Weissbourd et al. (2017) note that 70% of respondents “reported wishing they had received more information…about some emotional aspect of a romantic relationship, including ‘how to have a more mature relationship’ (38%)” (p. 12). These findings echo participants’ desires for more opportunities to discuss those sticky aspects of relationships that make them complex and meaningful, rather than merely “good” or “bad.”

Some recently developed school-based health education curriculum guidelines from countries offering comprehensive sex education do appear to include discussions of concepts that are related to relationship maintenance practices. For instance, in the province of Ontario, where many participants in this study reside, the recently updated Health and Physical Education curriculum (2015) states that “healthy relationships” should be discussed as “based on respect, caring, empathy, trust, and dignity” (p. 71). Similarly, the Australian Curriculum provides guidance for health education to consider how “empathy and ethical decision-making contribute to respectful relationships” (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2014), while in the UK, the Department of Education’s recently developed Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education guidelines (2019) include discussions of healthy relationships as constituted by “mutual respect, consent, loyalty and trust” (p. 29).

Although the concept of “relationship maintenance” does not explicitly appear in these curriculum guidelines, discussions of caring, empathy and respect do appear to value similar approaches to thinking about what constitutes mutually satisfying relationships. However, as Scott et al. (2020) note, these curriculum documents are often deliberately non-prescriptive, “so implementation is likely to vary considerably between schools with respect to the extent to which topics will be addressed, at what age, and how” (p. 676). Furthermore, these curricula do not explicitly address the gendered aspects of relationality and relationship maintenance. Rather, competencies that are connected to practices of relationship maintenance such as “communication skills” are presented as gender-neutral and skills that all young people need to work on to equal degrees (Janssens et al., 2020). Yet the results from our study highlight the gendered nature of relationship maintenance, and the ways in which the labor involved in engaging in that maintenance often falls on women and girls. This gender disparity is visible, firstly, in the fact that most participants who took part in this study were female and/or non-binary. That girls and non-binary youth felt compelled to take part in a focus group explicitly addressing adolescent relationships during COVID-19 underscores how the work of thinking about and caring for relationships is still a burden disproportionately shouldered by women and/or non-binary people.

Health education as a field might therefore draw on the research around emotional labor and relationship maintenance more broadly to explicitly address gender imbalances in young people’s relationship practices. Failing to consider the gendered nature of relationship work invisibilizes how those who occupy historically marginalized positions are more likely to think about and work on their relationship competencies to maintain their own safety; this is likely particularly true for those who are multiply marginalized due to their race, sexuality, immigrant status and/or ability. Integrating an intersectional gendered analysis into discussions of relationship competencies and relationship maintenance might help young people better understand how deeply rooted norms around gender, sexuality, race and other subjectivities continue to structure what might be perceived as “natural” relationship dynamics.

Finally, the narratives shared by participants also suggest the need for curricula to better attend to the role that new media technologies increasingly play in young people’s relational lives, including in their relationship maintenance practices. While participants were undoubtedly engaged in varying forms of mediated relationality prior to COVID-19, the experience of being forced to engage with friends and romantic partners primarily or exclusively through new media appears to have given some young people the opportunity to reflect on the specific affordances and limitations of doing so. Although many curricula are increasingly including discussions of new media, these discussions tend to emphasize those aspects of online relating that are considered clearly harmful or “risky” for young people, such as cyberbullying (Gaffney et al., 2019) or sexting (Albury et al., 2017). Nuanced considerations of young people’s digital intimacies are rare. For instance, in the Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum (2015), considerations of online relationships are almost exclusively discussed in relation to issues of harassment, violence and abuse. In the UK’s Department of Education curriculum guidelines (2019), the section covering “online and media” almost exclusively addresses issues relating to safety, privacy and exposure to pornography or other unwanted content (p. 22). Where this document does explicitly consider intersections of intimacy and digitality, it suggests that by the end of secondary school, pupils should know “the characteristics of positive and healthy friendships (in all contexts, including online)” (p. 27). This statement situates online relating as secondary to normative relationship development rather than as one of the primary sites where young people’s intimacies are forged, maintained and dissolved.

Rather than focusing only on online practices or interactions that represent safety and legal concerns, school-based health education pedagogies might therefore look to better integrate digital intimacy research into discussions of caring relationships to help young people work through the murkier and more mundane aspects of their relational lives. As this study indicates, young people are already developing their own complex (if idiosyncratic) set of norms and expectations around what constitutes desirable online relationship practices. However, prior to the physical isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, young people may have had fewer opportunities or felt less need to consciously reflect on those norms and expectations. For instance, how often should partners in a romantic relationship text each other? What obligation do friends have to respond to a FaceTime request? What are one’s feelings around a romantic partner “liking” their ex’s Instagram posts? Health education curricula that center these quotidian relational conundrums can help young people further clarify their own relationship needs, boundaries and desires within an increasingly mediated world.

Limitations and conclusions

The small-scale nature of this study, and the idiosyncratic nature of each participant’s particular experience of COVID-19 lockdowns and isolation measures, means that results are not generalizable to all young people. For instance, the online nature of these focus groups likely resulted in the participant sample skewing towards higher-income households, as the technology and Internet capacity needed to partake may have proved to be barriers for lower-income youth. Furthermore, we were unable to link reported self-identified ethnicity data that were gathered through the survey with transcripts because most participants chose to use a (new) pseudonym on Zoom. A study that explicitly analyzes how racialized and/or newcomer youth are experiencing their relationships during COVID-19 would be immensely valuable. In future studies, we will take further care to ensure that participants use the same pseudonyms throughout so that we can better match demographics to contributions.

Despite these limitations, young people’s narratives of how they are thinking about and navigating their relationships during this unprecedented time offer important lessons for health educators. COVID-19 has illuminated the everyday challenges young people face in their relationships, and the everyday work they are doing to tend to those relationships; challenges and work that, increasingly, intersect with mediated technology. While helping young people mitigate relationship risks both in-person and online is essential, participant narratives in this study demonstrate that young people are more than just at risk in their relationships, but are also engaged in intimate, thoughtful, caring and “eye-opening” learning about society, self, other and the relations between. It is up to health education as a practice to hold space for that learning, while also helping young people recognize care as a kind of discipline that does not come naturally, but rather as a series of acts that are strategically and routinely performed.

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Acknowledgements

Funding: This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Corresponding author

Alanna Goldstein can be contacted at: goldstein.alanna@gmail.com

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