The trouble started in mid-March, 2020. Stella, a sophomore at NYU, was doggedly assembling a ‘Shakespeare-101’ study guide when she got the news: The COVID-19 bomb had officially detonated in New York. In the blink of an eye, her student life—which was previously friend-filled and creatively charged—had been utterly stolen from her. And it wasn’t coming back any time soon. Sure, she was back in the dorms and away from her parents (hallelujah) by November of 2021. But the city, and her academic experience, had become undeniably impaired. For Stella, virtual learning was difficult and she struggled to immerse herself in coursework and engage with professors. Plus, most of New York had become ‘Doordash only,’ and she could no longer study at her favorite cafes or grab coffee with peers after class. On most days, she felt sequestered to her room like a prisoner (which was anything but a ‘quiet study spot’).
And then she saw it on TikTok: #SilentStudy. The live stream video, which featured a single student working silently at her dorm-room desk, had hundreds of thousands of viewers. In the comments section, fellow students chimed in with nuances from their day like “my chemistry mock is tomorrow…I remember nothing” and “you just reminded me I have French homework.” Could this be the solution to my post-pandemic education? She marveled.
WHAT IS THE #SILENTSTUDY TREND?
This trend—where someone records themselves studying silently and encourages others to do the same—provides a space for teenagers to casually interact outside of the classroom (much like they would pre-pandemic). For the first time in months, Stella was reminded of what it feels like to learn in the trenches with other students. And she’s not the only one; the #SilentStudy hashtag has over 135.2k views on TikTok, and it continues to grow each day.
On one hand, she’s right: students coming together—both academically and communally—on social media seems like a fix-all solution to an isolated, post-pandemic education. Yet, on the other hand, we (i.e., adults from a screenless upbringing) can’t help but worry that this kind of alone-togetherness is yet another excuse for Gen Z to have even less in-person interaction. Doesn’t a detached conversation style feel counterintuitive to helping a generation that’s already riddled with social anxiety? We wondered. So, we reached out to licensed clinical social worker, Jacqueline Ravelo and Dr. Tamara Soles, psychologist and parent coach to get their takes.
WHY ARE KIDS DOING THIS?
Initially, students flocked to the #SilentStudy trend after being evicted from college campuses and forced to relocate home for virtual schooling. “My dad keeps yelling at me to do the dishes even though I [have] class and homework sets to do. He doesn't understand that, yes, it really does take me several hours [to study], and that I need silence to be able to listen to the lectures,” writes one Reddit user. Can you imagine trying to solve “y=mx+b” with your mom nagging you to unload the dishwasher? Sounds like a nightmare. Plus, as if constant interruptions and household chores weren’t enough, a 2020 study found that 91 percent of students felt distracted by fear and worry about their health (and the health of their loved ones) during COVID-19.
Now, however, kids seem to be joining the trend, less as a means of survival, and more as a way to connect and support each other. “Teenagers have been very creative throughout the pandemic, and this is no exception,” Dr.Soles tells us. “They have found ways to leverage the media they are already [filling in the gaps] in both social connection and social support. Schoolwork, or work of any kind, is often viewed as a solitary activity. Working with someone else helps us feel less isolated and by extension, less resistant to doing the work.”
To that end, it’s also worth mentioning that the way we utilize social media platforms—particularly Instagram and TikTok—has been drastically altered by the pandemic. Ravelo explains: “Adult influencers facilitate co-working sessions via IG Live or TikTok Live because everyone feels isolated as the pandemic persists. All humans, adults, children, and teenagers, crave interaction and connectedness and #SilentStudy offers a sense of community and connection.”
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
Let’s start with the obvious: studying. For many, these live stream sessions have become a motivational tool that can bring students into the ‘school’ headspace and help them stay on track. “I feel like it fills a certain void and a guilty [conscience that] disciplines you through a reflection of others’ progress,” writes one student on Reddit. The reason for this, perhaps, is because it utilizes a behavioral modification strategy called body doubling, which can help kids stay focused in a way that’s much harder to do on their own. “It’s a great productivity strategy for those with ADHD in particular… Working alongside another person helps us get started on a task, which is often the hardest part for most people,” Dr. Soles explains. Indeed, accountability is one of the major upsides of this trend, and per Ravelo, the live streams can also be particularly helpful in developing healthy study habits. “By seeing other students studying in different ways, like making index cards, creating study sheets, etc., teens can learn new ways to absorb and process information,” she explains.
However, it seems as if the overarching benefit of #SilentStudy is really in the way it helps kids stay connected. “Teenagers have reported increased feelings of isolation throughout the pandemic, and with the new variant, it appears we will still be living separately for a while longer. Because pandemic anxiety continues, many teenagers and their parents may feel uncomfortable having in-person study groups or getting together outside of school. #SilentStudy sessions solve this problem,” Ravelo adds.
ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: while they may live in a digital world, too much screen time for Gen Z is never a good thing. So, when it comes to evaluating how much screen time is healthy, Ravelo likes to evaluate a few things: “First, is it affecting someone's level of functioning? Can you not go to class without being on your phone? Can you not fall asleep without scrolling through TikTok for an hour to decompress? Or in this case, can you only study with TikTok?” She also mentions that the negative impact of too much screen time is more dependant on content than it is on the number of hours spent scrolling. “In [the case of #SilentStudy], it seems like social is used to connect with others and improve focus, so I feel that the benefits outweigh the negative,” Ravelo adds.
SHOULD WE BE ENCOURAGING KIDS TO DO THIS?
While the benefits of this trend are tenfold, it’s worth keeping in mind that (one day) these kids will all be back in the classroom without a looming pandemic. That means no more masks to hide their faces, no excuses to ‘stay home and quarantine’ when they want to play hooky and no new variants to cause campus-wide shutdowns. Of course, we know these are all good things. But for the younger generation, the plunge back into in-person learning might seem much more ominous. “For online classes, you don't have to worry about trying to fit in, who will talk to you in the hallways,” says Taliyah Rice, a senior at Chicago Heights high school, in an interview with CNN. “I struggle with social anxiety and overthinking. Virtual school made it so much easier for me. I didn't have to deal with some of those pressures.”
That said, #SilentStudy seems to be a positive and inclusive trend, which is rare in the world of social media (especially in the younger generation). There’s absolutely no downside to encouraging students to engage with each other outside of the classroom—even if it’s through a hashtag. The only thing to keep in mind is that this is a generation that’s growing up in two worlds: virtual and digital. Oftentimes, it can be hard for them to ping pong between the two without feeling like they’re getting lost somewhere along the way. So, when it comes to any kind of digital communication, we’d say it’s probably best to practice an “everything in moderation” mentality, in order to avoid burnout.