Children Under Lockdown

COVID-19 Prevention Measures Pose a Serious Threat To Young People

 The impact of COVID-19 on the lives of people around the world, particularly children and adolescents, is unprecedented. Throughout the world, the principal method of prevention from COVID- 19 infection has been isolation and social distancing strategies and one of the main measures taken during lockdown has been closure of schools, educational institutes and activity areas. This has caused a disproportionate and damaging effect on the lives, mental health and well‐being of young people globally.
 
During the lockdown, children and adolescents experience physical isolation from their classmates, teachers, friends and other important adults such as their grandparents. This might not only cause feelings of loneliness, but could potentially lead to dangerous situations for children from unsafe domestic situations, due to a lack of escape possibilities. In addition, children and adolescents may experience mental health problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, such as increased anxiety, as they might fear for themselves or their loved ones getting infected or they might worry about the future of the world.
 
THE WIDENING GAP
 
The nature and extent of impact on this age group depends on many factors such as the developmental age, current educational status, having special needs, pre-existing mental health condition and being economically under-privileged. The latter leading some experts to fear that this will widen the gap in educational achievement between richer and poorer families. It is now established that the loss in learning during the US summer vacations varies on the child’s background. According to studies, richer children improve their reading performance over the holidays, while poorer families tend to suffer greater losses, since their resources are limited over that period.
 
Home schooling is actively promoted by governments. However, it requires a good computer and steady internet connection to be able to access the school’s resources, and a quiet room to study. It is equally important that the parents themselves are sufficiently educated and time rich, to be able to help with the lessons. A recent study from the UK found that children from richer families are spending about 30% more time on home learning than those from poorer families. Children of first-generation immigrants may be disproportionately disaffected, since they probably have fewer opportunities to learn and practice their second language outside of the home. “Access to distance learning through digital technologies is highly unequal (…) especially for marginalised communities.” says Richard Armitage, in the division of public health and epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. (The Week)
 
Research at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, UK, shows that poorer families are more reluctant to allow their children back to education, “We know from the evidence that’s coming out, on who’s been most affected health-wise by the coronavirus, that individuals from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have been exposed,” says Alison Andrew. “And this might be increasing concern among individuals in poorer households.’’ (IFS)
 
LIVING WITH LONELINESS 
 
Almost 25% of children living under COVID-19 lockdowns, social restrictions and school closures are dealing with feelings of anxiety, with many at risk of permanent psychological distress, including depression. In surveys by Save the Children of over 6000 children and parents in the US, Germany, Finland, Spain and the UK, up to 65 per cent of the children struggled with boredom and feelings of isolation.
 
From the start of the lockdown, researchers working in self harm, mental health and suicide were worried about the effects of social isolation. Loneliness is as damaging as obesity and smoking in terms of long term health effects and is a significant risk factor for suicidal behaviour. Research from the University of Oxford shows that young people have been feeling lonely in lockdown, and lonelier than their parents. An important new study from Cambridge indicates that ‘increases in stress across the entire population due to the coronavirus lockdown could cause far more young people to be at risk of suicide than can be detected through evidence of psychiatric disorders’. Suicide is the leading cause of death in England in 5–19 year olds and it is worth remembering that more young people will die from suicide and road traffic accidents than COVID‐19 this year. Such obvious factshave been curiously missing in policy making throughout this crisis, which has angered many academics who understand and work with risk.
 
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
 
Evidence increasingly shows that the lockdown has had a profound influence on the wellbeing and mental health of many of youngsters compared to adults and this impact will be long term, lasting for many years. University of Bath research indicates that loneliness is linked to mental health problems up to nine years later. As leading developmental psychologist and neuroscientist Professor Uta Frith put it recently, “Education changes the way we perceive the world and behave in relation to others and this affects our brain directly.” (reachwell.org) The consequences for child development in the years to come could be vast, with impacts likely on self control, social competence and logical deduction.
 
Selected studies published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry provethat lonely children and young people might be as much as three times more likely to develop depression in the future, and that the impact of loneliness on mental health outcomes like depressive symptoms could last for years. There was also evidence that the duration of loneliness may play a more important role, than the intensity of loneliness, in increasing the risk of future depression among young people. For many young people, loneliness will decrease as they re-establish social contacts and connections as lockdown eases. For some a sense of loneliness may persist as they struggle to resume social life, particularly for those who were more vulnerable to being socially isolated before lockdown.
 
FIGHTING BACK
 
Aside from doing what we can to mitigate the effects of loneliness and re-establish social connections, we also need to prepare for an increase in mental health problems, in part due to loneliness, and also due to the other consequences of lockdown, such as a lack of structure, physical inactivity and social and/separation anxiety that might be triggered when resuming social interactions outside of the home.
 
There are many levels at which we can prepare for the increased demand:
 
- Take a universal approach to promoting wellbeing through public messaging, and by schools doing activities to promote wellbeing in children and young people as they resume normal activities.
 
- Identify those who are struggling with loneliness as early as possible and do so by targeted interventions to help them overcome their struggles. This may be through providing extra support in schools, helping them overcome anxieties about returning to school, or giving them an extra hand with reconnecting socially with peers.
 
- For those who continue to struggle over time, and can't get back to doing the things they normally do as a result of their struggles, we need to ensure that they are made aware that services are available, and can provide specialist help, and to make sure that they know how to access this help and are supported to do so.