Science, Policy & Pandemics: How has the pandemic impacted children and adolescents?

4 May 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

As part of our series on Science, Policy and Pandemics, we asked: how is the pandemic impacting the learning, wellbeing and mental health of children and adolescents?

Listen to the discussion here:

Produced in partnership with Cambridge Infectious Diseases and the Cambridge Immunology Network, CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's series on science, policy and pandemics aims to answer questions about our understanding of the current pandemic, including the epidemiology, on what basis governments are making current decisions, how much confidence we can have in the knowledge models are producing, and how to manage the uncertainties involved in the present crisis.

In this episode, Dr Rob Doubleday spoke with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Paul Ramchandani, LEGO Professor of Play in Education, to discuss how children and adolescents are experiencing social distancing and how they might be coping with this unsettling time.

We know very little about the impacts of pandemics and quarantine upon children’s mental health, says Professor Ramchandani. However, his work suggests that there will be unequally distributed, long-term hidden effects of the pandemic for some young people. While anxiety and depressive symptoms may be higher right now because of worry and isolation, he suggests that for most, these effects will pass as we move on from the pandemic. The longer-term hidden effects are most likely to affect those children who are presently at home more in difficult environments. This includes those whose families are experiencing poverty or the consequences of the economic downturn, and those facing difficult family situations or domestic violence.

The heightened impacts of the pandemic upon the most vulnerable children was a recurring theme throughout the discussion. Professor Blakemore highlighted that while many youth are managing social distancing by using the internet, social media and smartphones to connect with their peers, teachers, and role models, the most vulnerable are those who are least likely to have access to these technologies. These disparities are also reflected at a school-level, where some schools transitioning to online teaching have been able to focus primarily on continuing online teaching, while in other schools teachers are now spending most of their time engaging in safeguarding. Once schools re-open, it is the most vulnerable children who Professor Ramchandai believes will have the greatest difficulty in reintegrating and who may have the biggest challenges getting back into the routines of school.

Both Professor Blakemore and Professor Ramchandani suggested that the challenges posed by the current coronavirus pandemic offer an opportunity for society to think about what our priorities in education are. They suggested that if there are repeated periods of lockdown, or an extend period of social distancing which continues to impact the delivery of education, we will have to radically rethink how we educate young people - including what education is for, how it works, and how we operate it.

Throughout the discussion, Professor Blakemore and Professor Ramchandani also reflected on how childrens' social interactions have changed during the lockdown period. They discussed how positive peer role modelling can be brought online, changes to household routines and caring dynamics during this period, the importance of adult role models in encouraging adolescents to engage with education, and how rites of passage for older adolescents have been affected by the lockdown.

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash