′COVID kids′: Should parents worry about pandemic impacts on small children? | Coronavirus and Covid-19 - latest news about COVID-19 | DW | 19.02.2022

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Coronavirus

'COVID kids': Should parents worry about pandemic impacts on small children?

Two years is a long time in the life of a young child. Is this era of masks, isolation and extra stress having a negative impact on our little ones? And if so, how deep and lasting will it be?

A man carries a baby wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 in Los Angeles, California, February 10, 2021

For the youngest among us, the pandemic is all they've ever known

First came the coronavirus pandemic: ripping through our lives, turning the world upside down, bringing anxiety and fear. Parents had a new worry — that their kid could get COVID-19. 

Now, as we shift from pandemic to endemic — to learning to live with COVID-19  — some parents face a further set of worries: Are the restrictions that have often been imposed to try and contain the pandemic in themselves harming my child? 

For those children who are now 2 years old, the pandemic is all they've ever known. Even children who are 4 will have spent half their lives with masks, social distancing and at least some sort of lockdown or quarantine. To them, this is all the most normal thing.

New research has been shedding light on how pandemic measures have affected families and the little ones among us. And it seems the kids are not okay.

Watch video 01:02

How the pandemic has changed children's lives

Worrisome trend

Sean Deoni is a biophysicist and associate professor in pediatrics at Brown University's Advanced Baby Imaging Lab in the United States. The lab focuses on early child development — or as he puts it, "How we make healthy children."

In addition to using imaging, such as MRIs, researchers also test babies and toddlers on their motor, cognitive and language skills, with in-person assessment at the lab continuing even after the pandemic hit.

"Anecdotally, I kept hearing from our research assistants and psychologists that the younger kiddos were having a lot more trouble getting through those games and puzzles. And those anecdotes slowly built into more of a chorus. So we decided to look at this more rigorously," Deoni told DW.

In a study released as a preprint and soon to be published in the Journal of Pediatrics, Deoni and his colleagues compared cognitive assessments from nearly 700 children aged 3 months to 3 years, from 2011 to 2019 versus 2020 to 2021.

In such "IQ tests for babies," scores would typically fall in the range of 85 to 115. But after the pandemic started, the researchers observed that little ones were, rather, reaching ranges in the 60s to 70s. 

Children are, depending on their age, "anywhere from one to six months behind" expected levels of development, according to Deoni.

"That suddenly makes you stand up and say, 'What the heck is going on here?'" he said.

New-born child in mother's arms

Babies born into the pandemic can be behind on the normal developmental milestones

Masks not the culprits

At first, researchers thought their own mask-wearing might have to do with the problematic results. But other research based on parent reporting has backed this trend, excluding masking as a significant factor. 

"It's probably not the masks, it's probably not the environment that the kids are being assessed in; it's a more fundamental change as the result of the pandemic," Deoni said. 

He and fellow researchers are working off the hypothesis that the delays in child development result from a reduction in stimulation. 

Medical staff wearing face masks hold a newborn in a delivery room in Zhangye City, Gansu Province, China, May 26, 2021

Babies have been encountering masks from their earliest days during the pandemic

Home child care difficulties

Johanna Miller, a mom of two in the Austin, Texas, area in the US, was among the innumerable parents who struggled through day care and school closures

Her eldest, 4 1/2 years old at the start of the pandemic, "lost all social contact except for his baby brother." 

Since both parents kept working, and remote learning was not possible for the six-plus months the two children did not attend their Montessori school, the parents turned to television to keep their children occupied. Previously, screen time had been strictly limited.

"At first it was cool — he got to watch the 'Dinosaur Whisperer' every day, so welcome to TV," she told DW. "The little guy also basically got a whole bunch of TV." The children have since developed a bit of television dependency, she added.

Her youngest had just turned 1 and was in school a mere two weeks before it shut down. After those six months, "He definitely lost that interest to be in school, that readiness," she said.

Smiling girl wearing headphones using laptop

Remote learning presented vast difficulties for countless parents and children

Reduced well-being 

Beyond potential effects on child development, further research has also examined the psychological impact of pandemic measures. Findings there point to problems as well.

In a study done during Germany's first lockdown in March 2020, more than 2,500 parents of children aged 3 to 10 responded to a questionnaire by researchers at the University of Munich's Social Development Lab.

Parents were asked to assess their own stress levels as well as those of their children, along with reporting on mood and whether their kids were demonstrating emotional or behavioral problems.

Natalie Christner, a child psychology postdoc at the lab, which conducts experiments into the social and emotional development of children, said that children seemed less happy during lockdown times. "There was a great impact on their well-being: Parents report reduced positive emotions in children," she said.

The single factor that contributed most to this reduced psychological well-being was a reduction in social contact, she added.

"We saw that particularly children without any siblings report more emotional problems and also more hyperactivity compared to children with siblings," Christner told DW, which the researchers interpreted as evidence supporting the importance of contact with other kids.

In addition, she described a kind of feedback loop where parental stress affects children's well-being, which in turn influences parents' well-being.

Yet she described a silver lining to lockdown times, as well: "We also saw that some parents reported an increase in family well-being; this time was experienced as an opportunity for some families to spend time together."

The stories of parents echo these findings.

Grandparents hiking with kids, reading information on wooden board while standing on path in woods in autumn

Many families took lockdown as an opportunity to get outdoors into nature together

A mixed bag

Angela Creasy is a Canadian who lives with her husband and two boys, 2 and 4 years old, in a suburb of Riga in Latvia. "I believe the pandemic has had a huge impact on my children," she said — but added that this included both positive and negative aspects.

For example, they spent more time together as a family and got to enjoy the outdoors more than they might have otherwise.

On the other hand, "My younger son does not have many friendships, nor did I have the chance to meet mothers with children his age," Creasy told DW. 

Dina Heusel, a Latvian who lives in Mannheim, Germany, with her three children, sees things differently. "I believe my kids didn't experience any major psychological impact from the pandemic," she told DW. She also described some upsides, like spending more time together and more trips to the forest.

She described her youngest child, now 3, as "less experienced." But she does not feel that he is any less developed.

Heusel acknowledged that the closures and restrictions "were not always easy for me" and that this likely impacted her children as well. "Of course, the more stressed I was, the crazier the kids were."

Creasy also recognized this interplay of parent and child mood. "My husband and I tried our hardest to remain positive throughout this — I feel like the positive mindset helped our kids a lot," she said.

How deep and lasting?

Deoni emphasized the importance of these formative early years. "The first 1,000 days, from conception until about age 2, are widely recognized as playing a fundamental role in shaping lifelong patterns of development." What happens in that time affects virtually all aspects of health, he went on.

We're reaching that 1,000-day mark for children born when the pandemic started, he pointed out.

Yet predicting a child's long-term outcome from measurements at 3 months or even 1 year is tricky, he said, because kids are so different.

For him, the jury is still out. "We sort of think of kids as being incredibly resilient … and yet we also have examples of very acute events of high adversity and high stress that have long-term implications on child development," Deoni said.

Young bearded man hugging little son while sitting on comfortable sofa and watching cartoon on laptop at home

Deoni suggests also bringing your kid into Zoom calls

As for Christner, she thinks that "not all effects are going to be very long-lasting." Based on a continuation of the study she was involved in, for example, well-being improved once lockdown measures were lifted.

Regarding any potential developmental delays, she said, "It's very important to pay attention. These studies are the first step to realize, 'Oh, there is a problem.'"

"I think it's also important to actually encourage social contacts again," she added.

And if you are worried, what's the best thing you can do for your child?

Just do your job as a parent, Deoni said. The brain is like a muscle that strengthens with stimulation. Play, read, tickle, talk, sing, hug, roughhouse, engage, be present — all these things will help build those foundational skills, he said. 

"The best thing you can do is just love your child."

Watch video 02:30

Has the pandemic made children myopic?

Edited by: Timothy Jones

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