During the current pandemic, parents and adults are experiencing an unusual uncertainty in their lives. These feelings of helplessness are magnified amongst children because they mirror the vulnerability of the caregivers they live with and are dependent on.
Coupled with the fear of falling sick, children are worried not only about being able to see their friends and relatives again, but also the resumption of school and their old routines.
It is often difficult for parents to calm their children’s anxieties because their own worlds have also been shaken to the core.
Evidence suggests that children are less vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus, and exhibit mild symptoms (largely) if they contract the disease. However, while children have a lowered probability of becoming infected, they are experiencing effects of the virus equally.
It has been indicated that compared to adults, the covid-19 pandemic may continue to have increased long term adverse consequences on children. The associated lockdown and social distancing measures have impacted children both directly and indirectly.
DIRECT IMPACTS OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON CHILDREN
1. Closure of Schools
For children, schools are not only a source of mental stimulation, but also help them in developing a social circle, along with contributing to physical development. For many, although the dissemination of education has shifted to digital platforms (many still lacking, thereof), the window for the scope of interaction with friends and peers has become limited.
Even a short-term shutdown of educational institutions and home captivity for children is indeed troublesome and anticipated to have detrimental effects on children’s physical and mental health. It also shatters the sense of normalcy that schools provide.
With the closure of schools and a lack of routine in place, children are adopting aberrant dietary and sleeping habits which are likely to disrupt children’s usual lifestyle and can potentially promote monotony, distress, impatience, annoyance and varied neuropsychiatric manifestations.
“People who are outside regularly have a lower activity in the part of the brain that focuses on repetitive negative emotions. This is one of the reasons children can slide into negative feelings or even depression during the circumstances they are living in now.”
According to a report, more than half the children who were not in touch with friends reported feeling less happy (57%), more worried (54%) and less safe (58%).
On the other hand, children who were able to interact with friends in person and virtually, reported considerably lowered percentages including only 5% who were less happy, 5% who were more worried and 6% who felt less safe.
2. Increased Risk of Online Harm
A survey of more than 3,000 parents found that screen time for their kids had increased by 500% during the pandemic. This has increasingly become acceptable considering children have limited options to occupy themselves with. However, more important than monitoring the screen time is the regulation of the screen time children are being exposed to.
During the covid-19 lockdown, the regulation of social media and the internet has been compromised through different ways.
Rise of Online Learning
The closure of schools has compelled the schooling system to make an online transition. Further, there has been an influx of online courses that parents are signing up their children for, to help them use the time at home productively.
The use of the internet for learning and socializing with friends may lead to heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images, while increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying.
In Singapore, during the first week of lockdown, the streaming of a geography lesson was interrupted with inappropriate pictures and comments from strangers, and forced the suspension of Zoom as a tool for home-based learning. Schools in China and California (USA) have also witnessed hacking attempts and racist or sexist interruptions of live streaming sessions, with school communities also suspending the use of the tool.
In addition, while it may seem like hackers won’t target children or that online learning websites can seem harmless, anyone, young or old, can be a target for identity theft, computer viruses or online scams. And by breaching any secure password, hackers get one step closer to accessing secure data.
Transition to Automated Monitoring Systems
As most of the online social network companies have shifted their in-office employees to ‘work from home’ mode, the regulation and review of potentially harmful contents have gone automated from manual. This automated content moderation has multidimensional fallacies and the resultant response may be late or inapt.
In simpler terms, it means that the content that was previously monitored by a human team, to report and clean questionable content, has now been replaced by automated monitoring systems to flag and remove inappropriate content. The automated response is not as effective and the discrepancy is being exploited by offenders to abuse children online.
Suppressed Security Mechanisms
Parents may suppress security mechanisms to facilitate their children to have access to an unlimited and uncensored time online, to help them cope with their monotonous routine. This is also an opportunity being taken advantage of by cyber criminals.
A report released by Europol, titled Pandemic Profiteering, stated that there was an increase in online activity by those seeking ‘child abuse material’. The report found a correlation between this increased activity being consistent with online postings in forums by offenders.
The rise is attributed to children being expected to be more vulnerable, less supervised, having more online exposure and are thus easy targets.
3. Unfair Distribution of Household Chores
During the covid-19 pandemic lockdown, the inequity in the distribution of household chores between the genders has become pronounced.
Compared to boys, girls are becoming more burdened with increased responsibilities. Disease outbreaks, like the coronavirus, increase girls’ and young women’s duties caring for elderly and ill family members, as well as for siblings who are out of school.
According to a survey, 63% of girls are more often tasked to do more chores around the house, compared to 43% of boys. More than half of the girls interviewed (52%) reported they were spending more time caring for siblings compared to 42% of boys. 20% of girls reported that they have too many chores to do to be able to learn, compared to 10% of boys.
4. Improved Parent-Child Relationships
Amongst the multiple negative effects of the covid-19 lockdown, parents and children alike have noticed considerably improved relationships.
A survey conducted amongst parents/caregivers reported that 39% of them had an improved relationship with their children since the outbreak, including that their children show more love and affection to them and/or that their children are happier spending more time with them.
The reporting of improved relationships with their children by these parents/caregivers varied significantly across regions though, with greater improvements reported in North America (65%) compared to the lowest reported improvements in the Pacific (16%).
Spending more time with parents/family and having a stronger relationship with family were also the primary themes highlighted by children when asked what they had enjoyed the most during the pandemic.
Grant McCracken, PhD, (a cultural anthropologist with decades of experience studying American families), conducted a research where he found that roughly half of American families believe they will come out of covid-19 stronger than they went in, while only 5% think they will be weaker.
“Mothers now have more time and energy to commit to engaging in conversations with their daughters. Thus, the mother is actually engaging the daughter’s brain in the most effective way possible to strengthen the relationship”.
However, this is true majorly for younger children.
Adolescents and teenagers are experiencing an increase in their sense of isolation, depression, and loneliness. In addition to navigating schoolwork at home, many students have taken on new responsibilities, including childcare, housework, and part-time jobs.
5. Psychological Implications
In one study out of China, researchers examined a sample group of 2,330 schoolchildren for signs of emotional distress. The kids had been locked down for an average of 33.7 days. After that single month, 22.6% of them reported depressive symptoms and 18.9% were experiencing anxiety.
Studies have identified interrelated sources of distress children may be experiencing during the current times. These include, but are not limited to:
- Stress associated with the fear that family members, friends or they themselves will become ill/infected
- The fear associated with stigmatization, if exposed to the virus (particularly for children of health care and other essential services workers)
- Feelings of loneliness, which are pronounced if a family member falls sick. The effects of being alone are also reinforced by physical distancing measures.
- Stress associated with uncertainty around the duration of the pandemic
- Stress resulting from intensified media coverage
Younger children are more susceptible to picking up cues around the house. Findings reveal that during the covid-19 lockdown, children have felt uncertain, fearful and isolated. According to a study, younger children, aged 3 to 6 years, have been more likely to exhibit symptoms of clinginess and the fear of family members being infected than older children (6 to 18 years old).
Older children were more likely to experience inattention and were persistently inquiring regarding covid-19.
Although, severe psychological conditions including increased irritability, inattention and clinging behavior were revealed by all children, irrespective of their age groups.
The toll the pandemic has taken over psychologically amongst children, is also presenting itself as physical manifestations. According to a study, children have experienced disturbed sleep, nightmares, poor appetite, agitation, inattention and separation related anxiety.
This has also been substantiated by a research implemented across 46 countries by Save the Children, where 46% of parents/caregivers reported observing changes in children’s behavior, with around 1 in 5 parents/caregivers reporting changes in appetite (19%) and sleep (24%). 1 in 6 (17%) reported changes in emotional regulation in their children, 8% reported more aggressive behavior and 4% reported the use of violence against others since the outbreak.
INDIRECT IMPACT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON CHILDREN
Besides being directly affected by the pandemic, children have also landed on the receiving end of how the adults they live with are reacting to the social distancing and lockdown measures.
The impact on the children’s families has trickled down to them, in the form of increased domestic violence.
Increased Domestic Violence
The unemployment crisis and the economic uncertainty, along with feelings of restlessness and irritability, whilst stuck at home for long periods of time, have led to heightened tensions in the household. This has resulted in children facing multiple forms of abuse and neglect at the hands of their caregivers.
Social isolation is known to be a risk factor for child abuse . Researchers have found that all types of child abuse become more frequent during school holidays, summer breaks, and natural disasters (disease outbreaks, hurricanes, etc.). Women in an abusive relationship and their children are more likely to be exposed to domestic violence and abuse when family members spend more time in close contact with each other and when families have to cope with additional stress, financial problems, and/or unemployment.
Some forms of violence that children are being exposed to during the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown include:
- Yelling or shouting (including verbal abuse)
- Physical punishment (including hitting the child)
- Aggressive behavior towards the children
The situation may be worsened if the virus causes the loss of parental care due to death, illness or separation.
Further, systems that were in place to prevent and report child abuse have also been disrupted. Measures to contain the virus have affected delivery of vital support and treatment services as well as contact with informal support networks. During the crisis, identifying children at risk is inherently more challenging given that many adults who would typically recognize signs of abuse, such as teachers, childcare workers, coaches, extended family and community members and child and family welfare workers, are no longer in regular contact with children.
IMPACT ON UNDERPRIVILEGED CHILDREN
The pandemic lockdown has not only highlighted the need to put in place efficient social structures but has also worsened the pre-exiting social inequity.
The most affected group during the covid-19 outbreak are underprivileged children, who will take years to recover from the negative consequences of the pandemic.
Increase in Child Labor
The covid-19 crisis could lead to the first rise in child labor after 20 years of progress. The global number of child laborers decreased by almost one-third since 2000. But this progress is seen to be at risk because with the loss or reduction of household income, there may be an increased need or expectation for children to contribute to their families financially by engaging in work (which may include exposure to hazardous or exploitative forms of work).
Increase in Child Marriages
Child marriages are often encouraged primarily by financial incentives. During the covid-19 lockdown, when there is rampant economic uncertainty and an unemployment crisis, families may view child marriages as a potential means to gain financial security. This practice may be hastened by the closure of schools where the education of girls has been interrupted, and they are being viewed as a liability to the family.
Children belonging to underprivileged families already faced the threat of malnutrition. The covid-19 crisis has further led to an acute deprivation of food distribution.
According to a survey conducted in 122 villages in India, the nutritional status of children and pregnant and lactating women of underprivileged sections in Madhya Pradesh has been poor, with their nutrition (food) intake in terms of net calories showing deficit of 51%, 67% and 68% respectively. This meant that the kids got less than half of required nutritious food while the women got only one-third of what is recommended for them.
In countries where children relied on school meals, are now facing shortage of food. In the UK, in 2019, 1·3 million children were eligible for free school meals, and a further 1 million children (deemed ineligible for free meals) were estimated to be living in food insecurity. In the USA, rural counties have been hit hardest by restricted food access; during the covid-19 pandemic, rates of food insecurity have doubled from 18% to 35%.
Increased Domestic and Sexual Violence
In the absence of any monetary sources to sustain the household, many poor families are feeling helpless which is leading to increased frustrations.
By the reason of displacement, the frustration and family conflict may manifest itself in the form of violence towards children. Further, with restricted movement because of the lockdown, children have become the most accessible and vulnerable targets of exploitation and sexual abuse.
The Deputy Director of ‘CHILDLINE 1098’ India, announced that India saw a 50% increase in the calls received on helpline for children since the lockdown began.
The covid-19 outbreak is impacting children both directly and indirectly. The associated lockdown has led to closure of schools which is interfering with the mental, physical and social development of children. This has also meant the transition to online learning, which is putting children at risk of potential threats prevalent across the digital platforms being used. There are studies that have highlighted how the fear of the virus, and the quarantine measures are causing increased levels of depression and anxiety amongst children. On the positive side, parents working from home has meant an increased time spent with family, which children are declaring a highlight of the outbreak. However, on the flip side, children of frontline “Covid Warriors” are experiencing the opposite, because of the increased burden on medical professionals.
There have also been reports of increased domestic violence directed towards children, as a consequence of adults targeting children to cope with their frustrations.
The most affected group during the covid-19 outbreak are underprivileged children, who are experiencing increased involvement in child labor and increased domestic and sexual violence. There is also a rise in child marriages to help poor families gain financial security. The covid-19 crisis has also led to an acute deprivation of food distribution.