Approximately 1.4 Billion children worldwide have been living under partial or full lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK it has now been ten weeks since the majority of children last went to school or played with a friend. Although the threat to physical health posed by the pandemic has dominated, this period of lockdown also poses a threat to children’s mental health.
In the UK we are fortunate that the current situation is unprecedented, at least in recent history. Consequently, to understand how lockdown affects children, we need to draw upon research conducted in the context of other isolation situations and collect new data on children’s mental health during and after lockdown.
A number of rapid reviews have been conducted with a view to providing insight into how lockdown might affect children. In one of these reviews, Dr Maria Loades and colleagues examined the effect of social isolation and loneliness on children’s mental health. They concluded that social isolation and loneliness increased children’s risk for depression up to nine years later. Relevant to lockdown, duration of loneliness was a stronger predictor than intensity. It is important to note though that only one study, out of the 63 studies included in the review, considered the effect of social isolation in the context of infectious disease.
A further review examines the impact of quarantine and restricted environments on children’s play. This review, conducted by the team at Cambridge University’s PEDAL research centre, found that when children are living in restricted environments (e.g. hospitalisation, detention centres or refugee camps) their access to play changes. In these environments children’s access to play is typically restricted by lack of access to appropriate space, availability of toys and other resources and a lack of appropriate clothing. Despite these restrictions, the frequency of play was maintained in some contexts. For example, one study found that for hospitalised children undergoing chemotherapy, frequency of play remained constant over six weeks of observation.
The effect of lockdown on children’s play may well mirror these findings. Many children will be playing at least as frequently as usual, but their access to the full range of play opportunities is restricted. For social and emotional wellbeing, children need opportunity for all types of play, including play with their peers and physical outdoor play, both of which have been and continue to be restricted. This restriction is likely to felt particularly acutely by children without siblings who are close in age and by children who don’t have access to outdoor space at home.
Play with peers is crucially important for children of all ages. Peer relationships are unique because they are voluntary and egalitarian; they require negotiation and compromise. Because of this, play with peers promotes healthy emotion regulation, social skill development, a sense of identity and it brings feelings of ‘social joy’. Without the opportunity to play closely with peers, children can feel lonely and socially isolated. Data I collected suggests that, even in the first few weeks of lockdown, this effect was already being felt; 63% of British parents perceived that their child (aged 5 to 11 years) was feeling lonely. Although no directly comparable data exists, this appears to represent an increase of around 40-50% relative to normal levels.
Taken together, this means that the experience of lockdown might be placing children’s mental health at risk. This concern is supported by recent data from the Co-Space study, led by the Emerging Minds teams at the University of Oxford, which showed that over 50% of parents are concerned about their child’s emotional wellbeing and over 40% felt they would benefit from support for managing their child’s emotions. These rates were even higher for parents of children with special educational needs and new data indicates that only 11% of parents who have children with special educational needs have felt adequately supported during lockdown. This further contributes to concerns that lockdown will exacerbate existing social inequalities.
In light of these concerns, at the beginning of May 2020, I joined other mental health experts in writing to ministers calling for children’s social and emotional wellbeing to be prioritised in decisions relating to the easing of lockdown and re-opening of schools. Specifically, we urged that, once it is safe to do so, the loosening of lockdown should be done in a way that allows children to play with their peers as soon as possible. We welcome the decision that two families are now able to meet but it will be challenging for children to play with their friends whilst maintaining social distancing and, with parks still closed, their play remains restricted.
Until lockdown is lifted, parents can help their children by supporting them to maintain playful social contact with their peers via technology. This does not provide all of the benefits of face to face social interaction but it is likely to help children remain socially connected. For younger children, using technology to maintain contact with friends will be more challenging. For these children, free-play opportunities at home as well as play with parents and/or siblings will be important for supporting social and emotional wellbeing. For all children, time outdoors being physically active and active outdoor play should be encouraged given the substantial benefits for children’s mental and physical health.
For many children, coming out of lockdown will represent a significant transition after so long at home. We must acknowledge this and, as we move out of lockdown, support children to reconnect socially, to remember how to play with one another, and do all we can to support their social and emotional wellbeing.
Professor Helen Dodd is a Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading and a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellow working on adventurous play and children’s mental health. Helen is also a member of the Foundation Future Leaders programme.