Coronavirus (COVID-19): children, young people and families - evidence summary - June 2021

Summary of Scottish and UK evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of children and young people.

Key messages


This briefing is the sixth in a series of evidence summaries on the impact of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of children and families in Scotland, drawing on wider UK research where appropriate. As with previous briefings, the scope is fairly broad to cover a wide range of policy interests. It covers research published between October 2020 and May 2021. Most of the research covers the period during which COVID-19 prevention restrictions were eased until the end of 2020, but some present evidence from the second lockdown period in early 2021. As with previous evidence summaries, many of the findings below are based on non-representative samples and they cannot be generalised to the wider population. Caution should therefore be exercised in interpreting them.

General findings across all groups

The latest research continues to highlight the on-going difficulties children, young people and their families faced during the later months of 2020 and early in 2021. While findings include some positive experiences families have had over the past year, most continue to show negative impacts, particularly for some sub-groups. The key messages below state which country or countries research was conducted in.

  • The latest available evidence from the second half of 2020 in Scotland showed that for some, particularly for older children and young people, effects on anxiety and stress persisted (CEYRIS 2, TeenCovidLife 2, INISS). In UK-wide research, young people with a history of mental health needs reported more substantial negative mental health impacts during the most recent lockdown compared with the first lockdown, and felt that these impacts will be long term (YoungMinds).
  • The latest UK-wide evidence on mental wellbeing from Oxford University's Co-SPACE study found a sharp decrease in behavioural, emotional and attentional difficulties among primary and secondary school-aged children following the lifting of restrictions after February 2021. The level of difficulties experienced in February 2021 equalled the previous peak in June 2020.
  • By comparing levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties among groups of children that had been prioritised for a return to school in June, with those who had not returned until September, longitudinal UK research found that negative mental health effects persisted even when all children had returned to school (ISER).
  • Recent Scottish evidence also continued to show lower levels of mental wellbeing among parents with young children. Parents in the CEYRIS 2 study reported lower than average mental wellbeing in the latest survey and Save the Children's qualitative research with low-income parents corroborated this. In the UK, mothers who were younger, never married, or from an ethnic minority were more likely to experience a sharp decline in their mental wellbeing than fathers and male non-parent respondents, though all groups experienced some decline overall (University of Edinburgh).
  • The theme of a need for more 'recovery' support e.g. in schools and childcare settings, particularly for child mental wellbeing, continued to be expressed in the most recent Scottish publications (Save the Children, INISS, Family Fund, Who Cares? Scotland). There was also a desire for clearer and more direct communication with older young people on restrictions, changes and indirect impacts such as on education (Scottish Government working paper), as well as dialogue with parents (Connect and Save the Children).
  • There was some evidence of positive impacts of the pandemic on family relationships in Scotland. Families with children with disabilities and families with lower incomes reported enjoying more time together (CREID and Save the Children). Among children under age 7 in Scotland, the CEYRIS 2 research found improved relationships with parents, carers, and siblings compared with the initial lockdown period. Save the Children's research also noted that some parents on low incomes enjoyed being more involved in their children's education.
  • Evidence from prior to the start of the COVID-19 vaccination programme indicated a high desire among 12 to 17 year olds in Scotland to accept a vaccination if it were available to them (TeenCovidLife 2). However, other UK-wide research from late 2020 highlighted that vaccine hesitancy was highest among the youngest age groups surveyed (16 to 24 years olds) (University of Glasgow, ISER, Ipsos, PHS).

A number of findings from Scotland, the UK, and international sources continue to reinforce previous findings on how different sub-groups of young people are experiencing school, college, or work during the pandemic:

  • Based on Scottish evidence from late 2020, young people over age 18, young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or long-term illnesses, and young carers continued to report consistently worse physical and mental wellbeing (Lockdown Lowdown). Across the UK in early 2021, children and young people with SEND and from low-income households also showed elevated behavioural, emotional, and attentional difficulties (Co-SPACE). The Co-SPACE study also found that during the first year of the pandemic, younger children (4-10 year olds) experienced greater changes in their mental wellbeing (as reported by their parents/caregivers) than adolescents (11-17 year olds).
  • The impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of girls continued to be greater across the UK. In particular, older young girls reported more feelings of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and worry (Girlguides, ImpactEd, and Agenda).
  • Young people living in the most deprived areas of Scotland were less likely to report good physical health, but reported no differences in mental wellbeing in late 2020 (Lockdown Lowdown). In early 2021, research by CPAG Scotland found that many low-income families in Scotland still lacked devices and sufficient internet connections needed for home learning and spent more on bills while their children were at home. However, they indicated that cash payments for free school meals were working for them. UK-wide research reiterated the way that low-income families faced increased income instability and food insecurity, and that these continue to be experienced along existing inequality divides (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Food Foundation, and ImpactEd).
  • Research with organisations working with refugee, asylum seeking, and Roma families with children carried out by Children's Neighbourhoods Scotland highlighted significant additional barriers, such as language barriers and poorer housing conditions, faced by these groups and how critical third sector services were for them.
  • Research with parents of children with disabilities found continued difficulties in accessing support and resources and reported that these children and their families continue to experience lower levels of mental wellbeing (CREID, Disabled Children's Partnership, Sibs, and NSPCC). Other research highlights the challenges parents faced with remote learning for children and young people, particularly for parents of children with SEND (Connect).
  • Care experienced young people The Lockdown Lowdown survey found lower mental health and worse relationships in this group than for other respondents. Research by Who Cares? Scotland and CELCIS highlighted barriers continued to exist for employment, digital access, remote learning, and access to support. However, some respondents reported improvements in physical health.
  • Minority ethnic young people The Lockdown Lowdown survey found that minority ethnic respondents felt less good about their physical health and were less happy being back at school and felt less safe there than white respondents. UK and international evidence continued to show the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing and experiences of young minority ethnic people (Children's Commissioner for Wales and the Evidence-Based Practice Unit).
  • Vulnerable children and young people – NSPCC data from UK helplines showed sharp increases in calls regarding abuse of children and requests for mental health support. UCL's regular survey, which includes questions on abuse, indicates that people living in households with children continued to report higher rates of physical or psychological abuse. International evidence from UNICEF suggests that while reports and calls regarding violence against children may be decreasing or suggesting a mixed picture, self-reported surveys and injuries treated in hospitals suggest a pattern of increases in violence.
  • LGBTQ+ young people Studies in both Scotland and the UK (Lockdown Lowdown and Just Like Us) also continued to confirm more pronounced mental wellbeing impacts on LGBTQ+ young people, particularly Black LGBTQ+ young people.

Access to services and evidence-based responses

  • The PHS CEYRIS 2 survey found that a minority of parents of children aged 2 to 7 said they had not accessed the services they wanted during 2020, primarily those seeking dentistry services, health visitor services, and Family Support Workers. The reasons given were that parents thought the service was unavailable or that 'they did not want to be an extra burden' at the time.
  • Scottish evidence continued to emerge around interruptions in services for some groups including care experienced children and those living with long-term illnesses or disabilities during the initial part of the pandemic. Research also highlights difficulties faced by these groups in accessing services remotely (Who Cares? Scotland and CREID).

Evidence Gaps

Studies on the impacts of COVID-19 on children and families have begun to consistently reinforce one another within the evidence base. In the short term, it will be useful to monitor changes in outcomes for children and families as the period of lockdown that began in January 2021 concludes. This will be particularly important for the different sub-groups highlighted in this summary who have experienced the greatest impacts of the pandemic to ensure they are not 'left behind' by response efforts as restrictions ease.

As much of the research conducted in Scotland covered in this summary was collected during 2020, it does not cover the lockdown period during 2021. Several projects are, however, continuing to gather data at the time of writing this summary.

As noted previously, the extent and impact of COVID related bereavement – and other adverse childhood experiences – needs to be better understood. In the longer term, there is the on-going need for continuing cross-sectional studies to monitor the impact of the pandemic.

Research Topics

Scottish Evidence

1. General children, young people and parent/carer COVID-19 evidence and research

2. Impact on families

3. Mental health and mental wellbeing

4. Physical health and wellbeing

5. Education, learning and employment

6. Children’s rights and participation

7. Children and young people with vulnerabilities and/or disadvantage

7.1 Poverty

7.2 Children, young people and families impacted by disability and serious health conditions

7.3 Care experienced children and young people

7.4 Young carers

7.5 Minority ethnic children and young people

7.6 Vulnerable children and young people

7.7 Domestic abuse and violence against women and girls

7.8 LGBTQ+ children and young people

7.9 Children and young people impacted by the justice system

8. Impact on services

Research from across the UK

9. General children, young people and parent/carer COVID-19 evidence and research

10. Impact on families

11. Mental health and mental wellbeing

12. Physical health and wellbeing

13. Education, learning and employment

14. Children’s rights and participation

15. Children and young people with vulnerabilities and/or disadvantage

15.1 Poverty

15.2 Children, young people and families impacted by disability and serious health conditions

15.3 Care experienced children and young people

15.4 Young carers

15.5 Minority ethnic children and young people

15.6 Vulnerable children and young people

15.7 Domestic abuse and violence against women and girls

15.8 LGBTQ+ Children and Young People

15.9 Children and young people impacted by the justice system

16. Impact on services

17. Scope, limitations and further information

Note – Many of the COVID-19 surveys are drawn from self-selecting or convenience/opportunity samples (a sample that a participant volunteers to be part of rather than being selected for).  This means that the findings are likely to be biased in some way, and are not representative of and cannot be generalised to the wider population.  Results of individual studies should therefore be interpreted with caution. 

This briefing covers a broad range of policy interests but focuses predominantly on social and emotional impacts of COVID-19 on children and young people aged 3-18, with a particular interest in children and families experiencing vulnerabilities, disadvantage or discrimination.

Further information about the scope and limitations of this evidence briefing are covered in the Scope, Limitations and Further Information section.



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