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 to join). 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.
This briefing is the fifth 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 and international research where appropriate. As with previous briefings, the scope is fairly broad to cover a wide range of policy interests. This month, there are some new Scottish studies on how children and young people are feeling since returning to school, as well as new research exploring the experiences of 'seldom heard from' young people, and survey research on the prevalence of online bullying during lockdown. A summary of key messages is set out below.
- The emerging picture on the reopening of schools/childcare in Scotland appears to be a positive one for many children and families. There are some signs of recovery with indicative evidence of improvements in children's emotional wellbeing, loneliness and peer and family relationships, particularly for younger age groups (Children's Parliament research). Other positive findings include an increase in outdoor activities and, for some, improvements in physical health and wellbeing (Lockdown Lowdown research). A parent survey found that most respondents felt school is going well for their children (although nearly a third did not feel as positive) (Connect parent survey). However, as these findings are based on unrepresentative samples they cannot be generalised to the wider population and caution should therefore be exercised in interpreting these findings. There are some positive signs in wider UK evidence too, with the most recent Public Health England report on population mental health and wellbeing suggesting that there is increasing evidence that many children and young people are coping well overall and some have reported benefits for their mental health.
- However, emerging evidence on child mental wellbeing in Scotland shows that for some children, particularly for older children and young people, significant issues remain. For example, in the latest Lockdown Lowdown survey only four in ten respondents (aged 11-25) said that they felt good about their mental health and wellbeing. A number of studies, including the Lockdown Lowdown and Children's Parliament research (and various UK studies) report significant anxiety – about COVID-itself (particularly in relation to family health), family income, exam pressure and employment prospects. Another common source of worry was a surplus of online information and mis-information about COVID-19.
- Wider UK evidence is consistent with this mixed picture. Public Health England's updated report on population mental health suggests that experiences vary by children and young people's characteristics, with those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, those with existing mental health conditions, those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, and those living in low income families more likely to have been negatively affected than other children and young people. This is reflected in a number of studies covered in this briefing (e.g. EBPU review, Co-SPACE study, Kindred report) with new evidence suggesting that mental health may be worsening for some groups since returning to school (Young Minds survey).
- A recurring theme is the need for more 'recovery' support e.g. in schools and childcare settings, particularly for child mental wellbeing. There is some indication that support for older children and young people in school/further education has been insufficient – particularly for those with 'vulnerabilities' such as young carers, young people with mental health problems and those with experience of the criminal justice system (Lockdown Lowdown research). Another group of concern are children who have experienced domestic abuse during the pandemic, with a recent Scottish Government report citing concerns from service providers about children missing out on vital recovery work since returning to school.
- Whilst most Scottish evidence suggests a general level of satisfaction with the safe reopening of schools/childcare, there is a feeling from some young people that more could be done to enforce or increase safety measures in schools. Participants in the Lockdown Lowdown research voiced concerns about others not complying with COVID-19 guidance (thereby putting vulnerable family members at risk) and difficulties in complying with physical distancing in schools. Disabled participants that were hard of hearing or partially sighted found that the 2 metre requirement made it hard for them to hear/see others.
- Although social media is generally perceived by young people to be a positive means of keeping in touch with friends (although less so for young people with mental health problems and disabilities) (Lockdown Lowdown research), there continues to be emerging evidence around increased levels of online bullying during the national lockdown. One recent Scottish survey reported an increase in online bullying, prejudicial comments and attitudes online during lockdown (Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) Scotland). Evidence of concerns about online safety continues to emerge, with the Children's Parliament most recent survey reporting an increase in the proportion of children feeling unsafe online.
- We continue to see evidence of the strain placed on parents and the impact that this can have on parenting and child wellbeing. Public Health Scotland (PHS) research and other international evidence (e.g. UNICEF's 'Beyond Masks' report) draws links between children's and parents' emotional wellbeing. The PHS survey findings report that children of parents experiencing low mental wellbeing showed a bigger decline across all child behaviours/areas of life. A loss in income was associated with poor mental health and wellbeing in parents. This is reflected in UK evidence, with the Royal Foundation survey reporting that parents were less positive about their own wellbeing than their children's, particularly women and those experiencing financial difficulties. The UNICEF report suggests that parents most at risk of stress are likely to include families living in poverty, those experiencing conflict, those lacking support from other adults and parents who are key workers.
- That said, there is evidence of positive impacts of the pandemic on family relationships. A new report by LSE (London School of Economics) using UK-wide data from the Understanding Society Covid Survey suggests that the pandemic has not had a detrimental impact on the relationship between children and their non-resident parent. An Ofsted report on children's experiences during the pandemic found that children's sources of resilience (e.g. good support structures, quality family time) played a key role in determining how well children are coping since returning to school regardless of background, including those within the care system.
A number of findings from Scotland and the UK have emerged about how different sub-groups of young people are experiencing the return to school/college/work, as well as new evidence on their experiences during the pandemic more generally:
- Young carers - Emerging evidence suggests that since returning to school/college some young carers in Scotland are finding it even more difficult than during lockdown to find time to relax and 'take a break', with some reporting a drop in support over time (Lockdown Lowdown research).
- LGBTQ+ young people - A Scottish survey on online bullying reported that LGBTQ+ respondents were experiencing online bullying during the national lockdown at more than double the rate of their heterosexual peers. They also reported significantly higher rates of negative mental wellbeing and lower emotional wellbeing before and during the national lockdown (Time for Inclusive Education Scotland research).
- 'Shielding' children and families - New Scottish research by Kindred on the experiences of 'shielding' families whose children have complex medical needs reveals the toll that the pandemic has taken, with many families surveyed struggling to cope and having to weigh up the health risks to their children and the needs of other family members. Key issues reported included loss of respite care, sleep deprivation and the crucial role that schools normally play in supporting parents. Confusion around Scottish Government information (although most thought it was 'good'/'adequate') and eligibility for hubs was also raised. Evidence from England suggests an increase in home schooling, which is reported to be driven by fears about the virus (Ofsted COVID-19 series & Association of Directors of Children's Services Home Education Survey).
- Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) young people - Further evidence on the experiences of BME young people in Scotland, which indicates a need for more consideration of the interests of minority cultures, is emerging. The Lockdown Lowdown research reported that young BME people felt that the way restrictions were re-introduced during Eid celebrations showed a lack of regard for minority cultures. Young people highlighted the need for tailored communications aimed at BME communities, more resources to be available in community languages, and more explicit statements from government countering misinformation and recognising the different situations of minority ethnic groups. UK evidence continues to highlight the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BME people, particularly in terms of income and mental health, but also domestic abuse (UCL Covid-19 Social Study, YouGov Debt Tracker).
- Poverty - PHS survey findings show that the biggest decline in young children's emotional wellbeing and behaviours during lockdown was seen in children from low income families (compared to higher income families), single parent families (compared to two-parent households), and for children with a long term health condition or whose parents have a long term health condition. A recent UK-wide YouGov poll for Action for Children found that many families are in receipt of benefits for the first time, with the cost of Christmas adding to their anxiety and financial burden.
- Care experienced young people - Research by the Dartington Trust reports an improvement in relationships at home for some young people in foster care in the UK. Findings were mixed in relation to the experience of virtual family time, virtual social care, home-schooling and wellbeing, with some thriving due to the one-to-one support from carers, and others missing the structure of school and relationships with friends and family.
Access to services and evidence-based responses
- PHS survey findings shows that some families – often those most in need – had difficulties in accessing universal services during lockdown e.g. GPs and health visiting. This included families on low incomes, single parent families and parents with long-term health conditions. However, the opposite was true for family support, early learning childcare and school staff, which were more readily accessed by these groups.
- As reported in previous briefings, there is a call from some groups of young people to continue online service delivery such as online health appointments (e.g. from young people with experience of the criminal justice system and young people with disabilities) (Lockdown Lowdown research).
- An international evidence review by UNICEF on the societal impacts of COVID-19 reports that the most effective evidence-based responses are social protection (especially financial measures and nutrition), parenting programmes, mental health support and education. There is also increasing evidence of the essential role of community-based service delivery during the pandemic. Other evidence-based responses include further development of telephone and online family support programmes, and (online) storytelling which can help alleviate children's stress (UNICEF's 'Beyond Masks' report).
- Other approaches to support the mental wellbeing of children and young people identified in an evidence review by the EBPU (Evidence-Based Practice Unit) include outdoor access and optimal housing conditions (especially for young people with ADHD and epilepsy), online counselling, access to healthy activities, and upskilling/education of parents and teachers on signs of difficulties and available support.
We continue to see the evidence base on the impacts of COVID-19 on children and families grow. In the short term, it is important to monitor how children and families are adapting to changes in restrictions – particularly those groups that the changes impact most on e.g. 'shielding' families, low income families, young carers – and to identify the most effective responses to meeting those needs. As noted previously, the extent and impact of COVID-related bereavement – and other adverse childhood experiences – needs to be better understood. Looking ahead, there is the continued need for more longitudinal research using representative samples to monitor the impact of the pandemic in the longer term, particularly for the disadvantaged sub-groups covered in this briefing and the digitally excluded.