COVID-19 continues to cause disruption to children and families' lives through school closures, physical distancing and changes in household employment and finances. As lockdown continues through different phases, a number of trends are emerging from the Scottish and UK evidence base which are set out below.
Physical and mental wellbeing
- Scottish household data shows that about a third of households with children have someone with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, and 8% of households with children have suffered a COVID-related bereavement. This has implications for children's wellbeing and return to school planning.
- Academic literature on risk factors for children's health and mental wellbeing during quarantine include prolonged duration, fears of infection, frustration and boredom, inadequate information, lack of in-person contact with classmates, friends, and teachers, lack of personal space at home, and family income loss. Many of these issues are evident in COVID-19 surveys.
- The growing evidence on the mental wellbeing of children and young people during this crisis is mixed and this makes it difficult to identify trends. This is due to differences and bias in survey samples and potential regional differences. Whilst most surveys suggest that the majority of primary-aged children in the UK and in Scotland are doing fairly well there is some evidence of a slight decline in primary-aged children's mental wellbeing.
- Although one survey reports no change, there does appear to be a continuing trend of young people reporting lower mental wellbeing over time. The trend of increasing loneliness is a particular concern, given that wider literature suggests that chronic loneliness can have a negative impact on young people's mental health, and that physical distancing may disproportionately impact on adolescents' wellbeing. Some forms of digital communication may mitigate this although further research is needed.
- Although girls' mental wellbeing appears to be more adversely impacted overall, there is mixed evidence on whether their mental wellbeing is deteriorating more than that of boys'.
- There is emerging, albeit limited, evidence that very young children may be missing out on play and spending long periods of screen-time during lockdown. This is concerning given the importance of social connection and play in early development.
- As lockdown eases in different parts of the UK, there is emerging evidence (from Ireland) that even where outdoor gatherings have been allowed, children are not regularly engaged in safe, outdoor play with children from other households. This suggests that there may be barriers to play and social connection as lockdown eases that warrant further investigation (e.g. difficulties in adhering to physical distancing rules, outdoor access to play areas, infection worry etc.).
- Some surveys report positive experiences in lockdown which may enhance children and young people's wellbeing such as spending more time with family, increased play time and outdoor time, better diet and relief from pressures such as bullying at school.
- There is emerging and mixed evidence on how the pandemic may be impacting on children and young people's physical health and wellbeing with some indication of age-related differences. Overall, primary aged children appear to be less affected whereas teenagers and pre-school children may be at risk of engaging in less physical activity than before lockdown. All groups appear to have been engaged in more screen-time during lockdown but more research is needed on the age-related merits and risks associated with this.
- Many parents are struggling to balance the needs of work and childcare, and this is reflected in a marked increase in adult mental health problems during lockdown, especially for women and parents with young children. Although most families are enjoying spending more time together, Scottish evidence reports that women in households with children had substantially worse mental wellbeing outcomes across all measures than men and were twice as likely to feel lonely. Given the wider evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on low income and single parent households, single mothers may be a particularly vulnerable group during this pandemic.
Home learning and return to school
- A number of UK-wide parent surveys have reported differences in engagement, support and resources for home learning between lower and higher income families. These findings have raised concerns about educational inequalities and widening of the attainment gap. That said, some Scottish evidence indicates that regardless of income, the most important factor in relation to schools for many parents and carers is an emphasis on emotional support and friendships.
- There are early indications that the majority of parents in Scotland intend to send their children back to school in August, but many have expressed concerns about the 'blended learning' model, particularly parents of children with additional support needs (ASN) and disabilities. Families affected by disability or long-term health problems have voiced concerns about safety and how children's needs will be met when they return to school, as well as continued problems with access to IT equipment to support home learning.
Children, young people and families with vulnerabilities
- Low income families appear to be experiencing lower levels of wellbeing during the pandemic than better off families in Scotland. Evidence suggests that those families with the least money have had to spend the most on educational resources. Key areas of concern for low income families include increasing levels of poverty, food insecurity, utility payments and fuel poverty, digital divide issues and family and child wellbeing (including isolation, loneliness and mental health issues). Low-income families are concerned with the longer-term effects of increased social isolation and household stress, and want schools to prioritise safe opportunities for children to rebuild friendships and play, and more pastoral (emotional) support for older children.
- There is some indication that some lone parent families in Scotland are under extreme pressure. UK evidence indicates that lone parent families have suffered greater financial losses than many other groups. Single parents appear to be at increased risk of loneliness and difficulties with supporting home learning (although previous evidence suggests that children from lone parent families are not losing out on education). Lone parent helplines report increases in stress and anxiety about finances and difficulty coping during the crisis.
- The UK and Scottish evidence on the experience of lockdown by families impacted by disability or illness and those with children with additional support needs continues to be one of unmet need and increasing emotional and financial pressures. Despite some survey evidence suggesting that parents think children are coping fairly well, there are reports of a deterioration in children's health and wellbeing as time goes on. Some parents have not accessed healthcare for their children or themselves, and some are not taking up school places because of health concerns. Parents want more support, more and better tailored information (e.g. for shielding households) and flexibility in easing of lockdown to allow informal support to resume.
- English (qualitative) evidence from young carers reports that restrictions of lockdown and the anxiety related to COVID-19 risks has increased young carers' stress and their caring load significantly, particularly for older carers and those in single parent households. There are calls for children under the age of 18 living with a parent or sibling with substantial disability, physical health needs or mental ill health to be automatically regarded as a young carer during the on-going pandemic and supported accordingly.
- Evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on black and minority ethnic (BME) children and young people is still very limited and the findings mixed. Whilst a number of Scottish and UK surveys have found no obvious ethnic differences across a range of measures, there is some online mental health service data from England (along with previous English survey data from the University of Sheffield) that suggests otherwise. Further evidence is needed to determine the situation in Scotland, including the impact of COVID-19 on refugee and migrant families.
- Similar concerns are seen in the limited evidence available relating to care-experienced children and young people, for whom the current situation has exacerbated pre-existing issues. These include loneliness and social isolation; access to the internet; poor mental health; access to affordable and nutritious food; and financial insecurity. The living situation of some young people during lockdown is challenging e.g. due to family conflict, difficulties in moving out of temporary accommodation, and concerns about rent arrears.
- There is evidence that some children in Scotland are experiencing domestic abuse more acutely during lockdown. Key areas of concern are child contact arrangements, challenges of remote service delivery and high levels of need in some families. UK evidence suggests that domestic abuse may be slightly higher in households with children, whilst early indicators suggest an increase in domestic violence and child maltreatment.
- Emerging evidence suggests that the key issues facing children and young people in the justice system in Scotland are isolation and lack of contact with others, alongside boredom and lack of activity. This is particularly the case for young people in custody, some of whom lack access to digital resources and have lost contact with family, friends, and support services.
Impact on and access to services
- Evidence indicates that digital/remote service interventions for child/adolescent mental health are more effective than those targeting other issues such as substance misuse and criminal behaviour. Given the emerging evidence about deteriorations in child/adolescent mental wellbeing combined with increased demand for online mental health support, this may offer a potential route for mitigation of mental health impacts, especially for adolescents who may be more vulnerable currently.
- Evidence on digital service provision more broadly shows that interventions which have some form of personalisation, interactivity and/or contact with a practitioner – rather than self-directed, non-interactive learning – are more likely to improve outcomes.
- The impact of delays and changes to the Scottish Justice System are reported to be causing stress and uncertainty for some young people. Experiences of remote service provision in youth justice are consistent with other studies: barriers include lack of technology and privacy at home, and the challenges of building new relationships.
- Third sector organisations continue to provide a range of creative and vital support packages to vulnerable children and families in Scotland, including food packages, utility and mobile phone top ups, online support sessions and online social groups.
- Services are keen to harness the opportunity that the pandemic has created to forge new, creative ways of working, and to examine how these may be sustained in the longer term (e.g. in Children's Hubs).
- As per the June briefing, there is continued demand for more targeted messaging for children and young people (to address ongoing issues around perceived lack of information and uncertainty) that is relevant to their circumstances e.g. children impacted by disability and/or living in shielding households etc. Wider literature highlights the importance of ensuring that any information about COVID-19 is age appropriate in order to avoid feelings of fear and guilt. There is also further indication of a desire for more opportunities for young people to play an active role in supporting their communities during the pandemic.
- Whilst evidence gaps are closing, they still exist in particular for young carers, BME families, lone parent families and looked after children in Scotland. Further qualitative evidence – to enable the voices and lived experience of children and families to be heard – is still needed across most vulnerable groups. Some of these research needs are being addressed in ongoing academic research, the findings of which will be shared at the earliest opportunity.
- As lockdown continues to be eased, further evidence will be required on how children, young people and families are understanding, complying and adapting to different lockdown phases in order to ensure that opportunities for restoring and improving children's wellbeing are maximised.
- Given the potential negative impact of COVID-19 disease control measures on the wellbeing of children and young people, it is crucial to continue to monitor how the pandemic is affecting the lives of children and families in Scotland, particularly those that are disadvantaged or vulnerable in some way.
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This document draws primarily on research on the social and emotional impact of COVID-19 on children and families, with a focus on primary-aged children and young people. It is intended to supplement and provide context to the weekly COVID-19 vulnerable children and adult protection datasets.
NOTE – Most of the COVID-19 surveys are drawn from self-selecting samples (a sample that a participant volunteers to be part of rather than being selected). This means that the findings are not representative of the wider population and are likely to be biased in some way. Results of individual studies should therefore be interpreted with caution.
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