Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact on children, young people and families - evidence summary July 2020

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

Views and experiences of children and young people

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

Scottish Evidence

Connect published interim findings from its second lockdown survey which asks parents/carers of children aged 0-18 for their views on children returning to school/nursery in August and repeats questions from the first survey on general wellbeing. The findings cover responses received between 27 May - 2 June, at which time there was 2,007 responses from 29 local authority areas. The survey closes on 30 June. General health and wellbeing findings are summarised below. Those related to home learning are reported in the 'Impact on Families' section:

  • The three biggest parental concernswere children missing friends (73%), falling behind with school work (52%) and children's health and wellbeing (51%).
  • Although there is an improving picture from parents in relation to having what they need to keep their children happy (up from 64% to 77%), one in five parents said that they did not have what they needed or were not sure.

UK Evidence

Some emerging evidence from other parts of the UK and Ireland indicate some positive impacts of lockdown for primary-aged children including an increase in play and spending more time outdoors.

The Children's Commissioner for Wales has published findings of its 'Coronavirus and me' survey which was completed by 23,700 children and young people aged 3-18. Full analysis of the survey results is underway which will include analysis by protected characteristics. Initial headline findings include:

  • More than half (58%) of children and young people said that they have felt happy most of the time during the crisis and a large majority (84%) report feeling safe most of the time.
  • Secondary school aged children had more negative feelings than younger children, with 16% feeling sad 'most of the time'.
  • Challenges for children with additional learning needs included difficulties for children with dyslexia (home learning is mostly text based), changes in routine, and loss of contact with normal support structures.
  • Over half of children report playing more than usual (53%) with a wide range of online and offline play described.
  • Some of the positive experiences of lockdowninclude spending more time with their family, spending more time outdoors and relief for some from pressures such as mental health difficulties or bullying.

Primary School Network Wales has published early findings of its 'Happen at Home' survey for children aged 8-11 which has been completed by over 1000 children, a third of which were from a deprived area. These findings show that most children are doing fairly well during lockdown and in some cases better than before lockdown. These are interim findings; the survey is still open.

  • Most children (91%) are managing to stay connected with their friends - by phone and game consoles - and have a space to relax (89%).
  • Worry levels were the same as before lockdown.
  • Children's diets have improved with children in deprived areas eating 20% more fruit.
  • Children are sleeping better and are more active than they were pre-lockdown (20% more children were classified as active).
  • Children living in deprived areas report fewer places to play (57% compared to 72% in non-deprived areas). Boys who felt their area was not safe had higher screen time.
  • Most children felt they were doing well at school (87% girls and 80% boys) and felt that they were still part of their school community (76%).

Mary Immaculate College (MIC) in Ireland has published early findings from its Play and Learning in the Early Years Survey which asked parents of primary aged children (aged 10 and under) how lockdown had impacted on their children's lives. The survey was launched in May for two weeks during Phase 1 of the easing of restrictions in Ireland and was completed by 512 parents. The findings will be compared to those from a 2019 survey to examine differences in play, learning and child development, before and during the crisis. Key findings from the preliminary analysis are:

  • Nearly all children aged 6 and over, and three quarters of those aged 4-5, understand social distancing measures and the reasons for them.
  • Despite the easing of lockdown in Phase 1, less than a third (27%) of children have played with children from another household outdoors with social distancing at least once a week.
  • Almost all children (90%) miss their friends and playing with other children (87%).
  • Almost 80% of children are engaged in more screen-time compared to before the crisis, with some very young children spending as much as 5 hours per day because of parent work commitments.
  • Although 63% of children are spending less time on school work (most children are spending less than 2 hours per day), 30% are spending more time reading and 74% are reported as spending more time outdoors (80% play outside every day).
  • Some parents reported their children being more content due to the lack of scheduled activities and the increased opportunities for free play, especially imaginative and independent play.

The Duke of Edinburgh's Award has published high-level results from its lockdown survey which was completed by 9,913 DofE participants aged 14-25. The survey paints a fairly positive picture of how DofE respondents are managing during lockdown (though these young people may arguably be more motivated than other young people).

  • The majority (57%) of respondents report to be coping fine or quite well with the loss of their usual routine, with almost half (48%) spending more time than usual being active, 47% using the time to learn a new skill or rediscover an old one, and 44% have become closer to friends and family.
  • Most respondents report feeling bored (89%) and spending more time on screens since lockdown (83%) – although for most this was not seen to be having a negative impact on their mental health.
  • Respondents biggest concern is the impact on education (71% are concerned the pandemic will impact their academic knowledge and skills), followed by the effect on their physical health and fitness (53%) and how lockdown may impact their mental health (46%).

Other surveys suggest increasing levels of emotional and behavioural problems in children and young people during lockdown.

The Co-SPACE (Oxford University) has published its latest (4th) report and supplementary reports from the COVID19: Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children in Epidemics (CO-SPACE) study which include the first set of longitudinal analyses showing change in mental health symptoms over the course of lockdown. The monthly UK-wide survey is completed by parents of children aged 4-16 and young people aged 11-16. Adult respondents who completed both the first and second surveys (2,890) were mostly female, employed and white, and most have an average income above the national average >£30,000. It is therefore not a nationally representative sample. Some caution should be taken when interpreting the findings below as there also appears to be some sample bias towards parents with primary-aged children with difficulties (emotional, behavioural and attentional)[1]. Adolescents who participated in both surveys (572) were typically from high-income, white British households with working parents, and so again, are not representative of young people across the UK.

Over a one-month period in lockdown:

  • Parents/carers of primary school age children taking part in the survey report an increase in their child's emotional, behavioural, and in particular, restless/attentional difficulties.
  • Parents/carers of secondary school age children report a reduction in their child's emotional difficulties, but an increase in restless/attentional behaviours.
  • Adolescents taking part in the survey report no change in their own emotional or behavioural, and restless/attentional difficulties.
  • Parents/carers of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and those with a pre-existing mental health difficulty report a reduction in their child's emotional difficulties and no change in behavioural or restless/attentional difficulties.
  • Children from lower income households (only 17% of respondents) are reported to having higher emotional, behavioural and attentional difficulties than those from higher income households.
  • Patterns of difficulties over time appear to be consistent across gender, ethnicity and household incomei.e. any changes in mental wellbeing of children do not appear to associated with these factors. However, given the sample bias, the findings in relation to income and ethnicity must be interpreted with caution.
  • That said, in both surveys girls are slightly more likely to have higher emotional difficulties, and boys are more likely to have higher behavioural and attentional difficulties. However, it does not appear, as some other surveys have reported, that girls' mental wellbeing is deteriorating at a faster rate than boys.

The University of Oxford is running its Achieving Resilience During COVID-19 (ARC) study. This is an international study which will track adolescents' mental health during the COVID-19 crisis to find out what promotes or hinders their resilience. Early findings from its first report, which covers the first three weeks of the study and includes responses from 233 parents and 321 young people, and further online updates show that:

  • Teenagers are feeling more lonely, anxious, and depressed than parents as time goes on (although parents' levels of loneliness is also increasing).
  • 35% of teenagers surveyed reported feeling lonely often or most of the time (compared to 17% parents). This is despite respondents spending on average 3 hours per day on social media, mostly to keep in touch with people. Feelings of loneliness seem to increase with age (from 13 to 18).
  • The main reason teenagers give for spending so much time on social media is that they didn't have anything better to do.
  • There is a slight trend for increases in anxiety and depression over time (over the 3 weeks the survey had been running) in young people. However, a larger sample is needed across a longer period of time to draw any firm conclusions.

The Co-SPYCE (Oxford University) study published its first report of its UK-wide survey for parents/carers with children aged 2-4 and covered stress, child activities, child worries and need for support. The Co-SPYCE project is tracking the mental health of pre-school aged children throughout the COVID-19 crisis via an online survey completed monthly by parents/carers. This first report is based upon the data from the first 1728 parents/carers that completed the survey between 17 April and 20 May, most of whom were female (94%) and white (92%); the majority were working (63%) and had an average income of >£30,000 (81%). The results are not therefore currently representative of the UK population. Key findings of the first report are:

  • Nearly ¾ of participating parents/carers felt that they were not sufficiently able to meet the needs of both work and their pre-school child.
  • The top 3 stressors for participating parents/carers were (i) work, (ii) child's screen time, (iii) their child's wellbeing. Although most children are spending 30 mins to 2 hours screen-time per day, a quarter of young children are spending 3+ hours watching a screen but not interacting with it.
  • Over half of parents are worried that they aren't doing enough with their child (55%) and many lack confidence in entertaining their children (47%).
  • Many pre-school children are missing out on play and social interaction with other children. Almost half of the children (47%) are reported to be spending no time playing with another child in their household, and half (51%) are reported as not communicating at all via phone, video call or message with friends outside their home.
  • Over 8 in 10 of children are reported by participating parents/carers to be getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day but only 22% are reported to be getting the recommended 3 hours.
  • Participating parents/carers particularly want support around managing children's emotions, educational demands, behaviours and coming out of social isolation. They would like to receive this support via online written content and videos.

Children and young people with mental health problems

UK Evidence

XenZone, which provides online mental health support in England (funded by the NHS), has released new data from its Kooth service which is a 'free, safe and anonymous' online mental service provider for children and young people. Kooth has been publishing monthly data summaries derived from user data in England throughout lockdown. The June summary is drawn from a sample size of 42,732 users logging in during the period of 01/03/20-30/05/20 and 33,152 people last year over a similar period. Whilst the sample is very large, it is heavily biased towards children and young people with mental health concerns, and it provides an indication rather than a standardised measure of mental health problems[2]. It is not clear what age of children and young people the data covers. Some caution should be therefore be exercised when interpreting the findings:

  • There has been a huge increase in demand for the Kooth online mental health service – logins are up 58% on last year, and this demand is rising during lockdown.
  • The biggest increases are seen in health anxiety, sadness, worries about education and sleep issues.
  • Young people using the service are increasingly lonely in lockdown, with data showing a 63% increase on the previous year, rising from a 31% increase recorded in April.
  • Family relationships are a concern for increasing numbers of children and young people during lockdown, with a 30% increase in this as a presenting issue compared to the previous year.
  • There is an increase of 16% in suicidal thoughts as a presenting issue and a 27% increase in self-harm compared to last year.
  • Compared to last year there is a 74% increase in users presenting with gender identity issues.

Kooth has also released in-depth analysis of data about its users from BME backgrounds (see next section).

Mental health charity YoungMinds carried out a UK survey with 1,135 teachers and members of school or college staff (only 1% of respondents lived in Scotland) between 15th May and 1st June in the lead up to schools re-opening. The report calls for pupil wellbeing to be the top priority as children return to school. The results show that:

  • 74% of respondents agreed that schools being closed to most students over the period of lockdown has had a negative impact on the mental health of young people.
  • 88% of respondents agreed that a lack of structure and routine has had an effect on student wellbeing, while 79% thought that increased anxiety stemming from the pandemic has had an effect.
  • 73% of respondents reported concern about young people spending more time in unsuitable home environments over the course of the lockdown period and as schools gradually reopen.
  • 78% of respondents reported that additional pastoral support, such as in-school counselling, would be helpful, in order to support children as they return to school.

Emerging evidence on physical health and wellbeing

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, which suggest that pre-school children and adolescents are most at risk of decreased activity levels.

  • Research on young people suggests that lack of activity, boredom and increased screen-time could have negative impacts on their physical health (e.g. weight gain). One in four respondents to the Lockdown Lowdown survey in April said that they were moderately or extremely concerned about their own physical wellbeing (although concern was much higher for mental wellbeing). Other data reports an increase in sleep problems (see next section). Further evidence is needed, however, to explore how lockdown is impacting on young people's physical wellbeing.
  • The Children's Parliament survey for 8-14 year olds reported age differences in self-reported good energy levels, making healthy choices and getting enough exercise, with older age groups (12+) less likely to agree with these statements. That said, in the May survey, the majority of children reported having plenty of energy (78%) (slightly higher for boys), making healthy choices (73%) (slightly higher for girls) and getting enough exercise (73%). Responses have not changed much over the course of lockdown, with the exception of energy levels which saw a slight (2%) decline between April and May.
  • The Co-Space survey published a supplementary report on activity which shows that adolescents (11-16) are more likely than children (<10) to not have spent any time in the last week on physical activities (12%) or being outside (7%). This compares to only 2% on both counts for younger children.
  • Other evidence – like the Welsh and Irish studies described above - indicates that many primary-aged children, although engaging in more screen-time, are benefiting from an increase in play time, more time spent outdoors and healthier diets.
  • The Co-SPYCE survey (above) suggests that although most pre-school children are getting some exercise every day, a significant minority are engaged in long periods of screen-time.
  • Given what we know from evidence on health inequalities[3], it is reasonable to assume that any negative impacts on health during the pandemic will be most keenly felt by those children and young people who have pre-existing health conditions and disabilities, those that are disadvantaged/living in poverty and/or those with previous experience of childhood adversity or trauma. There is already emerging evidence on the negative impact of lockdown on the health of children impacted by disability (see 'Children and families affected by disabilities' section). Evidence relating to food insecurity issues are also relevant here, particularly for children living in low-income households.

Children in low income, lone parent and/or disadvantaged households

Scottish Evidence

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has published the Scottish results of its 'Cost of a School Day' survey. The parent and child surveys ran during May to gather the views of families in Scotland in order to understand their experiences of learning during lockdown, with a particular emphasis on the experiences of households living on a low income. The online surveys were completed by 3,218 parents/carers and 1,074 children and young people in Scotland. The survey covered all local authorities but the findings are not based on a representative sample. Almost all parent/carer respondents were female; about a third of parent respondents had children who were eligible for FSM. About two thirds of child respondents were in primary school. The report finds that families that were already living on a low income have been hit the hardest by school closures. A summary of the report for children and young people is available here. Key findings are:

On wellbeing in general -

  • The findings show that family experiences of COVID-19 are varied and that schools are likely to find that pupils coming back will have very different lockdown experiences. While loss of learning loss is a concern for educators and policymakers, parents and young people who responded to the surveys are equally concerned with the longer-term effects of increased social isolation and household stress.
  • Family wellbeing tended to be lower for those respondents living on lower incomes. In these households, children were more likely to be finding being at home difficult, and were more likely to report that they were struggling with learning and finding it harder to stay in touch with friends. Parents from low-income families, in particular, reported concerns about their children's wellbeing during school closures.
  • For children and young people the top priority is reconnecting with their friends at school. As such, the report recommends that schools should prioritise safe opportunities for children to rebuild friendships and play.
  • Young people and parents would have liked more emotional support from schools (e.g. pastoral support) to help them cope with mental health concerns.

On household finances –

  • Eligible parents valued receiving support towards the cost of replacing free school meals. Most families reported that they preferred to receive support through direct payments, as this method allowed flexibility, dignity, safety and convenience.
  • Families on low incomes would like more financial support and information about which grants and benefits are available to them.

On home learning and return to school –

In contrast to some other surveys, socioeconomic status did not hugely influence parental views about returning to school. Regardless of income, the most important factor for many parents and carers was an emphasis on emotional support, with many supporting a gradual, phased approach.

  • Those families with the least money have had to spend the most on educational resources. Low-income family respondents were twice as likely to say that they lacked all the resources they needed to support home learning. A third of people most worried about money have had to purchase a laptop, tablet or other device during lockdown.
  • Families who were worried about money were more likely to say they found it difficult to continue their children's education at home. In contrast, those with higher incomes were more likely to report that they were enjoying home learning.
  • Single parents were twice as likely to strongly agree that they were struggling with their children's learning than families with two parents.

The report helpfully summarises other COVID-19 research relevant for low-income and single parent families:

  • Millions of households have experienced significant drops in income, with low-income families with children facing greater financial losses than many other groups, in particular lone parent families[1]. A poll of 3,000 families receiving universal credit or tax credits in late May by JRF and Save the Children found that the crisis is causing seven in 10 of families to cut back on essentials, six in 10 to borrow money and over five in 10 to be behind on rent or other essential bills.[2]
  • Households with children are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Polling analysis by the IPPR showed that of the 49% of households with children who reported struggling financially, 29% said that they were struggling to make ends meet and 20% were in serious financial difficulty.[3]
  • Many single parents have been adversely impacted by COVID-19 lockdown measures. One Parent Families Scotland has experienced a 240 per cent rise in calls to their lone parent helpline, with many callers describing increasing stress and anxiety about their financial situation and difficulty coping during the crisis.[4]

Save the Children Scotland (in collaboration with other third sector organisations) has published a short evidence paper on the impact of the pandemic on families on low incomes – as heard from families, communities and partners. The report highlights the multiple disadvantages that some families face in particular, lone parents, families with a disabled adult or child, young mothers, minority ethnic families, families with a child under 1, and larger familiesand calls for additional funding for third sector organisations to meet increased demand for hardship funds. The key areas of concern are:

  • Poverty - Universal Credit claims in Scotland have increased during the pandemic to more than five times the average amount in 2019. The report states that universal credit is insufficient to prevent hardship in some families. Families who previously had been just about managing now being pulled into poverty.
  • Food insecurity - The current crisis is exacerbating levels of food insecurity. Third sector organisations are consistently reporting increased demand for food packages.
  • Utilities - Many families are struggling to pay utility bills and fuel poverty is likely to increase. Organisations are struggling to meet demand for energy grants.
  • Digital divide - The current crisis has shone a light on the stark digital divide experienced by many low income families. The lack of devices and internet access impacts children's learning, staying in touch with others, and a household's ability to claim and access benefits.
  • Wellbeing - The stress and anxiety experienced by many low-income households has been compounded by social distancing measures. Organisations are reporting that some of the most significant challenges facing families include isolation, loneliness and mental health issues. Lone parents are particularly at risk of loneliness, with many parents reporting an increase in stress and anxiety about their financial situation and coping during this crisis when contacting helplines.

Growing2gether, which is a Scottish youth-based mentoring programme in schools (disengaged young people mentor small children), has undertaken a small survey with the young people they work with on how they are coping with lockdown. This survey was carried out between 27 April and 14 May and received 53 responses. The key findings are:

  • Whilst about a third of respondents said that their situation has worsened since the onset of COVID-19, nearly 1 in 4 respondents said that they are doing better, or much better – however the report suggests that this may be because of reduced social and academic pressures associated with school and is likely to worsen on return to school.
  • The three most common mental wellbeing issues were loneliness, worry about their mental health and general anxiety.
  • Most respondents have been accessing support from their guidance teacher. However, some respondents said that they had less support from their friends and teachers than they had before.
  • The most common activities that respondents have enjoyed or found supportive include keeping in touch with friends and family, watching series/movies, spending time with family and exercise.
  • Almost all respondents have the right electronic devices to access online support.
  • The main message respondents would give to other young people is that they are not alone, and to stay connected and keep busy.

UK Evidence

Streetgames, which is an organisation in England and Wales that works with disadvantaged young people, has published a report on the impact of lockdown on young people living in deprived areas, based on responses from 270 community organisations and 188 young people. Key insights are:

  • Home conditions for young people in low income households can be challenging due to overcrowding and limited private space.
  • Many of the impacts of lockdown on young people living in deprived areas are similar to those reported elsewhere. The top issue for young people is loneliness and isolation, with 77% of them citing their inability to socialize with friends and family as their biggest concern.
  • Young people report deteriorating mental health and wellbeing. Increased stress and family tension is having a detrimental impact on mental wellbeing.
  • Other impacts include lack of structure leading to young people struggling to cope with daily life (e.g. sleeping in and staying up late), and reduced physical activity.
  • A lack of resources for play and sporting activities (e.g. footballs, board games) and for home learning and connectivity (e.g. internet access) are cited.

Concerns have been raised in a survey by the 'Centre for Social Justice' and the charity organisation 'The Difference' about destinations for pupils in schools for excluded children. The report is based on survey responses in June from teaching staff at 86 Alternative Provision schools in England. The report raises concerns about the destination of young people who have been excluded, in particular the heightened risk of children being not in education, employment or training (NEET) in September; their increased vulnerability to criminal or sexual exploitation, and serious mental health problems.

The aforementioned Connect survey reported that families under extreme pressure e.g. lone parent families raised concerns about still not receiving the communication and support they need.

Children and families affected by disability

Scottish Evidence

Interim findings from the aforementioned second lockdown survey by Connect which asked parents/carers of children aged 0-18 for their views on children returning to school/nursery in August reported the following findings in relation to children with disabilities or ASN:

  • Parents of children with additional support needs (e.g. autism, dyslexia, bereavement, mental health issues) raised concerns about still not receiving the communication and support they need.
  • Parents of children with disabilities or health conditions expressed uncertainty about children returning to school and how their needs would be met. This echoes the findings from the Family Fund surveys* above.

UK Evidence

The Disabled Children's Partnership, which is a coalition of more than 70 charitiespublished findings of its parent/carer survey of their experiences during lockdown. The survey was completed by 4,074 parents/carers of which 13% were from Scotland (530). Most of the respondents were mothers (92%) and a quarter were lone parents. Most of the children that responses relate to were aged 5-15 years old, with the most common disabilities being learning, communication and behaviour, emotional and social difficulties. Key findings are set out below:

Key issues

  • The top three challenges during lockdown have been children's behaviour and mental wellbeing; managing home-schooling; and fear of what will happen children if the parent were to contract COVID-19.
  • The lockdown is increasing financial pressures on families due to both a reduction in income (39%) and an increase in household costs (61%). One in five respondents (21%) said they will go into debt as a result.
  • The top three most helpful things would be an increase in carers allowance or disability benefits (54%), sensory toys and equipment (46%) and outdoor play and leisure equipment (46%).
  • Parents would like to see increased support (both financial and services), more information tailored for families with disabled children (77% of respondents agreed that government information about shielding is confusing) and flexibility in easing of lockdown to enable family and friends to provide support.
  • Consistent with other surveys, parents are very concerned about children returning to school with top issues included safety, good planning and communications, challenges for families who are shielding and mental health support. Concerns about their children's health has led some families to not taking up a school place.

Lack of support

  • Parents reported a significant increase in the amount of care being provided, both by themselves and their disabled children's siblings. Parents report feeling exhausted, stressed and unsupported.
  • Half (51%) of those that were receiving therapies or other extra support say this has now stopped. Parent respondents have also seen a significant delay in statutory assessments and annual reviews.
  • The lockdown has stopped many parents seeking necessary medical healthcare for their disabled children (44%), themselves or their partner (54%) or their non-disabled children (17%).
  • There is mixed evidence with regards to home learning support with about a third of parent respondents saying they have not received any support specific to their child's needs, and about a quarter saying they were getting good support.

Physical and mental health impacts

  • Most respondents think that their disabled children (71%), and their siblings (82%) are dealing with lockdown fairly to very well.
  • However, the majority of respondents (70-80%) report worsening emotional and mental health for both their children and themselves (a third said that their child's emotional and mental health is a lot worse); although a minority report improvements.
  • There is less concern about children's physical health, with around 1 in 10 respondents saying their children's general health is a lot worse.

Young carers

UK Evidence

The University of East Anglia has published its report on 'Understanding the needs of young carers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic'. This qualitative research study involved 20 interviews with young carers, parents of young carers and a small number of youth workers.

  • The report calls for any child 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.
  • Young carers want increased awareness about what it means to be a young carer amongst health, social care, school staff, the general public and their own peer group. They also want choice in the services they receive and how they engage. Many have valued the online support provided during lockdown.
  • The restrictions of lockdown and the anxiety related to COVID-19 risks increased both the young carers' stress and their caring load, with some unable to leave the house due to the physical vulnerability of the person they care for.
  • In line with research with families impacted by disability, there has been a significant drop in support which has meant some young carers are now in full-time caring roles. Assessments, services and informal support had been cancelled or withdrawn. Essential services such as shopping delivery, child care and cleaning had fallen to the young carers.
  • The lack of support from friends and wider family was keenly felt by the young carers and their families, while a strong desire for the routine and respite of school was prominent throughout the young carer interviews.
  • Caring responsibilities for older young carers and those in single parent households had increased exponentially since lockdown. This included greater responsibilities both for the person they were caring for and their younger siblings, which has impacted on their ability to engage with home learning.
  • Recommendations include for schools to give careful consideration to the support individual young carers will require on return to school, and the importance of ensuring that young carers' voices are central to all aspects of research, policy and service development.

Black and minority ethnic (BME) children and families

UK Evidence

Data from the Kooth service (see previous section) was also released in June showing that the mental wellbeing of children and young people of BME backgrounds in England appears to be affected disproportionately over the last three months compared with their white counterparts. The findings compare mental health data[4] from Mar-May in 2019 and 2020. It is based on a sample size of over 9000 BME young people (approximately 20% of the total user population). The findings report that children and young people from BME backgrounds in England, who have used the Kooth service, are showing greater increases in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts than white peers during the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings are summarised below:

  • Anxiety and stress is the most significant presenting issuefor BME children and young people, with 32% presenting with this issue. Other areas of concern are sleep difficulties, family relationship issues and concerns about education.
  • Depression among BME children and young people has increased 9% compared to a fall of 16% in white children and young people.
  • Suicidal thoughts, self-harm and anxiety all saw significantly higher increases than were seen among young white people.
  • Reasons given for the increase in mental health problems in BME children and young people is the higher risk of BME people dying from COVID-19 (in the absence of information on why this is or what can be done to prevent this increased risk) and lengthy school closures.
  • The importance of BME role models and practitioners in the field of mental health is underlined.

An evidence briefing from the Fawcett Society, in partnership with The Women's Budget Group and Queen Mary University of London, outlines some findings from an adult online panel survey conducted in mid April (n=3,280). The survey is nationally representative with booster samples for parents with primary-aged children, people with a low income and BAME respondents. Key findings in relation to BME families are:

  • BAME mothers in particular reported that they were struggling to feed their children (24%, compared to 19% white mothers).
  • BAME women were most likely to report that they were struggling with balancing work and childcare.
  • BAME women are even more worried about debt and their household income than the high levels among white women or men, with particular concerns for parents.
  • Life satisfaction and happiness were lowest for BAME women, and anxiety was highest for all women compared to men.

Care experienced children and young people

Scottish Evidence

STAF (Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum) published its report 'COVID-19: the impact on care leavers and STAF member organisations that support them' in early June. It is based on feedback from staff (via focus groups) and young people involved in STAF's Youth Justice Voices and Project Return. The report states that young people and those who support them are concerned that the current situation has exacerbated many of the issues that care-experienced young people already face.

  • These include loneliness and social isolation; access to the internet; poor mental health; access to affordable and nutritious food; and financial insecurity. In addition, 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.
  • Other issues raised include childcare (e.g. young parents not able to access hubs), health (e.g. changes in methadone prescriptions), employment (e.g. delays in universal credit), concerns about impact on foster carers, impact of bereavement and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (concerns around delays to asylum claims as a result of the current situation).

Children and families impacted by domestic abuse

We know from research on previous disease outbreaks, natural disasters and humanitarian crises that domestic abuse and violence against women increase during and after these types of events.[5]

Scottish Evidence[5]

Justice Analytical Services has published its report on emerging trends from this qualitative evidence (from 42 third sector and statutory organisations) which highlights similar issues, particularly in relation to child contact arrangements. The report covers the lockdown period 30/3/20 - 22/05/20.

  • Services report that, in some cases, children have experienced domestic abuse more severely during lockdown because of increased time spent in isolation with the perpetrator.
  • There have been several reports of children being present in the room during domestic abuse, including physical violence. Many services perceive that because children do not have access to safe spaces or other trusted adults, there are fewer opportunities for them to report and therefore the perpetrator is less cautious.
  • Services reported a similar range of abusive behaviours apparently specific to lockdown related to conflict over child contact. Police Scotland has received calls regarding conflict over child contact and attended some incidents where children had witnessed physical violence.
  • Other common concerns around child conflict included children being exposed to other people during contact visits (this has been particularly difficult for parents who are shielding), and perpetrators asking children to show them round the house during video-contact.

UK Evidence

The UK Co-SPACE study (referenced earlier) reported that 12% of parents that have sought advice (only 23% of all parent/carer respondents) have done so for help with managing family conflict; 5% of have sought advice for 'managing conflict in my relationship with my partner'.

The UCL's Covid Social Study (see 'Impact on Families' section) in its most recent 14th report, presents data on self-reported measures of physical and psychological domestic abuse during the course of the pandemic across the UK. As the table below shows, abuse has remained relatively stable since the easing of lockdown was announced (between approximately 4-7%). Abuse has been reported to be higher amongst adults under the age of 60, those with lower household income and those with existing mental health conditions. It is also slightly higher in people living with children compared to those living with just other adults. The report notes that not all people who are experiencing abuse will necessarily report it, so these levels are anticipated to be an under-estimation of actual levels.

Figure 17 Being physically or psychologically abused
Line graph showing self-reported abuse, Mar and Jun. Levels remained stable since lockdown easing

Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 14 (Fancourt et al., Jun 2020)

A short briefing by the University of Birmingham suggests that indicators point to a marked increase in domestic violence (estimated 30% increase) and child maltreatment related to COVID-19. This includes a threefold rise in the number of women killed by men in Mar/Apr in the UK compared to other years over the same period, and intelligence from the NPCC and third sector organisations.

Women's Aid has published an evidence briefing on the impact of COVID-19 on survivors and their children. The survey was completed in April by nearly 300 women with experience of domestic abuse, 40% of whom had a disability or long term health condition. The majority of respondents were white, and thus the experiences of BME women are under-represented. Although the report does not distinguish between respondents with or without children, it describes how many children are experiencing lockdown in homes where they are more exposed to abuse and child contact arrangements are being used to further abuse and are placing children at risk of further harm. Other issues relevant to children include difficulties accessing medication for themselves and/or their children and inability to access support (e.g. online counselling) due to childcare.

The NSPCC has also published a briefing on the impact of domestic abuse on children and young people during the coronavirus pandemic. Based on intelligence from Childline and the NSPCC helpline during Mar-May, the briefing reports that there has been an increase in the number of people worried about domestic abuse and an increase in the number of counselling sessions Childline has delivered about domestic abuse. Key themes include reduced access to support networks; lockdown bringing domestic abuse into sharp focus; making it harder to speak out; making it more difficult to leave; drinking during lockdown; exploiting fears about the coronavirus; and young people worried about other family members.

Children in contact with the Justice System

Scottish Evidence

The Centre for Youth Crime and Justice (University of Strathclyde) has conducted a short qualitative research project to provide a snapshot of the views of children and young people in contact with or with experience of youth justice services and youth justice practitioners on COVID-19. The report captures the views of approximately 50 young people aged 12-25 which were mostly gathered by service providers, and responses from 36 practitioners in a range of settings including in the community, in secure care and in HMP & YOI Polmont during the month of May. Some of the key points are -

  • The biggest issues facing children and young people in the justice system are isolation and lack of contact with others. This is compounded for some by a lack of resources (e.g. a phone or phone credit). Despite this, almost all respondents reported being able to keep in touch with family and youth justice services.
  • Boredom, lack of activity and been stuck at home were reported as a significant issue for children and young people. Related to this, mental health, family conflict, breakdown of home circumstances, substance use, compliance with restrictions and the risks associated were noted.
  • The need for ensuring people have things to do and access to technology/data is crucial – to help maintain social connections, improve/maintain mental wellbeing and engage in education. People in custody may have heightened needs in terms of requiring more purposeful activity and resources (e.g. phone credit) and access to contact with friends and family.
  • Most children and young people were reported as complying with COVID-19 restrictions. However, this has become more difficult as time has gone on.
  • There are some children and young people for whom the impact of COVID-19 and associated restrictions has been more significant, exacerbating previous experiences and issues such as addictions issues, mental health concerns, lack of support, and care experience, as well as for those with their own children, or without/with insecure accommodation.
  • Overall the findings suggest that children and young people have had limited contact with the police during this time and that the responses by police have been appropriate. That said, there were reports of young people actively avoiding police contact (due to anxiety) or experiencing negative contacts (e.g. being arrested or feeling unfairly targeted by police). Some practitioners have seen a reduction in offending, whilst others have seen a change in types of offences (e.g. increases in shoplifting and COVID-19 related offences like spitting). Practitioners also highlighted a small number of concerns about wider criminalisation of children and young people.

The STAF report (see earlier), also raises concerns about the isolation of young people in custody. Many do not have access to digital tools and have lost contact with family, friends, and supporting agencies. Concerns about the long-term impacts of reduced throughcare services is also highlighted. In line with the CYCJ report, there is a concern for all care-experienced young people that breaching the lockdown rules (which due to increased loneliness and boredom may be a risk) may lead to police contact and fines that they may be unable to pay.

Other child safeguarding-related research

UK Evidence

The above University of Birmingham briefing states that there is emerging evidence from services such as Childline and Barnardo's that child abuse has risen since lockdown, evidenced through the increase in online contacts through live chat channels and websites and telephone calls and texts.

The Kooth mental health online service (see 'Children and young people with mental health problems' section), has also released data about young service users' experiences of abuse and neglect during lockdown in England. The mental health service is free and anonymous; data is based on what presenting issues are registered against a service user - typically during counselling but it could also be during any other interaction such as comments in a forum (which may be less reliable). The April and May data releases show increases in issues recorded as concerning child sexual exploitation (in particular), emotional abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect (to a lesser extent), compared to the same period in 2019.



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