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

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

Key messages

Over the summer, there have been significant changes to children and young people's lives as Scotland entered Phase 3 of the route map. This involved a loosening of physical distancing for younger children, the resumption of outdoor sports and, more recently, the reopening of schools. At the same time, the occurrence of local restrictions, concerns about a rise in transmission rates as autumn approaches and the gradual ending of the furlough scheme means that it is more important than ever to keep pace with the evidence and issues relevant for recovery and future outbreak management planning.  This briefing sets out some of the most recent evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of children and young people in Scotland, drawing on UK and international evidence where appropriate. 

Mental wellbeing 

There is a fairly consistent finding in Scottish surveys that the mental wellbeing of girls, particularly older girls has fared worse than that of boys during the pandemic. Other UK and international research shows a general worsening of mental wellbeing (especially anxiety, loneliness and depression), particularly for young people with pre-existing mental health problems, those living in poverty, and other disadvantaged groups such as care experienced children and black and minority ethnic (BME) young people.  There is some mixed evidence, however, with one English longitudinal survey reporting improved mental wellbeing in younger teenagers during lockdown compared to the previous year, though this was not the case for LGBTQ+ students and those with a health problem or disability.  

Boredom, isolation, uncertainty and lack of control continue to be factors for many young people during lockdown, particularly disadvantaged young people.  Remote schooling (in particular), an overload of screen time and limited access to outdoor play have also been cited as taking their toll on the wellbeing of children in Scotland. That said, evidence continues to report that for some, the pandemic has had positive mental health impacts.

Evidence shows that things that helped children and young people during lockdown were routine and structure, a sense of control in their lives, having things to do, contact with friends and the wider school community, physical activity and learning new skills.  Going forward, evidence suggests the things that will help children and young people recover is support from parents/carers (e.g. to manage stress and develop healthy habits), organisations to reach out to young people with more digital and remote services where appropriate, and an emphasis on mental wellbeing in schools.  In particular, it is suggested that some children and young people will need additional support in school to socialise and to cope with increased anxieties, trauma or bereavement. Other organisations emphasise the importance of play, particularly outdoor play, for younger children's mental wellbeing.

Physical health and wellbeing

Although there is some evidence that children in Scotland (aged 8-14) felt that they were getting enough exercise during lockdown, older children and girls were slightly less likely to report this as time went on.  Some parents of young children in Scotland report a reduction in physical activity and worsened eating behaviour since lockdown.  That said, many parents also reported an increase in time spent outdoors. 

Education, learning and employment

A number of non-representative Scottish parent surveys undertaken over the summer show reasonable levels of concern about children returning to school (approximately 50%), especially amongst single parents.  Parents with younger children are most concerned about virus transmission and children's wellbeing.  UK-wide surveys report higher levels of concern in parents of children with special educational needs (SEN), parents who do not work and those with lower incomes. Key concerns are that their child will not get the emotional, behavioural and educational support that they need.  Key issues in relation to SEN pupils (as reported by teachers) are social distancing, mental wellbeing, changes in routine and anxiety about returning to school. Some organisations are worried that children with disabilities and chronic health conditions may be at risk of further exclusion from education if unable to return to school due to heightened medical risk/the need to shield.  

Given that young people are more likely to have lost their job or been furloughed, it is perhaps not surprising that some research is reporting a decline in education and employment progress. Key issues raised by young people in Scotland in relation to the medium and longer term impacts of COVID-19 include employment (lack of choice and availability), financial security, education (difficulty making plans in uncertain times, exams), mental health, and digital access (both a barrier and opportunity).  Key concerns of young people include mental health, digital inclusion, employment and education.  

Evidence continues to show that young people are able to recognise positive benefits of the pandemic including community cohesion, sustainability impacts and improved IT skills.  The value of the environment and arts and culture sectors has also been raised by young people.  

Impact on families

Surveys across the UK continue to report on the difficulties experienced by parents during lockdown, particularly those with pre-school children, women and younger people.  This is reflected in Scottish survey data which shows a lower than average wellbeing score amongst parents with young children, and in recent UK survey evidence which shows that, although improving, adults on low incomes and people living with children still report higher levels of poor mental well-being than other sub-groups.  Wider evidence suggests that the pandemic is leading to extreme hardship for low income families, with some feeling excluded, hungry, guilty (for not providing food), fearful and stigmatised; and that single, young parents are under significant pressure.  

Research by third sector organisations such as Barnardo's and Action for Children has reported parents experiencing anxiety and struggling to cope with their children during lockdown, with changes in children's emotions and behaviour widely reported. That said, there is some UK survey evidence that parents have grown closer to their children during lockdown, particularly mothers – although lone and low-income parents were slightly more likely to report their relationships had become worse.  

The return of children to childcare/schools in Scotland may ease the pressure for some, although there is evidence that some parents will still struggle with lack of availability of childcare (e.g. grandparents caring for children).  Wider research suggests that this will be most keenly felt by women who have taken on the lion's share of childcare and home schooling during lockdown.

Impact on young children

Scottish parent survey evidence shows that whilst some young children fared better during lockdown, there was a consistent reported decline in young children's sleep, mood, behaviour, activity levels, eating behaviour and mental wellbeing. That said, some positive impacts have been reported including an increase in imaginative and outdoor play.  Most parents found it difficult to enforce physical distancing measures with their children during lockdown, with a significant minority of children not meeting up with other children even after this was permitted.

Children and young people's rights and participation

There continues to be a call from youth organisations that have conducted research for the participation of children and young people in the renewal process and planning for emergency situations.  This is particularly the case for disadvantaged children and young people many of whom experienced further exclusion during lockdown.  Evidence continues to point to the need for more targeted messaging for children and young people around COVID-19, particularly as lockdown eases and guidance becomes more nuanced.  

Evidence on COVID-19 messaging for children suggests that many children do not get information from resources specifically developed for them but instead get it from parents or school. Whilst parents report protecting their children from the 'worst' information, children say that they want more honest information about the coronavirus. This suggests that more needs to be done to ensure that information developed for children is reaching them and that children are given more opportunities to ask questions.

Children and young people with vulnerabilities

Care experienced young people – A number of research reports on the lived experience of care experienced young people during lockdown in Scotland (and England) report poor mental well-being, lost education and anxiety about returning to school and the future in general.  Many care experienced young people in Scotland lived alone during lockdown and have experienced profound isolation. Local authorities have reported increased self-harming and suicidal ideation, with an increased number of suicide attempts among care leavers. One potentially positive outcome is that some care-experienced young people now want to stay in school longer.  

Black and minority ethnic (BME) children and young people – Research by Barnardo's raises concerns about continuing stigma and bullying against Chinese children and young people as they return to school, and the difficulties that BME children and young people face in accessing information, help and support.

Refugee, migrant & asylum seeking families – Scottish evidence on the experiences of refugee, migrant and asylum seeking families during lockdown paints a picture of significant hardship. The exacerbation of inequalities is evident across a range of areas including employment, housing, education, and health, leaving some families suffering harm as a result of the pandemic. These findings are consistent with UK and international evidence on young Roma and raise considerable concerns about the potential impact of future lockdowns.

Young carers – The tremendous pressure placed on young carers in Scotland during the pandemic has impacted negatively on their wellbeing and education, leaving many more worried about their future than before the pandemic.  In Scotland, survey data shows that the majority of young carers were spending significantly more time caring than before the pandemic, whilst research by Barnardo's reported that not knowing whether a family member was on the 'vulnerable' list was associated with increased uncertainty and anxiety for young carers. Further research is needed to establish how many more children and young people in Scotland have taken on carer roles since the start of the pandemic.

Vulnerable children – There is concerning UK evidence (e.g. from the NSPCC) suggesting that there has been an increase in child abuse and neglect since the start of the pandemic, including emotional abuse, physical abuse (e.g. infant abuse head trauma), exposure to domestic abuse and child sexual abuse and exploitation, as evidenced by an increase in counselling sessions, reports from services and hospital and Europol data. The Scottish Government continues to monitor the situation in Scotland via the weekly Vulnerable Child and Adult Dataset.

Domestic abuse – Reports from across the UK continue to cite an increase in domestic abuse during the pandemic, including an increase in abusive behaviour towards children.  Weekly survey data from the UK UCL study continues to show slightly higher levels of domestic abuse in households with children.  There is also emerging evidence that child and adolescent to parent violence also increased during lockdown.

Children involved with or impacted by the Justice system – There is some UK research that suggests that children with a parent in prison have increasing mental health needs (e.g. anxiety about the safety of their parent) which has coincided with a drop in community-based support as a result of COVID-19.  

LGBTQ+ – There is some emerging UK evidence that LGBTQ+ young people have experienced difficulties during lockdown including increased body dysphoria and higher rates of anxiety and depression than non-LGBTQ+ young people.  There are also reports of difficulties in accessing mental and physical health support and informal support during lockdown. For others, it was an opportunity to come to terms with their gender identity.

Key messages relating to children and young people with vulnerabilities

  • Digital divide – a common finding in research with disadvantaged children and families is a lack of digital access and associated problems in accessing services and benefits, connecting with others, participating in education and exercising their rights.  Evidence suggests that supplying devices/broadband is only part of the picture: people also need to be provided with the appropriate skills, confidence and support. Some service providers have experienced digital access issues themselves, which has hampered their ability to deliver remote services. 
  • Anxiety about the future – Many young people are concerned and uncertain about the future, but this is particularly the case for children with vulnerabilities such as care leavers many of whom don't know what their next step is, and for young carers and low-income families for whom the 'new normal' may bring with it new costs which may heighten exclusion and inequalities. 
  • A sense of purpose and connection – Many vulnerable children and young people experienced profound social isolation during lockdown, which impacted negatively on their mental wellbeing and education. A common theme is that they want a sense of control over their lives, things to do, and meaningful connections with others. Given recent evidence from local lockdowns, there is a risk that further restrictions could leave vulnerable children and young people feeling more isolated than ever.
  • Loss of education/exclusion – The evidence is pointing towards significant loss of education for some groups of children in Scotland including young carers, care experienced children and refugee, migrant and asylum seeking children.  Other groups at risk of further loss or exclusion include children who were/are shielding (or live with someone who is), and those at risk of child exploitation and criminality.  This has led to some organisations calling for dedicated transition periods in schools for children negatively impacted and continuous education for some children and young people in the event of future lockdowns.
  • Participation – the message from organisations conducting research with vulnerable groups is that the lived experience of children and young people needs to be central to recovery planning.  

Impact on and access to services

Scottish parent survey evidence suggests that parents experienced a number of barriers to accessing services during lockdown, with some parents of young children not accessing healthcare services even when they wanted to.

There is mixed evidence on the effectiveness of virtual children's hearings.  Whilst there were benefits such as reduced time and cost of travel, there were also a number of challenges in particular the inclusion and participation of children. Overall, however, the view from respondents was that it was necessary to run them in this way during lockdown. Further research is needed on how virtual hearings could be improved and made more accessible for children and young people.

Social services across the UK continue to adapt to the 'new normal'.  Creative approaches adopted during lockdown have provided new opportunities for different forms of communication to enhance relationship-based practice. For example, there is some UK evidence on the value of 'side by side' communication (walking with clients in outdoor spaces), particularly for young people who felt more relaxed in an open space.  

There continues to be promising evidence on the efficacy of remote forms of support for mental health interventions, which, whilst not appropriate for everyone (particularly those in crisis), may be something to consider in the event of future lockdowns.

Evidence Gaps

The volume of survey and research data relating to COVID-19 continues to increase, particularly on education and mental health.  However, there remain a number of evidence gaps in Scotland:

  • The need for more longitudinal and robust research is evident, both in the short-term (to address some of the bias in surveys published to date) but also in the longer term to understand potential impacts on the development and lifelong wellbeing of this generation of children and young people.
  • The evidence gap on the impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged children and families is closing, although more evidence on BME children and those involved with or impacted by the justice system (e.g. children with a parent in prison) in Scotland is still needed.
  • More evidence is needed on the numbers and lived experience of children living in shielding households (including young carers) and how this is impacting on their education, health and wellbeing.  Similarly, more data is needed on the prevalence and impact of COVID-related illness and bereavement on children and young people.
  • As noted in the July briefing, as restrictions are eased and tightened in some areas further evidence will be required on how children, young people and families are understanding, complying and adapting to different lockdown phases.

NOTE – Many 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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