Lessons from the COVID‑19 Global Pandemic: Implications for Social Relationships, Loneliness, and the Well-Being of Canadian Children and Youth
Social connection is a fundamental human necessity insofar as humans are “wired” to belong for survival. Loneliness, or the discrepancy between desired and perceived relationships, impedes this need to belong and is related to a host of mental and physical health problems among adults. Loneliness also appears to be a growing concern among children and youth. Recent evidence indicates a sharp increase in youth loneliness over the last decade despite more online peer interaction than ever before. Most recently, school closures as a result of the COVID‑19 pandemic significantly disrupted youth social relationships. In Canada, 5.7 million students were impacted by these closures, with the duration and frequency of closures varying by province. These disruptions are problematic given that the peer group becomes increasingly important during childhood and adolescence. Academic learning is also known to occur more effectively within the context of meaningful social relationships.
Pandemic-related school closures forced students online for academic and social interactions. However, these online technologies did not appear to be good quality substitutions for in-person interactions. In line with pre-pandemic evidence on social isolation, findings on school closures showed an increase in loneliness among youth. Loneliness during the pandemic was also associated with more internalizing and externalizing difficulties including anxiety, depression, and substance use. Some Canadian youth appeared to be at an increased risk, such as those with pre-pandemic mental health difficulties, limited access to internet, and from underrepresented racial, economic, or geographic backgrounds.
What remains unclear is the extent to which prolonged social isolation continues to impact youth loneliness and well-being. During a time when Canadian young people were already experiencing loneliness and poor mental health, there is an urgent need to understand whether the pandemic has exacerbated pre-pandemic loneliness or contributed to new experiences of loneliness. The initial urgency of the pandemic resulted in a rapid dissemination of studies conducted primarily during the first wave of the pandemic. An increasing number of new peer-reviewed publications capturing follow-up assessments and subsequent waves of the pandemic are beginning to emerge. Thus, the pandemic-related school closures provide a unique opportunity for a “natural experiment” to investigate the importance of youth social relationships. Beyond contributing knowledge on the impact of the pandemic on youth development, these school closures can provide additional insight on the significance of social relationships, mental health, and education with broader implications that will last beyond the pandemic. Accordingly, we propose to conduct a systematic review of empirical studies from Canada and around the world examining loneliness and well-being throughout the COVID‑19 pandemic thus far among children and youth to inform Canadian policies on youth well-being.
Our goals are to examine:
(1) the prevalence of loneliness in children and youth throughout the pandemic,
(2) the direction and strength of associations between loneliness and well-being throughout the pandemic, and
(3) moderators of the association between loneliness and well-being.
Results of our systematic review will help inform Canadian policies, practices, and decisions regarding child and youth social relationships and well-being in the domains of education, health, and social services in ways that are sustainable both during and after the pandemic.