What are the impacts of COVID‑19 public health interventions on child development?

Question: What are the impacts of COVID‑19 public health interventions on child development?

Definitions: Child developmentconsists of the physical, language, thought and emotional changes experienced during childhood (1). It is a multifaceted concept that is typically measured through surveys that assess numeracy & literacy, social, emotional, and physical development, among other factors (2). COVID‑19 public health interventions include lockdown, school closure, social and physical distancing.

Summary of Included Resources

Our rapid review identified 11 reviews, eight individual studies, 35 instances of ongoing research, seven online resources for child development, and a list of 17 experts in child development. Most of the evidence was from cross-sectional surveys and is of low quality. Public Health Ontario carried out a review on which we drew heavily. We may have missed resources due to the time frame of this review.

  • Published: June 10, 2021

What do we know?

The mental health of children and of adolescents have been negatively impacted by COVID‑19 public health interventions. However, it is difficult to separate the negative impacts of public health measures from fear of the virus. Adolescents have reported increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Younger children had more behavioural difficulties. Other factors reported that may have an impact on child development included decreased physical activity, weight gain, increased sedentary behaviours and screen time, increased household food insecurity, negative educational outcomes (e.g. reading ability improving slower than in previous years), and increased reports of child maltreatment (3).

What are the notable gaps?

  • The negative impacts of public health measures on child development may not be fully evident for years so there is a need for longitudinal studies.
  • Most of the emphasis has been on mental health. There is less research on the physical and developmental impacts of public health measures.
  • We found limited research on social changes and their implications for adolescents, including for sexual health.

What is on the horizon? What are the studies that are underway to address the gaps?

There are many studies being conducted on mental health, and a few on healthcare delivery, deferred care, families, play, substance use, disabilities and maternal health (table 3). Importantly, some longitudinal studies are underway: Dr. Patte at Brock University is studying the mental health impacts of the pandemic over time among youth (a group defined as ages 15-24). Dr. Uher at the Nova Scotia Health Authority is building on an existing longitudinal study to examine impact of the pandemic on families that already have mental health issues. Dr. Azad at the University of Manitoba will use an ongoing study of families with children born 2008-2010 to study their physical and mental health, their behaviours, and emotions. Dr. Jonathon Maguire at Unity Health Toronto will use an ongoing study to determine child and parent mental health outcomes. Dr. Mark Ferro at the University of Waterloo is using an ongoing study of children with multimorbidity (including physical and cognitive conditions) to examine impacts on mental health and service provision to this group. Finally, the Early Childhood Education Journal is currently putting together a special issue on COVID‑19 and child development that will be published in September 2021 (4). We can therefore expect more research findings in the coming year.

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