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Coronavirus: How a lack of socialization could impact a generation of kids

Concerns about impact of quarantine and social isolation on youth
WATCH: Concerns about impact of quarantine and social isolation on youth.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, children across Canada have been pulled from schools and daycares, forced to isolate from their peers. And now that summer has hit, many day camps have turned to the internet with digital activities to keeps kids entertained.

Socialization is an important part of growing up but the pandemic brought that to a quick halt, leaving many parents wondering if their children are deprived of an important developmental step — peer-to-peer interaction.

Read more: Day camps turn virtual to keep kids entertained this summer

Jennifer Davidson, who lives in Toronto, said she’s worried her eight-month-old baby is not getting proper socialization.

Before the pandemic hit, she kept busy with her baby and would go to music lessons and meet-ups at the library for socialization. But that’s now changed.

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“Early on in the self-isolation, I’m not sure he even realized there were other people than mom and dad,” Davidson said. “He would just stare at the odd person he saw, like the doctor. Now, at least with the 10-person bubble, he has seen his grandparents and aunt and uncle.

“But other than ‘the baby in the mirror,’ he is not interacting with any other babies or kids and I don’t know what that will mean for him, especially since we have no clue how long this will go on.”

Only children at an ‘advantage’ during social isolation: psychologist
Only children at an ‘advantage’ during social isolation: psychologist

Davidson isn’t the only parent who is worried about the impacts of isolation on children.

On Thursday, Statistics Canada released a survey detailing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families. It found that almost three-quarters of participants were very or extremely concerned about their children’s opportunities to socialize with friends.

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And more than half of the participants were very or extremely concerned about their children’s loneliness or social isolation.

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Child psychologist Dr. Mary Alvord said there’s a reason to be concerned about social isolation during the pandemic, as socialization is crucial to a child’s development.

“The world just sort of stopped,” Alvord said. “And it really affected many children negatively in terms of not being able to see their friends … and even family members like grandparents and cousins.”

“But kids are resilient and people are getting creative with having in-person get-togethers but with physical distancing,” added Alvord, who co-authored the book Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents.

‘It’s important for children to be socially engaged’

Kenneth Rubin, a professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland, said it’s always important for children to engage in social interaction.

“Of course from birth, most interactions will be with the child’s parents. But these interactions set the stage for the child’s development of attachment relationships,” he said. “In a nutshell, it’s important for children to be socially engaged from the get-go.”

He said it’s still too early to tell whether children and babies will feel the effects of isolation during the pandemic.

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Coronavirus: Studying the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on kids and families
Coronavirus: Studying the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on kids and families

Researchers are just beginning to gather data on how the pandemic will affect the relationships of kids and their peers. It’s still too early to know how this will impact children years down the road, Alvord agreed, as these are unprecedented times.

“But what I have seen is sadness –  especially at the beginning,” she said.

Since the pandemic started, Alvord has offered therapy sessions for children online, and she said she continues to “hear about sadness turning into depression because kids are feeling isolated and so restricted.”

“This is a huge void for children,” she said, explaining that children learn about how to reciprocate relationships, respect other opinions and maintain a conversation through peer interaction.

Isolation from a peer group, even as early as their preschools years, can have an enormous effect on children’s development of social competence and social relationships, Rubin explained.

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Read more: Online schooling not a smooth transition for parents during COVID-19

For example, when children are in preschool they learn through peer interaction (such as conversation and disagreement) that others may view the world differently than them.

“We refer to this ability to understand others’ perspectives, viewpoints and emotions as ‘theory of mind.’ Children who develop these social-cognitive ‘mind-reading’ skills are more altruistic, empathetic, and kind to others than those who fail to develop an understanding of others’ thoughts,” he said.

Rubin noted that although it may be too early to tell how COVID-19 may impact children, it could be that kids who are more introverted may fare well during isolation. And children who are more social may suffer from a lack of social contact with peers.

“One can make some guesses … and a good bet would be that continued isolation from peers will not enable the development of social cognitive skills and socially competent behaviour. Consequently, the quality of the relationships that these children will have with age-mates may be compromised,” he explained.

The physical and emotional toll of COVID-19 on kids
The physical and emotional toll of COVID-19 on kids

What can parents do?

Alvord reassured parents that it’s not all doom and gloom and to take this pandemic as a chance to get creative with their kids’ social interaction.

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“It’s not like the bubonic plague where people were truly isolated. We are physically isolated, but not 100 per cent as we have the internet.”

Children as young as 12 months can FaceTime with their grandparents and recognize faces and smile, she said.

“Games are a great way to teach children how to take turns and share, and a lot of that can be replicated virtually,” she said. “Kids can play Battleship online, charades and card games with their friends.”

She said parents can even start trying to socialize their children in “little bubbles” as long as they feel safe.