Jordan: Outside is closed. That’s been my daughter’s Go to phrase for the past three months. Outside’s not totally closed anymore, of course. And now that the weather’s nice, we want her out there. We want her running around and playing in the backyard and exploring the neighborhood and just being a kid. But sometimes she refuses and then she says it.
And I wonder how long that phrase will stick around. Even when we get back to normal. I’m not the only one wondering this stuff. And the experts are worried. On Wednesday, the Hospital for Sick Children issued a report. It recommends the children be allowed back to school in September, even though it acknowledges the virus won’t be eradicated by them.
It says that the risks of infection and transmission in children have to be balanced with the effect that closed schools are having on kids, physical and mental health. And that’s the worry that I keep coming back to, and I suspect many parents feel the same way. What do we know about the longterm impacts of kids being yanked out of school, isolated from their friends for months on end?
How does that isolation impact different kids at different ages and in different situations? And how do researchers even attempt to study this? What don’t we know right now about the long term impacts of COVID on kids, and what will we likely find out in the years to come as the COVID generation grows up?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Sarmishta Subramanian is an editor at large at Maclean’s and at large right now, I guess means at home with the kid. Hi Sarmishta.
Sarmishta: Hello, Jordan.
Jordan: Why don’t you start, because we’re going to talk about the long term impacts that we know and don’t know about COVID and kids, but why don’t you just start by telling me what we do know and what we’ve learned over the past few months about what this virus does to kids.
Sarmishta: So, we do know some things, it’s a confusing picture, even with the things that we know, but the things that we know are that most kids don’t seem to get sick from it, when they do get sick from it, if they test positive, the infections tend to be milder. The symptoms tend to be milder. So that’s what we do know.
We don’t really fully understand why it doesn’t affect kids. There were theories floating around early on, research out that showed that there were particular features of a young immune systems that handle the virus differently, but there’s now a range of research showing very different conclusions.
There are studies that show that children don’t transmit the virus at all. There’s studies that show children transmit the virus worse than other people, there’s research showing that children transmit the virus, but at a slower rate, not as much as adults. So it’s a pretty mixed picture between what we do know, and what we don’t know.
Jordan: And in the meantime, we’re kind of stumbling around in the dark with kids at home, not knowing what that’s doing to them.
Sarmishta: What that’s doing to them. And then the last thing that I would add about the things that we know, is that a couple of months ago, there were these terrifying reports out of hospitals in New York about children afflicted, it’s very rare, that kids who either test positive for COVID or test positive for COVID antibodies, meaning they’ve had it at some point in the past, show these symptoms, but there are symptoms associated with a very dangerous syndrome that is causing organ shutdown in kids, heart failure and so on.
It’s extremely, extremely rare. But as a mother who wrote about the experience for the Washington post, put it, it’s rare until it’s your child.
Jordan: Right. And you know, all of that stuff as parents is terrifying, especially because there’s so much, we don’t know. But even that is relatively concrete compared to, I guess what we know about how this is actually impacting kids beyond the illness itself in terms of like physical and mental health.
Sarmishta: Yes, exactly. I mean, the virus itself does not affect kids in as great numbers as it does the elderly, for instance, but the measures that have been put in place to flatten the curve and to stem the spread of the virus affect kids in very particular ways.
And as every parent who has a child or children at home knows that the measures are hard on everybody, but they’re particularly hard on young people who are trying to navigate barriers, developmental milestones, and stages in their lives, depending on how old they are. It’s the pandemic that is quite unprecedented in the last century, in the last hundred years.
And so we don’t really have all that much research that shows for instance what it might do longterm to a child. There’s just a lot that we won’t know until we start to come out of this and start to see the impact on kids and refrain that I heard repeatedly and that I kind of sensed from talking to kids and talking to parents, is that it will probably vary quite a lot from child to child.
Jordan: Well yeah, and I’m going to ask you about some of the reporting and interviews that you’ve done, but first, just as a mom, I guess, and I kind of mentioned this about myself as a parent in the intro, what’s your sense on how profoundly this is going to impact kids? How much they’ll remember of this. Will it be something that sticks with them as they turn 18 as they turn 30.
Sarmishta: I suspect it will be. In the first month or so, I tried to get my son to keep a diary and I tried to get them to write down some impressions because I thought, Oh, this will be this thing that he will look back on.
It’s a strange period in his early life. And it’ll be this blip. As the pandemic continues and as measures that are put in place, you know, some of them are being lifted now, but there’s always this hovering threat of a second wave and the possibility that we will return to some form of pandemic measures and lockdown measures.
I am starting to have the very real sense that this may not just be a blip of five or six weeks that happened at one time, that it may be something that stays with kids. I don’t think it’s necessarily all doom and gloom in the way that it stays with children. I went into the story concerned about things like anxiety and mental health and so on.
And some of the effects that I heard about both from researchers and from the kids that I talked to, surprised me. There were benefits, and some of that I see in my own child’s life and he seems mostly happy. He misses school and he misses friends and he misses being able to have normal contact, physical contact with people, but he’s done things in the last three months that he’d never done before. I mean, he rides his bike down a downtown Toronto street, right in the middle of the street. He scooters around unsupervised. And so in some ways it reminds me of my own childhood, growing up in India in neighbourhoods that didn’t have a lot of cars in them, and kids were just out playing on the street.
Jordan: What’s it like talking to kids about this? Cause you, you didn’t just talk to your own son, you interviewed a whole bunch of kids at various ages.
Sarmishta: I did. Yes. I think the youngest child that I talked to was seven. And then the oldest person I talked to was 18. And it was really easy to talk to the kids about what their lives are like, and how they feel about this time.
Because for most of them, the Coronavirus doesn’t actually loom all that large. They don’t think about it as this terrifying thing. Lots of the younger kids, school was out, they were getting to the point where the honeymoon period of I don’t have to do as much homework anymore was wearing off.
And so they were missing the ritual and the structure of school, but lots of them had more screen time, lots of them were getting to watch more movies and play video games and, have more special treats than they might normally have. So mostly they sounded pretty happy. And then the older kids, it’s a different picture.
And the older the child, the more they’re at a stage of development where some separation from family and time spent independently with peer groups matters. And of course, for the 17/18 year olds, this is a year of milestones that are really interrupted by this whole strange time.
Jordan: When you talk to researchers and people attempting to study the impact of this time, what kinds of things are they looking at try to quantify it, and what are they worried about?
Sarmishta: So, one of the things that the researchers that I’ve talked to are trying to measure, is just what are the behaviors that are impacted? What does life in a pandemic look like for children for a wide range of children? Sick Kids hospital in Toronto is leading this study of 6,000. Young people tracking everything from how their eating habits have changed to their exercise habits, to screen time, to how they feel very importantly, how they feel. Their levels of anxiety, their levels of happiness and so on.
And it’s really a fascinating, real time data gathering exercise, because they will be able to see how children from different groups are handling the pandemic, how lives are changing and not changing. And then what the longterm impacts are. Some of those kids are drawn from groups that are coming in with preexisting mental health issues, anxiety issues, neuro-developmental issues.
And so they will also be able to look at how kids coming in with some predisposition to mental health issues are processing this, and that of course allows them to figure out what are the things that they can step in and intervene on in an effort to help those kids.
Jordan: So I realize most of the work will be looked at in the longterm, but is there anything underway right now that maybe was started earlier, and can be used to give us a glimpse of just how the first three months of this has impacted young people?
Sarmishta: Yeah. So there are a few studies that have been undertaken in Canada. CAMH, the centre for addiction and mental health, which is based in Toronto, has run a mental health survey of youth.
Their cohort is a little bit older than mine. They started at age 14 and they go up to 27, and they found certainly a troubling uptick in the percentage of young people, young respondents, who say that they’ve had moderate to severe problems with anxiety or mental health issues. And this is of course on top of already rising anxiety rates. Long before COVID came along, there were some troubling numbers, but there are also lots of young people on this survey had connected with friends. And of course, social connection is so important in this time when there’s a lot of isolation. They found that probably because young people were not going out as much, rates of substance abuse dropped.
They were spending more time with family. They were spending more time on interests, and some of them talked about saving money because again, there’s not that many places to go. So there’s a Canadian study, there’s a joint Spanish and Italian study that has looked at a whole host of behaviours and symptoms ranging from irritability to sadness, to argumentativeness, to trouble sleeping, anxiety, and so on among young people, and found, again not surprisingly, an uptick in some of those behaviours. And studies out of China, so I think we have places where the pandemic started earlier give us some clues as to how this might develop in the next month or two, because they’re just that much further along.
There’s also been some really interesting research out of the United States that’s run by a psychology professor named Suniya Luthar who has been working with schools for a number of years now, running surveys on mental health. And so when COVID came along, her group pivoted and began running resilience surveys, and just asking students what they were experiencing in terms of anxiety and mental health issues. And the results of those surveys kind of floored her because she had expected to see rising rates of anxiety and mental health issues.
And what she found was the exact opposite, that in the highest risk group, so the kind of more serious problems with anxiety and depression, those rates actually came down. And that was of course, because one of the ancillary benefits of kids not going to school is that they’re not running from activity to activity.
They’re not facing a lot of the academic pressures. So that was really interesting for her to see that as kids we’re having less over-scheduled lives, and more time with their families, and more time to just be, they were happier. That gives you a sense of the short term picture and there are good things and there are troubling things.
Jordan: It is actually really nice to hear that there are some silver linings to this, but I do want to ask you about a young woman named Victoria Flowerday, who you talk to because I think a lot about young people who are at ages 17, 18, like you mentioned, and they’re graduating and they’re making plans to go to school in the fall. And the whole world is opening up for them at that point. And now it’s just not.
Sarmishta: Yes, exactly. So Victoria Flowerday was this lovely 18 year old who’s, I don’t want to call her an overachiever because she just sounded so healthy and happy. She runs triathlons. She plays water polo. She’s a lifeguard. She was going to be a camp councillor this summer. And she sort of rhymed off to me this list of things that have just disappeared from her last year of high school. Prom is canceled, graduations cancelled, the school trip is canceled. She can’t be a lifeguard. It is really hard, but she was telling me quite gamely that these things have disappeared, but I got a job, so that’s really good, I work at Sobey’s as a cashier now. And my heart kind of broke for her because this is her last year as a child technically. And in place of that wave of goodbye rituals and time with her friends, she gets a chance to be a frontline worker at a grocery store.
Jordan: And now they’re canceling her $2 an hour bonus.
Sarmishta: Yes, exactly. Now there were silver linings there too. So that’s a family, she’s in a family of five, it’s a blended family of five siblings. And they have cousins that they see, and one of the things that she told me that she’d had a birthday and she said, you know, it was my best birthday ever.
It was not the first time I’d heard that in the interviews that I had with kids, my kid had a birthday during the pandemic and he told me it was his best birthday ever. So I think that there is this meaningfulness of time with family and the sense of gratitude that is wonderful to hear about. And that was some of what she spoke about as well.
Jordan: Did you talk to anybody about very young children? And I mention this obviously, cause I have a daughter who just turned three and over the past couple months she’s taken to saying ‘outside is closed’.
Sarmishta: Oh, wow.
Jordan: Yeah. And sometimes she’ll go out. Sometimes she just won’t and she doesn’t really understand it, but she’s obviously internalized it. And I wonder if anybody’s doing any research on kids who are forming their first memories right now.
Sarmishta: Yeah. That’s a wonderful line. Children are so poetic. Outside is closed is just a beautiful way of summarizing it. I spoke to a psychologist who deals with a lot of children and families and being in private practice, she’s dealing with kids with some issues that they’re dealing with already. And so some of what she heard from her younger clients was really quite physical, stomach aches and headaches and trouble sleeping and bad dreams. And so on. I spoke to one mother who told me that she kind of euphemized and called the coronavirus a bug and talked about this bug that was around. And so suddenly her child is terrified of insects, and sees anything creepy crawly and thinks it’s Coronavirus. And then it’s kind of spread, her preschooler used to love dogs, and now has become very afraid of them because just the lack of contact, and the fact that you’re staying away from everybody, dogs have kind of become this alien species. And I had this fascinating little window into, there’s changes that you perceive, and then there’s changes that you don’t perceive. And I have this really interesting glimpse of the latter variety talking to my kids.
My kid will tell me about dreams that he’s had and kid’s dreams are so fascinating and funny. And in every dream that he would report to me, like every dream. Social distancing would be in place. And he asks me if I tell him a dream, he says, well, what about the social distancing? You know, COVID doesn’t exist in my dreams. There is no social distancing it’s life, as I’ve always known it. And this is starting to be life as they know it. So those kinds of subtler, longterm effects, what will kids who are little boys who are nine and 10 now, or eight and nine, who are still at the age where they hug their friends when they play, when they come out of this, will they be less likely to do that?
Children as a whole, will they be less demonstrative? There are particularities to this time, we’re all actually, over the past two, three months, maybe we’re coming out of it now a little bit, but we’ve been encouraged to be anxious about things that in normal times we would not be anxious about, we would not be singing songs to count off 20 seconds when we wash our hands.
That, under other circumstances, might be read by some as pathological. And we would not be wearing gloves to go outside as some people do. I’ve seen people taking walks in my neighbourhood wearing gloves. And so those are anxieties that are encouraged now for safety. And then, which of those things do we take into the kind of. normalized life with us when this time is over. And again, I think it depends so much on individual experience and community experience because there’s some groups of people who are simply hit a whole lot harder than this.
Jordan: Yeah. That’s one thing that I wanted to ask you about before we finish. So far, we’ve talked about me and you and other parents, and it’s honestly fairly easy for me and my wife to stay home and care for our daughter. But there are a lot of kids in much tougher situations. And how are they coping?
Sarmishta: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And it was a shadow that hung over a lot of my research. When parents were able to be home, they’re all these easy ancillary benefits.
But for children of frontline workers, for kids whose parents work in the medical systems, parents who are doctors or nurses, grocery store workers. It’s a very different experience. And COVID isn’t this far off distant thing that is causing changes in their lifestyle. It’s present in a way that it’s not for lots of other families.
The same is true for a different set of reasons, for kids who are refugees themselves, or whose whose families have been through difficult traumatic situations in the past. A lockdown situation where your sense of safety is affected and your sense of your ability to be out in the world and to be free. I mean, that can be deeply retraumatizing and triggering to families that have been through other sorts of circumstances that brought about the same kinds of feelings. And an adjustment in how they are adapting to life in a new home that may in the next three months for six months or a year, set them back in resettling and feeling at home in the world again.
Jordan: When do you think, and I guess maybe a better question is when do the researchers that you talk to think, that we’ll have a concrete idea of just what the impact of it was? Does it depend on getting a vaccine? And then we look five years out after that 10 years out. I know me and you are probably going to be the 70 year olds that have a basement full of toilet paper.
Sarmishta: I could see that happening. You know, we’re at a point in the pandemic where there’s still talk of a second wave, where there’s still discussion over what schools look like, when people go back. What daycares look like when people go back and looking back at the 1918 pandemic. We have a sense of how long it took for things to normalize after that.
And it was a good two to three years before life returned to normal in the world. How does that affect children in particular? And you know, at what point will we be able to see the effects of this time? It’s impossible to know until we know what this time looks like. I think that’s why there is so much of an effort being made to capture people’s behaviours now. And to continue to capture changes in people’s lives and behaviours so that we can start to piece it together and make sense of what will stay with us, what will be relegated to a distant memory that we can hopefully smile about one day.
Jordan: Well, I’m first of all glad to hear that this isn’t all bad news, and thank you for walking us through this Sarmishta.
Sarmishta: Thanks Jordan, it was such a pleasure,
Jordan: Sarmishta Subramanian, a writer, a reporter, and also, I guess, a homeschooler right now, just like many of us. That was The Big Story, for more, you can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And you can find us in your favourite podcast player. You can subscribe for free, you can listen to us every day. You can rate, you can review, you can tell us what you think, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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