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Effects of the Pandemic on Children and Young People's Wellbeing in German Cohort


Dr. Tanya Poulaine and Dr. Mandy Vogel of Leipzig University Hospital for Children & Adolescents wrote a JCPP paper titled ‘Well‐being and COVID‐19‐related worries of German children and adolescents: A longitudinal study from pre‐COVID to the end of lockdown in Spring 2020’ (ACAMH)


In April 2021, Jo Carlowe a freelance journalist (who specialises in psychology) conducted a podcast interview with ACAMH discussing the findings of the doctors and looking into their study of the pandemic’s broader effects on young people's mental health and well-being.




The Study

The Life Child study conducted at Leipzig University’s children’s hospital began in 2011, recruiting children by collecting their bio samples and following them from pregnancy until young adulthood. Using sources such as questionnaires and computer-assisted interviews, the two doctors gathered a wide range of information from the children, from physical activity to family background and leisure activities.

They also carried out developmental tests, using computer games and tested motor function and media use. They were also interested in looking at the wider implications that the pandemic has had on the mental health and wellbeing of young people.


Dr. Vogel explained that the studies also included the ‘measurement of the environment’ of the children, seeking to define healthy development in children’s lives and the risk factors involved. This led them to do many different collaborations with different departments across German hospitals and institutes and corporations in the Netherlands, Sweden, and EU.


The study also included annual follow up visits on participants, until they were 20 years of age. The doctors set out with the aim of integrating their research results into practice, such as by developing intervention and prevention programmes for children at the University hospital.

Method

In the first lockdown in March 2020 and the last week of April 2020 participants of the Life Child study were sent online questionnaires. Parents and children that were aged around 11 and 12 were asked to answer a question relating to their wellbeing, media use in the lockdown, and other COVID-19 various.


Using pre covid data from 2019 as baseline data, statistical comparisons were made between those and March 2020 and April 2020 data.


The paper looked at the children and adolescent’s individual and personal worries, but also the worries of people close to them such as friends and family. It also investigated the worries concerning their local town or city, Germany as a country, and the whole world.

Effects on Wellbeing from the Pandemic

Dr Poulain explained that the differences found in the physical and psychological wellbeing of young people pre covid and during Covid showed that wellbeing was lower on both aspects during the spring lockdown in 2020 than a year before the pandemic.


Relationships were also vastly affected, with the percentage of children having no contact with friends (in person or online) rising to 14% in the lockdown period from just 3% the previous year. A staggering 80% of children also stated that they missed their friends during the lockdown.


Social Isolation and Loneliness

When asked about social isolation and its relation to being found children compared to the usual experience in older people, Dr Vogel explained the importance of the topic of loneliness. She stated that loneliness was highly prevalent in children and how the lockdown has stopped them from having any from contact with friends.

She describes the significance of loneliness in children during puberty and understands from research that ‘as children get older the more, they suffer from loneliness’.


Vogel also explains that their results were supported by a US research study that showed loneliness as ‘highly prevalent’ in COVID months of May and June 2020. The US study also showed loneliness being associated with COVID related worries as well as depression and anxiety in children aged six to 18. A Norwegian study had similar findings, which led Vogel to conclude that in general, ‘loneliness during childhood has severe consequences”, since it is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression later on.


Focusing on media use and mental health, when asked about the ‘changes wellbeing and media use in nine- to 18-year-olds, caused by the lockdown and social distancing’, the study results found that children use media a lot more now in their downtime. Data results (excluding school time) showed that pre COVID media use time differed between weekdays and weekends. However, during the lockdown, the study showed that this difference had ‘vanished’.


Vogel explained that this could possibly be down to a lack of structure in the children’s days. The Life Child Study did not ask participants to specify exact times they were on the screen but have seen in other studies carried out which did, that Spanish children and obese Italian children’s screen time had a daily increase of two hours, which had an impact on mental health.

Findings

From their findings on screen time, Dr Poulain suggests that ‘long screen times on the one hand, and wellbeing, social interaction, or for example, school achievement, on the other, may negatively affect each other in the long run.


Poulain also indicated that children want to sometimes ‘seek escape’ to a virtual world if they are not achieving as well and that excessive screen time can lead to children developing behavioural difficulties.


In a previous study carried out by the two doctors, it was found that ‘adolescents reporting to use computers and the internet for more than two hours per day report more behavioural difficulties and a lower psychological wellbeing one year later’. She linked this to the current data, understanding the relation to media use and wellbeing in the long run, suggesting that this risk could now be higher during a pandemic or experiencing social isolation.


She also states that these patterns of behaviour (high media use and working alone), ‘might not immediately return to normal after a lockdown or a pandemic… and that’s relevant for their mental health in general.’

Factors that have negatively affected wellbeing due to COVID-19:

-Socioeconomic Status

The paper also interestingly discussed the impact of socioeconomic status on well-being of children during the pandemic. Dr. Poulain explains the differences in reaction amongst different children to situations like school closures or social isolation. She found that some children manage to ‘develop new coping strategies’ and can adapt to them, whereas others need to feel more supported in their home environment, receiving comfort from their family (which is supported by other studies).


Their results presented those children and adolescents from families with a lower social status showed a much stronger drop in life satisfaction from before the pandemic started until the middle of lockdown compared to those with a higher status. They summarised this evidence as ‘…in socially weaker families, the family support may sometimes not be as helpful as it should be’.


-Housing

Housing conditions also was a highlighted factor that affected these differences too. This theory of housing suggests that children who are less likely have their own room, due to being a part of a socially weakened family, usually also live in smaller housing situations. This could mean these children are then less likely to have a suitable learning environment, lacking resources such as a computer or desk which could explain the reason behind it.