four girls on a swing suspended by chains, they all smile at the camera
Zoom calls can only do so much. New research looks at the effect of isolation on children due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy: Seattle Parks

By Melba Newsome

Since school closed statewide in late March, 11-year-old Evyn Lumsden has tried to keep to a regular routine. Each morning at around 9:30, the 6th grader logs on to Zoom and spends an hour in a virtual classroom with her teacher and her classmates from Charlotte’s Irwin Academy. If she wants to speak or answer a question, she clicks on the “Raise Hand” feature and unmutes herself when she is called on.

Evyn can see other kids on the screen but there is no opportunity to engage with them. Ultimately, this online group session is not much different from the classes where she works alone and does her homework by herself each day.

“I have a schedule but sometimes it can feel kind of bleak and almost like a game because it’s not like you’re surrounded by lots of classmates. So, you feel isolated,” she explains. “Over the last few weeks, I’ve been less motivated because summer is coming and there’s really no teacher there to get on you about your work.”

Evyn also acknowledges that these months without face-to-face interaction with her friends and peers have taken a toll and left her feeling incredibly lonely. A 2018 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that spending time with peers is crucial to child development.

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While isolation takes a toll on all of us, it may be particularly hard on children because they are still learning to regulate their emotions. There is a large body of research on what happens when kids are separated from their parents but scientists are only beginning to dig into the side effects of this unique moment in time when children are shut off from their peers, teachers and routine activities.

Is the pandemic causing lasting harm? 

According to the authors of a new rapid review into the long-term mental health effects of lockdown, children and adolescents are likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety long after the current lockdown and social isolation end.

The research, published in the June 2020 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, draws on over 60 pre-existing, peer-reviewed studies into topics spanning isolation, loneliness and mental health for young people aged 4 to 21. It concludes that young people who are lonely might be as much as three times more likely to develop depression in the future. They also concluded that the impact of loneliness on mental health could last for at least nine years.

“From our analysis, it is clear there are strong associations between loneliness and depression in young people, both in the immediate and the longer-term,” said Dr. Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath. “We know this effect can sometimes be lagged, meaning it can take up to 10 years to really understand the scale of the mental health impact the COVID-19 crisis has created.”

the photo shows two young girls posing with their arms around each other. Friends Evan and Vivien haven't been able to spend time together because of COVID-19
Friends Evyn Lumsden (left) and Vivian Dixon (right) haven’t been able to spend time in person thanks to coronavirus. Researchers are only beginning to understand how being separated from their peers affects children.

The analysis also found evidence that the duration of loneliness may be more important than the intensity of loneliness in increasing the risk of future depression among young people.

“This means that returning to some degree of normality as soon as possible is, of course, important,” said Loades. “However, how this process is managed matters when it comes to shaping young people’s feelings and experiences about this period.”

What’s a parent to do? 

Evyn’s mom, Erika Gantt, tries to ensure her daughter stays connected to her friends and peers but finds that increasingly difficult. When the lockdown first started, Gantt arranged a bike ride for Evyn and a friend in their Charlotte neighborhood. Both girls followed a safety protocol and were careful to remain appropriate distances apart but didn’t take another ride together for months.

“I think the other family wasn’t really OK with that for a while,” says Gantt. “A couple of weeks ago, the girls starting riding together again.” That is the only peer interaction Evyn has had since school closed.

Evyn is fortunate to have two older siblings that keep her company. However, researchers say that missing out on play with peers creates a void that parents or older children can’t fill simply because their impatience makes them poor playmates.

Nonetheless, kids like Evyn tend to fare better than only children.

“Only children are used to being by themselves, but this is totally different,” said Adrienne Heinz, clinical and research psychologist at the Veterans Affairs National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “We’re social creatures, and kids enjoy attention. Without being able to see friends, with mom and dad working from home — whether you’re talking about only children or kids with siblings, it’s all just a lot for them to process.”

Evyn’s friend, Vivian Dixon, only gets the chance to interact with adults.

“I’m an only child. We constantly move because Dad is in the army, so I’m somewhat used to it but this is on a whole different level,” said Vivian. “It really sucks because my friends and I are not allowed to actually see each other. We can’t engage in activities and have the same fun as when we’re together.

“I feel so lonely. ”

Experts say that while kids are generally resilient, mental health and behavioral issues can be exacerbated by the stress, strangeness and stagnation of the pandemic. That became a concern for Vivian’s mother, Hillary. In addition to her loneliness, Vivian also worries a lot about what the pandemic means for her family’s safety, particularly her grandparents.

The need to belong

Anita Blanchard, associate professor of psychological and organization science at UNC Charlotte, studies how online and face-to-face groups form and interact. Her research has consistently found that being a part of a group reduces anxiety, even if that group is online.

“It’s good to be part of a group but the important part is when you’re seen, participate and are valued,” says Blanchard. “A dyad (one-on-one) is useful and it can help but we have a need to belong to a group. It is as fundamental as eating. To be apart from these groups impacts emotional, mental and physical health. We need to make sure we’re paying attention to our need to belong.”

When to intervene

Sonyia Richardson is a licensed clinical social worker in Charlotte who specializes in treating depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, particularly among African Americans. Richardson stresses that parents need to show “a bit of grace” about regulating screen time because this is an adjustment for kids who may use social media as a coping mechanism.

In fact, parents should be concerned if a child stops engaging online.

“When children aren’t able to connect with their peers on a physical level, it increases the need to connect through technology and social media,” said Richardson. “When a child or teenager no longer wants to socially connect through those means, it can be an indication that they’re not handling [interactions] well. Perhaps they have experienced bullying on technology and are choosing to isolate and not engage.”

It is normal for a child to experience FOMO (fear of missing out) but parents should watch closely for signs of negative, harmful emotions, explains Richardson.

“When they are distressed, not functioning or don’t want to get up in the morning, those are signs that isolation and loneliness are taking hold and parents need to take action,” she said. That means asking questions, monitoring behavior or getting your child the counseling he or she needs.

Hillary felt that Vivian was carrying a big load for a 12-year-old and that the isolation and worry were taking a toll on her daughter’s mental health. Vivian now has therapy once a week to find ways to cope with her anxiety.

“She’s really open about it and I’m proud of her that she’s interested in doing this,” said Hillary. “Now, I’ve got to get my act together, too!”

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Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...