How Might COVID-19 Reshape this Generation of Children?

More than 50 research studies to understand, detect, treat and prevent the novel coronavirus in children and families have launched at Seattle Children’s since the virus emerged in late 2019. The following post is part of the “Quest(ion) for Discovery” series highlighting this research in progress and the search for answers that could result in major scientific breakthroughs that save lives and slow the spread of the virus.

An expert in screen time for children, Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, leads a team of researchers out of Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development. In a recently published editorial in JAMA Pediatrics, Christakis argues that it’s critical to focus on overlooked decisions, such as the return to school, in the wake of the COVID-19 surge because of its lasting implications for children.

Here, he shares research his team has proposed to understand some of the effects of COVID-19 on child development and wellness while addressing the question: How might COVID-19 reshape this generation of children?

Christakis: Even though children don’t seem to be getting as sick as adults from COVID-19, they are undoubtedly sustaining impacts that we won’t likely fully understand until years from now. I believe the effects of children being thrust into distance learning and social isolation, especially considered alongside increased parental stress and non-accidental trauma are quite large.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis’ lab at Seattle Children’s Research Institute examines actionable strategies that promote children’s healthy social, cognitive and emotional development.

Technologies like Zoom can help children stay connected; they cannot replicate structured and unstructured play and negotiating peer relationships – all things vital for social and emotional development and can’t be found outside of being authentically present with each other. Children, particularly young children, need to be around other children. When to reopen schools is a crucial decision that needs exclusive focus from a panel of experts to make developmentally-framed, data driven recommendations. Preserving America’s brain supply is as equally important to adults returning to work. Its importance should not be overlooked.

Additionally, we’re already seeing studies from Asia that children are facing increased levels of depression as a result of the pandemic. I predict we may also see increase in anxiety, digital addiction and obesity due to being more sedentary. We’re at the tip of the spear right now.

A national survey funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Dr. Emily Kroshus at Seattle Children’s will dive into many of these issues. It will seek to understand how families are fairing with the coronavirus and home quarantine. The survey will also focus on how parents are communicating risks of the coronavirus to children and how that impacts children’s mental health. What we learn from this survey could help frame future pandemics for children in a way that is age-appropriate and manages anxiety.

Speaking only as a pediatrician and epidemiologist, we need to figure out how help our children navigate these challenges. I think recovery starts with getting them back to school.  As I wrote in my recent editorial, “We owe this to our children. Years from now, when they reflect on the pandemic, they will hold us accountable.”

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