Supervised by: Amanda Liu, BEng, MSc. Amanda spent her undergraduate years studying Biochemical Engineering at UCL (University College London), where she was awarded First Class Honours. She then completed her Master’s degree in Clinical and Therapeutic Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. She is currently studying Medicine (Graduate Entry) at the University of Cambridge.
COVID-19 has been a detrimental public health crisis thus far. With more than 200,000,000 total cases worldwide, there have also come more than 5,000,000 deaths (WHO Health Emergency Dashboard, 2021). About 1,884,146 losses have been confirmed in 2021 thus far compared to circa 1,880,510 in 2020, due to the low rates for vaccination as well as the development of new strains (McLernon, 2021). With the new variant in mind, society will most likely end up being forced back to a defensive position. To combat the virus, quarantine and social distancing measures have been implemented. Quarantine has been an existing effective measure since the Black Plague and has been in continuous use since then to combat outbreaks of contagious diseases (Sarabuh, 2020). Even so, it has completely redrawn and hindered one of the most important aspects of a human’s daily life: social interaction. People have been forced to adapt to a new life, one consisting of face coverings and social distancing. The never-ending lockdowns and restrictions have taken a toll on the mental health of people of all ages. Although the effects of COVID-19 are better known in adults, children and adolescents have also been equally affected by the pandemic. This research paper will explore the effects of the pandemic on the psychological development of children and adolescents.
Social interactions and connections are extremely important when it comes to a child’s development (Sarabuh, 2020). Physical contact has a large part in this, as it helps with the development of attachment and the ability to read body language, thus promoting social-psychological development through early childhood as well as into early adulthood (Cascio, 2019). With this in mind, it is evident that brain development throughout early childhood and adolescence has been derailed in some way due to unnatural amounts of isolation.
The early years of childhood are a crucial stage of development. During their first years, apart from physical development and growth, children begin their cognitive development and learning. A crucial aspect of early development is learning social cues, in which the child learns how to socialize and communicate with others. This process involves interactions with adults and children of the same age. Normally, kids get to socialize and communicate with other children in kindergartens and playgrounds; however, during the pandemic children have been forced to stay at home, unable to effectively socialize with other children. Such social restriction impacts their development. Without any external social interaction with other children and adults, a child cannot develop necessary social skills, such as communication. This slows cognitive development, leaving long-term effects in its wake.
One of the first developments a child faces after birth is communication through emotion (Fatima Malik et al. 2020). After the baby is born, for about one and a half years, the baby experiences growth in the social and emotional areas of the brain. These areas include the amygdala, an area of the brain near its base. The amygdala’s function is receiving, processing, and interpreting stimuli that can evoke an emotional response. During the early months of life, the amygdala builds an emotional and stress-regulating system. For proper development to occur, the child needs to be exposed to other children and people of other ages. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children have been kept at home for prolonged periods. Thus, children have been kept away from other people, unable to socialize. This can stunt the development of the emotional and stress-regulating systems. Without proper exposure to stimuli that lead to emotional responses, the child will not be able to learn how to deal with emotional and stressful situations, both of which are crucial skills.
Brain development in general slows with age, but does not completely terminate until well into a person’s twenties (Johnson, 2009). In a psychological research article that focused on the psychological and social impact of COVID-19, it was stated that “As reported in a recent survey administered [during] the COVID-19 pandemic, children and young adults are particularly at risk of developing anxious symptoms” (Saladino, 2020). What children and young adults share is the fact they are still undergoing brain development, which could lead one to conclude that those with developing brains are at a greater psychological risk due to isolation and the chaos triggered by the ongoing pandemic. The same survey also found that, during quarantine, several behavioral changes became apparent in children such as worries (30.1%), uneasiness (30.4%), lonesomeness (31.3%), nervousness (38%), restlessness (38.8%), irritability (39%), boredom (52%), and difficulty concentrating (76.6%) (Saladino, 2020).
During the pandemic, children have endured much more than we, as a society, would probably like to admit. With families being quarantined together, instances of domestic violence, abuse, and neglect have all increased in number (Saggioro de Figueiredo, 2021). In figure one, abuse and trauma are labeled as immediate consequences. The long-term consequences, such as substance abuse, lack of emotional processing, psychiatric disorders, and suicidal ideation, can all, in some cases, be traced back directly to past trauma. Underdeveloped brain circuitry can be seen as a result of sensorial deprivation since a lack of social and physical interactions can impede social-psychological development. However, it can also be a result of trauma. In being exposed to high-stress environments and traumatic events, brain development and higher functions, along with the capacity for dealing with stress in general, can be affected (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005, 2007, 2010). Therefore, subjecting children to and trapping them in abusive environments inhibits their brain development, which also slows down their social-psychological development.
Trauma does not only impact one’s current psychological and physical health, but it also creates future struggles for the individual. According to a study on the association of childhood trauma with adult psychiatric disorders, “cumulative childhood trauma was associated with higher rates of adult psychiatric disorders and poorer functional outcomes even after adjusting for a broad range of other childhood risk factors for these outcomes, including psychiatric functioning and family adversities and hardships” (Copeland, 2018). With parental stress, abusive households, international upheaval, possible economic roadblocks, and isolation, children have been subjected to more than a developing brain can healthily handle, thus explaining the rise in behavioral changes apparent in children during the pandemic.
The stress and anxiety due to the pandemic has also impacted adolescents on a physiological level. Being in an isolated environment results in a sudden effect on the body in that the adrenal gland is stimulated to produce increased amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone that regulates our metabolic pathways and controls our glucose levels, into the bloodstream. Scientists have also discovered that social isolation can suppress several other neurotransmitters – dopamine, serotonin, GABA – responsible for “happiness”. Therefore, exposure to stress causes “physiological, anatomical, and behavioral changes” (Rozenbaum, 2020). Our mental health is disrupted due to the chemical imbalance in our bodies’ nervous system. A study on how solitary confinement can cause physical damage to the brain as presented by Richard Smeyne showed that changes in neuropeptide levels in the mouse brain led to increased aggressiveness in just 2 weeks (Smeyne, 2019). In addition to this, stress caused growth factors to decrease which led to neurons in the sensory and motor cortex shrinking by ~20%. Scientists also observed a statistically significant 30% decrease in neural branching in isolated mice after 3 months. One growth factor, a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a “key regulator of synaptogenesis, neuronal plasticity, and adult neurogenesis, creating potentially important links between stress and mental illness” (Duman RS, Yoshii A). Scientific evidence indicates that decreased levels of BDNF are associated with long-term social isolation. This suggests that social isolation at a young age had long-term consequences for brain development and behavior in adulthood. If a chemical imbalance persists in the nervous system, it could have serious implications and lead to anxiety, addiction, depression, obesity, PTSD, and excessive dependence in the future.
Everything considered, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly, and negatively, impacted the younger generation’s childhoods (i.e. those born after the year 2000). Because the early life of humans is so crucial, being isolated during that vital period will likely present major ongoing challenges. Having constant communication and interactions with adults and infants of the same age is vital for babies and children as it plays a significant role in both physiological and psychological growth and development. Being isolated hinders their cognitive development and jeopardizes their mental health. In addition to this, these children are more likely to struggle with stress and anxiety as they grow older. Being isolated for an unnatural amount of time stunts the proper growth of the amygdala, a stress-regulating system. Furthermore, chemical imbalances, such as decreased levels of GABA, serotonin, or dopamine, can have serious repercussions as well. Thus, these children are more likely to exhibit changes in their behavior, including lonesomeness, nervousness, boredom, and difficulty concentrating, when coming out of the pandemic. The collective research suggests that isolation at a young age will have long lasting effects into their adulthood. Children may develop PTSD, obesity, depression, addiction, or excessive dependence in adolescence or adulthood.
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