Pooja Nair, a Bangalore-based marketing professional, is worried that her 21-month-old isn't comfortable around children of her own age. Pooja's daughter was born on the day of 'Janata Curfew' in 2020.
Months after she was born, Pooja moved to Coimbatore, her hometown, to ensure her daughter was surrounded by people and not just two busy parents and a nanny. But, there too, her daughter didn't get to interact with kids of her age. "Her first friend was someone who is 15 or 16, a kid from our neighbourhood. She would come and play with her," she said. Bringing her daughter back to Bangalore and putting her in a playgroup setting was difficult because she just didn't like that there were other kids, Pooja said. "It took her a while to adjust socially."
After two years since Covid-19 upended what we knew as 'normal' — forced people to stay indoors, shut down schools and gatherings, leaving kids with very little real interactions with people outside their homes, researchers are concerned about the pandemic's impact on the minds of children.
The pandemic, several studies have shown, has had an adverse effect on the social, cognitive and mental development of children.
A study published by Columbia researchers earlier this month found that babies born during the pandemic had a reduced cognitive development score.
Lead investigator of the study and assistant professor of paediatrics and psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians, Dani Dumitriu told BOOM over email, "We found that infants born to mothers who experienced the pandemic had lower scores on a developmental screening tool than those born prior to the pandemic, irrespective of maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection status during pregnancy."
Not just development, but children's mental health has also been severely affected by the pandemic, say experts.
Being born in March 2020 meant Pooja's daughter had never seen life outside the pandemic. She was mostly confined at home because of the numerous lockdowns and even a trip to the hospital for vaccination was a novelty.
"She was so excited when we went to the hospital for her regular vaccination. It was an outing for her. She was amused to see so much open space; she started running around in the hospital and rolling on the floor. And even in that scenario she would avoid the kids and only talk to adults," Pooja said.
Even the things that Indians take as normal, like seeing dogs or cows on the street was a moment of excitement for Pooja's daughter as the world outside her home is still unfamiliar.
Has The Pandemic Impacted Children's Learning?
Not just their moods and social interactions, the pandemic has affected children's ability to learn in school as well, researchers say.
Parul, a Dubai-based mother of a seven-year-old said, "It has impacted (my daughter) in every way — physical stamina, learning, eating habits, social skills, and mental wellbeing."
Parul noticed her daughter had developed learning disabilities when classes went online in 2020. "She was reading letters reversed, she would write the letters in an inverted way. She could not read faster as compared to many of her other classmates. She was (scoring) low in reading and this was stressing me out. In online learning, teachers just ask you to read a paragraph, and the kid was struggling."
Luckily, Parul's daughter's reading and writing skills improved once schools opened up.
For younger children, the lack of social interaction meant not learning to interact with others or talk at all.
Also Read | Is Omicron Affecting Children More?
Both Parul and Pooja said that they know other children who have been severely affected by the pandemic — some of them haven't learned to talk even after they turned two.
In August 2021, a preprint study written by authors from the Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University found that children born in the United States during the pandemic showed reduced cognitive development, verbal and motor skills than children born before the pandemic.
In the study of 672 healthy children between three months to three years of age from the state of Rhode Island, researchers found that the IQ of children born before the pandemic was significantly higher than those born during it. The mean IQ score on standardised tests for children aged between three months and three years of age in the decade before the pandemic was 100, while for the same age group that lived through the pandemic, it was 78.
"I Don't Want To Open The iPad"
Being stuck at home and not having social interactions may cause boredom for adults, but for children, it has had a larger impact— on their well-being and development.
Speaking about the trigger for her to move back home, Pooja said even when things began to unlock in September 2020, they stayed at home as they were worried about getting infected. On her first week of work after her maternity leave, she remembers getting out of her room in between her meetings and seeing her daughter and the nanny "staring into space".
"I decided I don't want this for my kid," she said and immediately moved to her hometown.
Pooja's worries weren't unfounded.
Child psychologist Bakul Chaudhary points out that children have several needs that influence their growth and development. "During the early years, the child learns mainly through interactions with their environment and the people around, it represents the total of physical, social and psychological stimulation the child receives," she said.
She explained that those experiences affect the child to develop cognitive skills, learn to solve problems, socialise, adopt good habits, develop the necessary motor skills, play skills, emotional understanding, age-appropriate language and strength to function properly. "It is important for the holistic development of the child. The goal is to provide young children with experiences that allow them to develop both hemispheres of their brain," Chaudhary said.
Things began to ease across the world by mid-2021 when countries had much of their population fully vaccinated. Countries like Dubai saw schools opening up in full capacity, only to go back to online classes for a brief while after Omicron came into the picture.
Parul said that she has seen her daughter feel frustrated when schools shut again. "Schools have been open (in Dubai) for almost a year and that is the best part. My kid missed school for eight to nine months in 2020… She was very happy to go back to school. But now due to Omicron, they had two weeks of distance learning because they had some (Covid) cases in the school. For two weeks she was so frustrated. She said I don't want to open the iPad."
Parul feels that children are scared of being monitored on screens and are frustrated because of the lack of actual in-person connections.
In India, schools have been shut and there is no clarity on when they are likely to open again.
But even school isn't "normal". Where Parul's daughter studies, the school has strict social distancing rules that include no sharing of food and stationery, wearing masks all the time and the students cannot be in close proximity to speak with each other. There are also restrictions on using the play areas.
Distance and covered faces of friends and teachers behind masks mean it is likely the children are learning less than their peers in the decade before this about how to pick on social cues and facial expressions. However, there haven't been any specific studies conducted on this.
Did The Pandemic Impact Parenting?
Child psychologist Bakul Chaudhary, the founder of Listening Ears — an early intervention therapy and counselling centre for children, said that the pandemic not only disrupted health and education services but also caused severe stress to parents and caregivers because of the economic fallout.
"Restrictions to control the pandemic like closure of schools, child care centres and play areas has led to isolation, increasing the screen time but reducing the opportunities for early learning, outdoor play, physical activity and social development of the child. Unfortunately, any number of online classes can not compensate for the social interaction and social environment a child gets in the school setting," Chaudhary said.
Stressed-out parents, leading to harsh methods of parenting, has also led to children being stressed out. The lack of stimulation, which is essential for a child's overall growth, has led to changes in behaviour and a slowdown in the pace of their growth.
Awareness about the development of children is key.
Chaudhary said, "The challenge is to teach the parents about required involvement and positive stimulation at home. Parent's are the primary caregivers, while most of them are working from home, they should not avoid interacting with the child where the child is exposed to hours of screen time, there is a need to take up the responsibility to involve and engage with the child to develop communication."
With the uncertainty of Covid, parents have also had to take significant steps to ensure their children remain engaged with the outside world and have human interactions.
Parul ensures that her daughter goes to the park, so she can meet other kids. She has also enrolled her daughter in one-on-one extracurricular offline classes.
Parul and her family are also part of a social bubble keeping in mind their daughter's social life. "We have made a close circle, with them we have had an agreement that our kids will continue to have regular playdates because they need to have social interactions. We have made a social bubble and keep hosting each other regularly," Parul said.
While Dubai is already coming out of a lockdown like situation because of Omicron, India is not quite there yet.
Pooja said that she and her husband tried their best to keep their daughter's schedule filled between September and December 2021, only to be locked back up at home since the beginning of 2022. However, they try to take the child outside as often as they can.
"Depending on how the Covid situation is, she gets to go out two to three times a day. We chose a society with a lot of parks and greenery on the campus and a lot of other kids for this very reason. She goes out after her morning routine, in the evening and sometimes if she is cranky we take her out for walks at night too," Pooja said and added, "That's the only thing that is keeping her going."
Are there long-term impacts on children?
In terms of research, the long-term effects of the pandemic on babies and children are still not known. The study conducted by Dimitriu and her colleagues does not indicate that the infants will suffer long-term.
"The brains of 6-month-old infants are very plastic, very malleable, so by talking, singing, playing, and interacting with them and finding safe ways to take them out of the home more often, parents can absolutely help mitigate potential issues down the road," she said.
For slightly older children, the long-term effects are still not known. But if Parul's experience with her daughter's learning hiccups is anything to go by, it is also likely that older children are going to make up for lost time because of their fairly malleable brains.
While parents like Pooja and Parul are worried, the solution, according to Chaudhary, isn't very complicated. She suggests keeping a close eye on the child and observing them for delayed milestones or signs and symptoms of other complications like ASD, ADHD or SCD.
"In such cases, it is necessary to understand the importance of teletherapy sessions for the guidance required from the therapists… it's important to not miss this crucial time of development and to continue the process of learning," she said.
This story is a part of a BOOM series on Covid-19 and children.
Updated On: 2022-02-21T12:04:49+05:30