It has almost been one year since the pandemic struck, bringing with it unique challenges for families in America. With the closure of school, limited face to face interaction, and the shutdown of sports activities for much of the year, the mental health impact on children begs our attention. Adults were able to pivot and work from home, along with continuing to connect with friends if desired. Children, however, had to fall in line with what their school district decided, what rules the state mandated for their particular sport, and what parents deemed an acceptable amount of in-person play with friends. I felt the children in our community, Fairfield County, Connecticut, deserved a closer look at how they are doing mentally based on all of the contributing factors above. From what is gathered here, the kids in our community need our help.
One way to gauge how kids are doing collectively, was to survey parents to glean insight into what is taking place under each individual roof. While it will give us a picture of how children are doing, parents will be left with decisions to make in terms of what they will do to help their children going forward.
To get a sense of who is being impacted and how, I surveyed 108 families here in Fairfield County. Slightly more than half of respondents live in the town of Fairfield.
The age demographic of the children in this survey is broken out below. The largest age group represented is the 5–10 age group, of which 61% of respondents had a child in this bracket.
64% of those who took the survey, had at least one child in a hybrid school model. 12% are in a remote learning program, 20% are in school full-time, 1% are homeschooling outside of the public school system, and 3% have kids in multiple models.
One common theme among children in hybrid and remote learning models is the extraordinary amount of screen time that has been thrust upon them. Back when school and after school programs were open, children likely came home and ate a snack, did their homework, and then maybe got on the computer or gaming console to play for however many hours their parents would allow. It is assumed this was somewhat the norm prior to the pandemic. Now that school and free time is predominantly online, and sports have been mostly non-existent, norms that previously existed have been overridden.
Shockingly, 83.5% of children in the families polled are on screens at a minimum of 6–8 hours a day. This is more than the average adult work day. 11% of parents said their children exceed 14 hours a day on average during the week.
Each parent can do the math on their own and take inventory on changes they’ve noticed in their kids as a result of such a large increase of screen time. In my experience, when my kids were on screens for school and after school during my working hours, I noticed it put a strain on their eyes, induced lack of physical activity, and stalled their creative and imaginary play that had been happening before the pandemic hit. It also became much more difficult to pull them away from the computer to do just about anything.
While computers connect us to people far and wide, they also separate us from the interpersonal connectedness we once had. I don’t know for sure what the effects of this significant uptick in screen time will be on our children, but I do know the way I feel after a 9–10 hour work day looking at a computer screen while working from home. It feels quite different from a work day in my office amongst colleagues, where time on the computer is interrupted with socialization and in-person meetings.
Separation not only from 6 feet, but in all aspects of normal life, has been a reality for many children in our country this last year. I’m willing to bet some families quarantined for two weeks more than once since March of 2020. I know ours did. I wonder what these bouts of physical isolation have caused children to feel. It’s not just quarantines and 6 feet of distance children needed to become accustomed to, but a reduction in face to face play with their friends as well. Parents have tried to navigate and weigh what is appropriate versus what isn’t. What I’ve observed personally is whether a child actually has any playdates anymore is largely dependent on how risk averse the friends’ parents are. For example, our older child has been able to have playdates somewhat consistently, while our younger son has not been as fortunate.
When asked how often children had in-person interaction or playdates since March of 2020, 28% answered that children had 1- 2 playdates a month, while a quarter of kids are seeing friends sparsely at only one playdate every few months or less. Reversely, 38% are having playdates once or twice a week since March, and 3.7% had playdates for their kids everyday. In the “other” response section, two people counted being in school as a playdate. 1.8% had not one playdate since March.
While juggling the external changes occurring for children, parents need to pay close attention to their child’s internal changes. Mental well-being is one thing that should be under the spotlight. While some children seem to be doing alright given the significant changes in their world, others have begun to show symptoms of anxiety or depression. Parents will need to choose if and when these symptoms warrant further review and, if necessary, outside assistance with a mental health specialist. 30% of families polled have their child seeing a therapist for anxiety or depression, however, what is concerning is 80% of respondents answered that their child or children is exhibiting symptoms that the CDC classifies as being related to depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. (https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/depression.html)
There are symptoms or behaviors that we exhibit with anxiety or depression. Those symptoms were listed within the survey and parents were asked to select as many as their child or children are experiencing at this time. Not surprisingly, it turns out lack of motivation is the number one symptom half of children are experiencing here in Fairfield County. The second most common symptom is angry outbursts and third is crying easily and shutting down. 20% of the answers in “other” were symptoms ranging from suicidal ideation, bed-wetting, defiant behavior, OCD, and an aversion to eating.
If parents are trying to do right by their children, while also following the guidelines of their respective states, getting to the root of what would make their children happy is perhaps a solid place to start when it comes to their mental health. As to how children replied if asked in the last 9 months what would make them happy, the number one answer was a bit obvious. Kids want COVID-19 to be gone.
After looking at the obvious, what’s more impactful, are the additional answers here. 63% of kids said hanging out with their friends would make them happy. This is a testament to how much isolation is negatively impacting children.
Just under half of kids said going back to school would make them happy. Let’s listen and get the schools open full-time permanently. The CDC has also said it is critical for schools to open as quickly and safely as possible.
The needs of the disadvantaged, ESL families, of those who don’t have any peer interaction outside of school, special needs, and of those unsafe at home have been largely ignored. Additionally, for any student that is not in one of those buckets, school is also still such a significant part of life. It is the foundation around not just the obvious -education- but consistency, friendships and positive life-long memories like prom, championships, and graduation that are rolled into the school experience. When you take these things away, it may leave the child feeling like there is nothing left to look forward to, possibly resulting in situational depression. When the constructs of an institution that provides so much to our children goes away, one can only assume the effects are monumental. We are simply at the infancy stage of understanding the impact of its absence.
Coming in as the second most popular item that would bring children happiness, 37% of kids said their sport or favorite activity becoming available again. 10% answered with “other” responses including: no longer having to wear a mask, keeping a hybrid schedule, visiting grandparents, sleepovers, traveling, and playing with mom more because she works so much. 8% of parents said they did not ask their child in the last 9 months what would make them happy.
With parents being the roommates of their children in a much more concentrated sense of the word now, it means we often have a good idea as to what brings them joy and motivation. So what do parents wish they could provide their children that they believe would help their mental health and happiness? The majority of parents said going back to school in-person. 31% said more interaction and playdates with their peers, and 15% said taking them on a trip for a change of scenery would aid in lifting them up. 7% of parents said their children are happy, and don’t believe they need anything at this time to contribute to their happiness.
Right now, parents have little power with great responsibility. With a pandemic hanging around, typical challenges in child rearing have morphed and magnified. For some, their family’s mental well-being has become the item on the ever growing “things- to-focus-on” list. 52% of parents worry more often than not about their child’s mental well-being, and of that number, 20% are consumed with worry daily.
Recently, some restrictions have been lifted. Schools are opening full-time and sports and activities are resuming. Only time will tell how children will heal from the disconnection of human interaction, all day screen consumption, and lack of education.
Based on these observations, I suggest that in addition to parents focusing more on their child’s mental health, let this be a call to the community and schools to pay close attention to all children in the now and ahead. Be the eyes and ears when parents aren’t around and speak up when and where there is concern.
Empowering our own children to come to us if they have worries about a peer is also a way for us to be vigilant and proactive. Additionally, from my experience in running a group for working mothers online for 11 years, which has grown to over 7,000 members, I’ve seen firsthand that cries for help often come in the form of a private message to a stranger online.
Could this be why so many of us aren’t aware when someone close to us might be suffering? Perhaps the person feels they are not ready to share it yet with those who know them best. I can only speak through the lens of my interactions with moms, because I don’t have a large group online consisting of children. This is new territory for many of us, and it is not necessarily obvious when a person or child is hurting. More importantly, it is why parents across communities everywhere, not just Fairfield County, need to be aware and communicate if they observe something concerning.
Heartbreakingly, and as shockingly crushing as it sounds- we can’t always save people. With that in mind, let’s use that as fuel to always do what is in our power to try. We can start by keeping the schools open, encouraging more face time and less screen time, paying attention and acting on signs of anxiety and depression, and checking in with them on what might bring them some happiness today. The youth of our entire country did not have a say in what was best for them, so it’s our job now to support them in any way possible if and when it is needed.