- For the good of our children, we must recognize that the impact of COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting lower-income families, who need increased support during this crisis. Tweet This
- Masks are a necessary evil during a pandemic and can save lives, and we should try to ameliorate the negative effects of having to wear them—whether through more mask-free, expressive child-parent interaction at home, or safe mask-free interaction at school. Tweet This
A new study (currently a pre-print) from researchers at Brown University suggests that children born during the pandemic may have “significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic.” The study found these potential cognitive deficits to be especially apparent among children from poor families. Social isolation, lack of support, and a variety of other stressors are impacting the development of young children. This research should serve as a wake-up call that we need to carefully prioritize the needs of children in our pandemic policymaking.
Although the Brown study did not look specifically at this issue, masking in school is one example where we need a more balanced, long-term approach. Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics tweeted:
Babies and young children study faces, so you may worry that having masked caregivers would harm children’s language development. There are no studies to support this concern. Young children will use other clues like gestures and tone of voice.
The appeal to “no studies” in this messaging is dubious. Sure, there’s no empirical study that proves that masks hinder children’s development, but there are also “no (long-term) studies” showing that they don’t.
The truth is that masks are not ideal for children. Decades of psychological research demonstrates the importance of visual cues for emotional recognition and socialization. The New York Times published some of these concerns last year (however, they were not granted much weight in a more recent NYT op-ed titled “Actually, Wearing a Mask Can Help Your Child Learn”). But the fearmongering that masks are a catastrophe for children is also misguided. Masks are a necessary evil during a pandemic and can save lives, and we can and should try to ameliorate the negative effects of having to wear them—whether that be through more mask-free, expressive child-parent interaction at home, or school-backed efforts to provide safe mask-free interaction, such as the case in Britain, where testing and quarantining is prioritized over mask-wearing. This is much preferable to hand-waving the issue away with the phrase “no studies to support” harm.
It’s important to note that the aforementioned Brown study did not link the observed potential cognitive deficits to masks, since that was not a variable specifically considered in the study. One significant finding from the study is that children from poorer families appeared to experience more cognitive effects. Low socioeconomic status is often recognized as a risk factor for hindered child development, so it is no surprise that children from families with less money are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Beyond the obvious reasons, like the lack of access to healthcare and quality education that’s been exacerbated by COVID-19, families stuck in the cycle of poverty tend to be more at risk for developing a generational expression of depression. I see this in certain parents I treat in my clinical practice—poor parents struggle to connect with their own children because their own parents were depressed and impoverished. The goal in therapy with these patients is to help them to heal the generational struggles at the root of their problems. This approach can help them experience psychological healing, but unless the dire economic conditions that have been worsened by this pandemic are also addressed, it can be an uphill battle. Therefore, for the good of our children, we must recognize that the impact of COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting lower-income families, who need increased support during this crisis.
Although the researchers noted that high socioeconomic status and higher maternal education serve as a buffer against the recognized cognitive decline, children from wealthy families are also struggling. Amongst my more affluent patients, the social isolation and lack of extended family and educational support has certainly impacted parents’ ability to interact with their children in a healthy manner. Moreover, children from all backgrounds are more isolated from their peers than ever, limiting their social and emotional development. One mother I treat with an only child expressed how challenging it has been to see her daughter struggle with social isolation. She shared that when she “goes to the playground and no one else is there to play with, or the other children are wearing masks and not speaking to one another, it is clearly having a negative impact on her.”
Children need spontaneous, tactile, physical play, and social interaction that is impossible to get through a screen. Parents must be encouraged and taught how to interact with their children in playful ways to provide substitutive support when in-person peer play is limited or if their schools choose to teach digitally.
Despite the concerning findings that COVID-19 is interfering with early child-development, there are positive steps we can take as parents and educators to ensure that these delays are not permanent. The first three years of life are a critical window of child development, and repair is still possible anytime within this flexible window. I’ve written a book on the importance of parental presence in the first three years of life. Now more than ever, consistent parental presence is of utmost importance. Quantity of time is as important as quality of time—if children are only around masked faces in public, it is imperative that parents prioritize present, attentive, and empathic face-to-face communication for as many hours as possible throughout the day. If children have siblings in the household, parents should encourage them to play together as often as possible to compensate for any missed playdates outside the home. These efforts become much more difficult when parents are unable to be around their children due to financial burdens, and for this reason, it is important to support polices to financially support in-need parents to allow them the ability to spend more time with their kids. Furthermore, whenever new COVID-19 measures are proposed, it is critical that we consider their potential effects on developing children, whose long-term needs deserve to be prioritized.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and the upcoming Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.