Research conducted by the University of Melbourne and The Royal Children’s Hospital has noted that the indirect impacts of COVID-19 potentially can have “broad, long-lasting implications for children.”
Although children generally have low health consequences in matters of the pandemic, the restrictions implemented to control the disease can have indirect effects in the long term.
The research, led by Professor Sharon Goldfield identified three broad areas of issues that need intervention: the child-level, family-level and at the service level.
Academically, remote learning has resulted in compromised student engagement, particularly in children already facing difficulties or for those that belong to families where parents have a lower level of educational attainment.
The authors said that “almost half of the Australian student population risks having their learning severely compromised due to COVID-19-related school closures, either because they are an early year’s student or are experiencing adversity.”
Reduced physical activity and increased screentime can also affect children’s lifestyle and physical health. In a longitudinal study conducted during the pandemic for Australia and 13 other countries, children on average had 55 more minutes of screen time per day and 81 minutes less per day for weekday outdoors activities.
At the service level, school closures due to the pandemic have affected children that needed the healthcare facilitated by the school such as free lunches and mental health care. The authors reported that “referrals to child mental health services reduced substantially, before an unprecedented rise that placed increased demand on already overstretched services.”
Amongst parents, some parents also reported the impact the pandemic has had on their mental health. A poll (pdf) conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital had 46 percent of parents reporting that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. However, the same poll also reported that 75 percent of parents felt their families were closer and 42 percent said they are more connected to their child since the pandemic.
Lifeline Australia reported its highest volume of calls in its 58-year history in the first week of August 2021, during the period where most of Australia was in lockdown.
Household stress was also reported to have increased with some parents reporting an increased strain in parent-child’s relationships. It was also difficult for some parents to balance work, care for their children and assistance in their children’s remote learning needs.
Pandemic restrictions also marked an increase in the incidence of abuse-related head injuries among children at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as the pandemic progressed, reports to child maltreatment hotlines decreased substantially, the report speculated that it was likely largely due to decreased contact between children and both education personnel and health services.
The team was concerned that the likely disproportionate impact of the current pandemic on children experiencing adversity may potentially widen disparities in child health and developmental outcomes and result in long-term implications.
Goldfield and her colleagues suggested five potential strategy areas that could begin to address these inequities: addressing financial instability through parent financial supplements; expanding the role of schools to address learning gaps and wellbeing; rethinking health care delivery to address reduced access; focusing on prevention and early intervention for mental health; and using digital solutions to address inequitable service delivery.
“History shows us that children already experiencing adversity lose out the most, with the potential for widening health inequities,” the team wrote.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that it is possible to make transformational changes that could deliver on community child health aspirations. We have the opportunity to build a better and more equitable Australia, for the children of today and the adults of the future,” they concluded.