Reflections on the impact of lack of social interaction due to school closures
By Dr Francesca Sawer
How does lack of social interaction from not going to school affect children’s mental health?
Clinically we are seeing increasing reports of anxiety in children as a result of the pandemic, which includes children presenting with lots of different worries and also being more scared to go outside. This reduces opportunities to be social and in some situations may make children fearful of interacting with others. Younger children are also missing out on the typical social opportunities to develop their social interaction skills.
Social interaction, for many children, is a protective factor and something which supports positive well-being, so many children are both managing the stress of all the changes in their life as a result of lockdown and school closures, in addition to loosing their coping strategies.
CoSpace which is a study run by the University of Oxford in partnership with University College London and University of Leicester found that even after lockdown restrictions were eased in the summer, parents reported that up to 82-89% of secondary school age children were not having any in person contact with friends.
We also know that there has been an increase in children communicating via social media and gaming. In some ways this can allow children to communicate with more people and is useful for facilitating social interactions, however the quality of interactions is likely to have changed.
Children that struggled with social interaction or anxiety before lockdown may have initially benefited from reduced social interaction, however we know that this can then have an impact later on when they need to return to school and is likely to result in later anxiety and at worse, possible school refusal.
What can parents do to support their children and improve their social interaction?
I think it’s important that we do not forget how much parents are managing at this time, so getting through each day is still a big achievement. We can start by focusing on the basics and encouraging as many healthy habits as possible, which will in turn promote children’s wellbeing. This might include setting boundaries around using devices and gaming in order to encourage good sleep opportunities. Parents can support regular bed and wake time and encourage some form of exercise each day.
The evidence is suggesting that teenagers in particular are preferring interaction via social media and gaming during this time, however this is unlikely to be meeting all the benefits that we get from typical social interaction, so communication via the phone or video should be encouraged where possible. Children learn from those around them, so parents should can be modelling healthy interactions too. They should let their children see them picking up the phone to talk with friends and encourage family conversations, however small. They should try to directly talk with children rather than texting them to come for dinner.
Social interaction within the family shouldn’t be overlooked. For example games nights as a family which encourage turn taking and reinforce the importance of shared interaction.
Other little things could include sending their teenagers to the shops so that they at least have an interaction with the shop assistants.
With younger children parents should try to resist screens and TV and promote exploratory play and turn taking. When TV is used this should be sensory and communication focused.