We don’t know anything about how children perceive the pandemic.
• There is a paucity of research on children’s cognitive and emotional comprehension of Covid.
• Previous research on how children perceive sickness, germs, contagion, and infection is useful.
• Children’s social environments have been restricted by Covid, and the influence on them is unknown.
Early in March 2020 – sure, it feels like a century ago – the initial lockdowns in most locations revealed the terrifying truth of what would soon be labeled a global epidemic. We’ve all been fatigued and drained by the rollercoaster ride of one wave followed by a respite followed by another surge. Vaccines had raised hopes (at least for most of us), but the Delta variation, as well as the threat of far more lethal and infectious future variants, have shattered those dreams once again. We began by witnessing the frailest and elderly people perish in nursing facilities. Then, when mitigating efforts and, eventually, vaccination became more effective, the dangers moved to younger adults who had not been immunized.
Simultaneously, the allure of normalcy has encouraged many of us, vaccinated or not, to abandon protective measures such as masks and physical separation. We crave big, tightly packed crowds to cheer on our team, sing along at a rock performance, or raise our voices in unison as congregations as social beings. Every aspect of a public health crisis has been politicized in a dangerously divided society, making coordinated actions almost impossible. Public health specialists are now warning that Covid may be with us for the foreseeable future—endemic rather than pandemic—controlled but still claiming people on a daily basis.
Infection, severe illness, hospitalization, and mortality rates in youngsters have begun to climb alarmingly. Vaccination is presently not available to children under the age of 12. Vaccination rates for children over the age of 12 remain persistently low. Only 25% of youngsters aged 12 to 18 were completely vaccinated as of mid-July 2021, the lowest proportion of any eligible age group. Simultaneously, the most effective mitigation strategy—wearing a surgical-grade mask—has become a politically toxic symbol for many. As a result, pediatric intensive care units are overburdened, particularly in places where the majority of eligible teenagers and adults remain unvaccinated. The American Academy of Pediatrics has asked the FDA to authorize vaccinations for children under the age of 12 for emergency use. The discourse about Covid has evolved from “Kids don’t get sick from Covid, don’t worry” to “Children are in danger, and it’s serious.”
In the Age of Covid, a new school year has begun. The persistent issue for parents, caregivers, and family members is, “How safe will my child be in the classroom?” In general, as we approach Covid’s third year, with no end in sight, we are confronted with an unpleasant thought: our children are growing up in a Covid world. Even if we can keep them safe from illness and sickness (a huge IF), we won’t be able to protect them from the bigger picture.
As a developmental psychologist, I’m curious to see how youngsters react to this strange new environment. We already have statistics showing that school closures, insufficient remote learning (where little is taught), parental job loss and economic upheaval, as well as disease and death from Covid among loved ones, neighbors, and friends, have all elevated stress levels. Children, on the other hand, are robust and flexible. We don’t know enough about how youngsters comprehend Covid, how it spreads, or how it can be overcome or at the very least restrained. More psychologically complex questions remain unanswered: What do kids think about what adults, particularly their caregivers, are doing to keep them safe? What do youngsters think of Covid’s present and future?
Getting to Know Covid
While there is limited empirical data on how children of various ages and circumstances receive Covid, research on children’s larger knowledge of infection, contagion, and sickness is important. Children are fascinated by what makes them ill. Germs and the spread of germs via tiny droplets are invisible. This makes it difficult for youngsters to comprehend infectious illnesses, particularly respiratory infections. Nonetheless, the findings of the study show that even early preschoolers are smarter than we assume. In a 2005 study conducted by Raman and Gelman, children aged 4 to 10 were asked about symptoms such as runny nose, high temperature, sore throat, and stomach pain. Most of the kids thought of these symptoms as something you might “catch,” rather than something that was permanent, such as “can’t eat peanuts.” The youngsters were also questioned about a new disease by the researchers. Most youngsters thought it was contagious when it was presented as transitory rather than permanent. Furthermore, the majority of youngsters in this research recognized how infectious illnesses may spread. When given circumstances such as “sneezed and coughed aloud, “Even preschoolers thought it was a method to “get” a disease. To be true, awareness of illness transmission and contagion grew with age, but even little toddlers comprehend the basics.
These and other findings show that youngsters are capable of comprehending the underlying processes of infectious respiratory illnesses. As a result, individuals are likely to understand the value of measures that disrupt transmission modes. If you can “catch” a new disease from a buddy who sneezes and coughs all over you, then you should be able to prevent it through masking, cleanliness, and distance.
Previous research assessing treatments aimed to assist youngsters to become more proactive in limiting the spread of infectious illness has also yielded promising outcomes. A 2013 study of a school intervention in the United Kingdom revealed that it was successful in boosting handwashing among schoolchildren. To make the concept of invisible germs more approachable, teachers put glitter on the children’s hands and demonstrated how handwashing removed the glitter “germs.”
Previous research has helped us to better understand how youngsters think about sickness, infection, germs, and contagion. We can see how youngsters make sense of the world through notions known as “nave biology,” and how these concepts increasingly approach correct biological explanations as they mature and go through formal schooling. Understanding, on the other hand, entails more than just basic facts. Children are attempting to comprehend what it means for a school to close, parents’ professions to close, and friends to be unable to come over for a sleepover. Children live in a smaller world, where venues like restaurants, theaters, gyms, and even parks are either unavailable or must be navigated with caution. Parents, caregivers, and government authorities are continually assessing new facts to see if a place or activity is safe, or safe enough to risk. Adults find it difficult to understand the risk-benefit ratio in the presence of inadequate and continuously changing data. What does it entail for teenagers and younger kids? What, who, and where do they consider to be safe vs dangerous? In a Covid restricted setting, what happens to children’s emotions of exploration and adventure?
More research on how adults might help children’s emotional, rather than simply mental, comprehension of all elements of Covid is also needed. What are the most effective explanations for helping youngsters comprehend and cope? What can teachers and school staff do to make Covid a less stressful and more inviting environment? While we laboriously creep our way to herd immunity (if we ever get there), how can we build in closeness, group cohesiveness, and the urge to be in an accepting “herd”?
Let us take a minute to celebrate children’s resilience and strength as we wait for research to catch up to this constantly changing and all-consuming Covid environment. They will report to a transformed world, much as children of the Great Depression or the Second World War did, what it was like growing up as Covid veterans. Let us hope that they will become another Greatest Generation, tempered by the fire of pandemics and fortified by the peril they faced.