Virtual Learning Has Taken a Toll on Kids' & Parents' Mental Health
A new government report confirms what many moms and dads already know: Parents and kids are struggling mightily to cope with the stresses of distance learning.
A survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of parents of children aged 5 to 12 found that parents of kids receiving in-person instruction were less likely to suffer from stress than those whose schooling was via computer or a combination of in-school and distance learning.
The pandemic itself increased stress, which was compounded by not having regular supports and its impact on parents' ability to work, said Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC's division of adolescent and school health.
"These are families that may have experienced loss and are in communities that have experienced a great deal of loss," she said.
Parents worry about how to take care of their children at home and also do their work, Ethier explained.
"So that causes a great deal of stress for children. We saw a decrease in physical activity, which we know to be associated with not only physical health but mental health. We've seen decreased time with friends, and we know for children that social interaction is important. I think we see all of this in the findings related to poor emotional health," she added.
Virtual instruction was more commonly reported by Hispanic parents (66%), non-Hispanic multiracial parents (64%) and Black parents (55%) than among white parents (32%), the researchers found.
Children who received virtual instruction were less likely to exercise than kids in school (30% versus 63%), spend time outside (27% versus 58%), spend time with friends (70% versus 86%), or spend virtual time with friends (13% versus 24%).
These kids also suffered from worse mental or emotional health (25% versus 16%), the study authors said.
In addition, the researchers found that parents of children receiving virtual instruction were more likely than parents of children who were in school to lose work time (43% versus 31%), have work stability concerns (27% versus 15%), have child care problems (14% versus 7%), have a conflict between work and providing child care (15% versus 8%), suffer emotional distress (54% versus 38%) and have difficulty sleeping (22% versus 13%).
Also, parents whose children were receiving combined instruction were more likely than those whose children were in school full time to report loss of work (40% versus 31%) and have a conflict between working and providing child care (14% versus 8%), the findings showed.
Ethier expects stress levels to diminish as kids get back to school and parents resume their pre-pandemic routines. That might happen sooner now, after the CDC announced on Friday that only 3-feet of social distancing will be needed in schools for them to reopen. The agency has been facing pressure to lower the previous 6-foot rule because it would have been nearly impossible to physically fit all students into classrooms.
"It's likely that for some of them, once they get back into their regular routines with their friends and with all of the connections that schools provide, the feelings of isolation will decrease. Children are very resilient and they'll bounce back," Ethier said.
But, for some children, this will be an ongoing issue that will need to be attended to, she noted.
"I think schools are uniquely prepared to support children's mental health. They provide a great deal of the services that connect children to services in their community. Those things that schools provide are really going to be important moving forward," Ethier said.
Laura Braider, director of the Behavioral Health College Program at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., said that although stress levels will go down, reconnecting with other children may trigger social anxiety.
"I think there will be a reduction in stress, but you've also got students that maybe have had social anxiety, and the worst thing you can do for social anxiety is avoid people and interactions," Braider said. "There are some anxieties that the sense of avoidance in itself is going to increase the anxiety, and may need to be treated."
Parents need to be aware of potential emotional problems their child might have going forward, Braider added.
"If they know they have a child that's anxious, make extra efforts to have them on Zoom calls or have family members that they trust come over and have them interact with other children. If those things don't help, maybe seek professional help. Social anxiety is treatable. We have very good interventions," she said.
The report was published March 19 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For more on stress and COVID-19, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director, division of adolescent and school health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Laura Braider, PhD, director, Behavioral Health College Program, Zucker Hillside Hospital, Glen Oaks, N.Y.; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 19, 2021