Entry by Juan M. Hernández-Agramonte (IPA), Claudia Paola Lisboa Vásquez (OSEE, Minedu), Carolina Méndez (BID), Olga Namen (IPA), Emma Näslund-Hadley (BID), y Luciana Velarde (OSEE, Minedu)
Following school and workplace closures and layoffs throughout the world, mental health experts caution that lengthy shelter-in-place orders may have severe effects on our physical and socioemotional wellbeing. With all of us separated from friends, everyday interactions with other people, routines, and structures, struggles with loneliness, anxiety and depression are rising.
For children and teens around the world, extended lockdowns and school closures can be particularly traumatic. In many children and teens, the separation from friends and everyday routines is causing anxiety, grief, anger, and loneliness. Mental health consequences on an unprecedented scale among children and adolescents are looming. Many have fears about the virus, have parents who have lost their livelihood, or have lost a parent or grandparent. Also, domestic violence and substance abuse have increased.
Although the full effects of the lockdown on children’s socioemotional health will only be fully apparent in the longer term, it is already possible to see how the pandemic is impacting different groups of children differently. In Peru, the Ministry of Education (Minedu), with the support of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), asked 8,000 families about the socio-emotional health of children, adolescents, and caregivers. This information gives us a first window into how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the health of children and youth, an essential first step in designing education and health policy responses.
Social distancing is particularly hard for teenagers
We find that on a socioemotional wellbeing index, teens scored eight percentage points lower than elementary school-age students. There are many possible reasons for this. On one hand, teens are wired to separate themselves from their parents as their brains and bodies prepare them for independence, which makes sheltering-in-place with parents more challenging. It is also likely that teens are taking on multiple new responsibilities during lockdown. This would be consistent with recent findings from Ecuador, which show that teenagers are spending time on household tasks and work in addition to their schoolwork. Teens with lower socioeconomic backgrounds have less leisure time than their peers in wealthier families.
Teenage girls in our sample have reported lower wellbeing than teen boys. This may result from teenage girls taking on more household responsibilities. Although we did not include this question in our survey, during the pandemic in Ecuador, teenage girls engage in less leisure activities and more household tasks than boys. The difficult time that teenagers are facing during lockdown is mirrored by their parents, who also reported lower levels of wellbeing than parents of younger kids.
Staying connected matters for the wellbeing of children and teenagers
Parents are often concerned that too much time online negatively impacts their children, who they fear may waste time on social media or become victims of cyber bullying. However, using the internet appears to benefit teenagers during the lockdown. Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, children and teens with internet have higher wellbeing than their unplugged peers.
Children with fewer siblings appear to fare better when sheltering in place
The lower the number of children a family has under their care, the higher the level of wellbeing they report, and this holds true after controlling for families’ socioeconomic situation. Several mechanisms may be at play. Single children are already used to being flexible and creative, which could lead them to finding social isolation less challenging. Big families may have more limited physical space for each individual child. The finding may also be the result of children with many siblings receiving less attention from parents who divide their time among more children. Also, with fewer siblings, there may be less fighting for screen time.
Parenting in quarantine is stressful
Sheltering in place is not only stressful for children. A large group of parents in our sample report feeling sad and fearful (79 percent). These feelings are understandable, given that many parents have suddenly found themselves juggling the triple role of parent, income provider, and teacher. As is the case for children, larger families are more stressful for parents. The higher the number of children under their care, the lower parents’ reported level of wellbeing. Mothers have particularly low levels of wellbeing, which could be a reflection of them taking on the bulk of the at-home distance education support (67 percent) compared with fathers (26 percent). In most families, women are also in charge of the communications with their children’s school (71 percent) compared with men (only 16 percent).
While parents’ and children’s physical health is usually the highest-priority concern, it is important to quantify, raise awareness, and develop strategies to address the COVID-19 crisis’ mental health challenges. The scale of the situation is unprecedented, and one can only speculate about the long-term mental health effects on children and teenagers. In Latin America, where teachers tend to take on the role of social workers even in the best of times (and often with limited resources or support), education systems face a looming student mental health crisis.
Our research team is eager for your thoughts. The distance education programs that ministries have launched during the pandemic, such as Aprendo en Casa, often include tools to foster students’ intrapersonal and citizenship skills.
What else should education systems do to help students and teachers cope with the mental effects of the pandemic? Share your comments with us in the section below, or comment on Twitter mentioning @BIDEducacion #EnfoqueEducacion.
 Parents were asked about their own and their children wellbeing. To measure children’s reported wellbeing, we used an adaptation of the Children Behavior Checklist instrument (CBCL). For adults, we used the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CESD-R).