In General News

Playing with peers has important developmental benefits, and doctors worry that children are missing out on them now.
Pediatricians and psychologists are raising alarms about the potential impact of prolonged social isolation on children.

By: Andrea Petersen
June 15, 2020 11:56 am ET

After six weeks of lockdown due to Covid-19, Cari Marshall was getting concerned about her 11-year-old daughter Chloe. The child missed seeing her friends in person and was becoming frustrated communicating with them solely via FaceTime, TikTok and the gaming app Roblox.

“It laid bare how important her personal relationships are to her daily happiness,” says Ms. Marshall, a political volunteer organizer in Austin, Texas. “She is all about her friendships.”

With many summer camps canceled, many families continuing to practice social distancing and the upcoming school year a big question mark, pediatricians and psychologists are raising alarms about the potential impact of prolonged social isolation on children. Some point to research that has found an array of benefits of positive peer relationships: Children who have them are more likely to later develop healthy romantic relationships and be more effective at work. Good relationships with peers during the teen years are linked to better health during adulthood.
Cari Marshall has started to arrange socially distanced playdates for her daughter Chloe, 11.

“There’s a key connection between having good peer interactions and social emotional well-being,” says Rebecca Rialon Berry, clinical associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York. “In certain populations, we’re seeing that our depression and anxiety are heightening with continued quarantining” and other aspects of the pandemic. “We have to start talking about the calculated risk and taking some more.”

There’s already evidence that social isolation may lead to mental health issues. About 23% of elementary school students in Hubei province in China had symptoms of depression and 19% had anxiety symptoms after two or more months of home confinement earlier this year during the region’s coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey of 1,784 children published in April in JAMA Pediatrics.

Psychologists are particularly concerned about how socially anxious children and others who already struggle making or keeping friends will fare. These youngsters might be relieved now to have a break from the social minefield of the lunchroom or playground, but “not having as many opportunities to practice, you might see a kind of withering of the social skills or a lack of development of the social skills,” says Eli R. Lebowitz, associate professor at the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine.

Children are less likely than adults to become seriously ill from Covid-19 and many show few symptoms. However, there have been rare cases of a dangerous complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. And doctors are still trying to understand how easily infected children could spread the virus to more vulnerable people.

Friendships play different roles throughout children’s development. For preschoolers, playing with other children and “learning to share, keeping your hands to yourself” helps develop our “core moral building blocks of empathy, perspective-taking, negotiation, collaboration and cooperation,” says Dr. Rialon Berry. Playing with peers teaches children to regulate their emotions and behavior. “If we can do so, more people are going to want to hang with us and play with us,” she says. These skills are critical to navigating all sorts of adult relationships.

Preschoolers need to interact with other children to learn these lessons, says Kenneth Rubin, professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland. “Parents just can’t tell kids how they should act with other kids,” he says. “Children learn to be kind based on their understanding of how others feel and that they are in need of a hug.”

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