To understand how the COVID-19 lockdown has impacted children and young people in the UK, and to better help them, we conducted a survey with over 100 participants who were already supported by Barnardo’s, as well as gathered insights from 150 children and young people working with our service youth colleagues.
The responses paint a picture of youth around the UK that are as individual as each of the children and young people are. The responses fell on a spectrum that ranged between patient and frustrated, included and forgotten, happy and worried, determined and unmotivated. There were benefits like getting to spend more quality time with their families and pets, and downsides like the uncertainty about school and exams, or a lack of access to regular support.
Overall, however, there has been a notable increase in anxiety, sleep dysfunction, stress, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and reduced self-esteem. The impact of this period will be felt for some time to come, as their responses reveal.
Below we explore in more detail some of the data we gathered from the surveys and insights.
Family and friends
Healthy family relationships during childhood and adolescence is important - even outside of a pandemic. During COVID-19, many children and young people found comfort at home, spending time with parents, siblings and pets. For some, the connection with their families strengthened and this helped reduce anxiety and improve their mental health and wellbeing.
However for others, having to spend more time at home has been difficult, and in some cases, dangerous. For children living in unsafe home environments, the trauma they may have already been dealing with may have escalated, or concentrated with no option of leaving the house. Without supportive, protective structures, children exposed to physical, emotional, sexual or domestic abuse may be less likely or able to make disclosures about that abuse.
A lot of children and young people were really worried about how their friends were coping, and felt frustrated that they could not be there for them.
With schools being shut, Bristol youth colleagues found that contact with their friends was a huge source of comfort and helped them cope with what was going on. 33% said that support from their friends was most important, and 15% said using technology to keep in contact was important.
Online platforms and social media were important in keeping that connection going, however others said that they were avoiding contacting their friends because there might be nothing to talk about, and were worried about meeting up with them again once the lockdown was over.
Routines and structure
The loss of routine and structure in their days has made lockdown difficult for children and young people. Motivation for things like getting out of bed, having a shower or brushing their teeth was hard to find given that there was nothing that they really had to do once they were up, with no end in sight. Energy levels and engagement with things they used to love were also hard to maintain.
Some of the children and young people who responded said that they’d had to get much stricter with their days, keeping planners for each day and week. In Bristol, 10% of those surveyed said that continuing work routines was the most important thing in helping them cope. They also spoke about the importance of continuing their education from home or doing other activities, like volunteering. These helped them ‘get up in the morning.’
They reported on the whole that there was more time spent on things like listening to music, playing games (including online games with friends), watching television, engaging in arts and crafts, and going for walks.
There was a wide variety of experiences when it came to school and education. Some were relieved at not having to go to school or college, with the pressure now off. Some reported that they felt ignored and forgotten by their schools, with very little contact. Others said that they were being given a lot of work and receiving a lot of emails from teachers but that it didn’t feel meaningful, and instead felt like they were ticking boxes.
The pressure felt to keep up academically with less support from school and at home helped to add to their levels of anxiety increasing, as well as uncertainty about when schools were closing and opening, and exams being cancelled or going ahead (and sometimes not knowing until the day). The long-term worries of how all of this is affecting their futures was also a big factor in their overall anxiety.
Sleep, Exercise and Diet
45% of children and young people surveyed in Bristol said that their exercise per day had increased, and that this gave them structure and something to do - either on their own, or exercising with families and exploring their neighbourhoods. For those that felt they were doing less exercise, this was often due to facilities being closed or team sports being cancelled. This tied in with the lack of safe, positive outside activities for those with challenging or unsafe homes.
The change in sleeping patterns has also impacted a lot of the respondents. Many of the children and young people said they felt it was because they were more anxious about the pandemic, school and other factors, as well as the changes to their routines and diets. In Bristol, 41% of young people reported an increase in the quality of their diets, as opposed to London young people who said they were eating more food, and of poorer quality.
Access to services
There was a drop in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) referrals by 30-40% during the pandemic. This is likely because they no longer had access to referrals from schools, youth groups, GPs and A&E. Children and young people reported that some local services were only accepting referrals for urgent and emergency cases, meaning that while they were still feeling like they needed help and support, they could not get it.
Many services, including Barnardo’s, made the move to shift support to online, digital and phone calls, which has allowed some children and young people to continue to get the help they need. Those formats, however, also made other respondents more anxious, or they felt they didn’t have the space in their homes to engage, or didn’t trust the emails or calls would be secure.
Community-based services and support
Many children and young people said that they continued to access support from groups or services in their communities. This was mostly either online or having deliveries made to their houses. Community-based support is particularly important for children and young people who might face barriers accessing mainstream health services, such as those from BAME backgrounds, LGBTQ+ children and young people or children living in or leaving care.