Lockdown is a slow-moving car crash for young people’s brains

August 17, 2023 in Columnists, News by RBN Staff


Source: Telegraph

Yes, children can recover from terrible experiences, but this is rarely achieved without dedicated resources



Why won’t the Covid inquiry take the damage done to children by lockdown seriously? No one can deny the negative impacts of interventions such as school closures on young people and adolescents: the global evidence is overwhelming. Experience on the ground in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities reveals that many are struggling, “hollowed out” by the experience.

But what is being done about it? Is there a plan to mitigate against the havoc and chaos wreaked on young lives? It may be possible to reverse some of the negative psychological effects on children if swift mitigatory action is taken.

Currently, in the UK, there is no plan. Sir Kevan Collins, who was appointed as the education catch-up chief, resigned over the dismally inadequate funding pot allocated to support educational recovery, which is just one aspect of the mitigation needed.

The longer we wait, the worse the outcomes will be. We should see the effects of lockdown not as a standstill historical event but as a moving car crash: the window to make a difference, bringing the car to a halt before it disintegrates, is closing.

There are periods of development that are especially sensitive throughout childhood and into our teens. Take brain development. Our brains are not fully grown until we are about 25 years old. During the teenage years the brain re-wires itself through a process called pruning.

This is influenced by what we are exposed to in the environment. Brain structures and pathways that are used are kept and those that are not used are “pruned” away. Thus, our development in this sensitive period is fundamentally shaped by our environment.

What was the environment like for millions of young people for the best part of two years? Pretty miserable for most. Harrowing and abusive for some. For all it was socially impoverished. We conducted a disastrous mass experiment with child and adolescent development. This is frankly immoral.

Even worse is the lack of effort to allow undeveloped children to catch up. For example, I have written extensively about the impact of lockdown on mental health in young people. In a study of students, we showed that the stricter the lockdown conditions, the greater the impact on mental health and well-being. Yet we struggle to meet the demand on services for mental health problems in young people.

But children and adolescents are resilient, aren’t they? This was certainly the dominant narrative at the time of the lockdowns, though some academics and clinicians (including myself) tried to sound the alarm.

Yes, young people can recover from terrible experiences, but this is rarely achieved without dedicated resources. Today, where is the support in our society that can help children and adolescents recover from the disaster of lockdown, and reach their potential?

If action is taken now to provide engagement with, for example, the arts, sports, speech therapy, the natural world, mental health/play therapies and having fun, we could alter the course of life for thousands of children.

The Covid inquiry has a unique platform to shine a light on the neglect of young people in the pandemic and make sensible, timely recommendations for a recovery plan – but will it? I throw down the gauntlet to Baroness Hallett. I hope she accepts the challenge.

Ellen Townsend is a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham