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Beware of the influence of the pandemic on children’s cognitive development

An opinion from Sanae Akodad, neuroscience researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

The impact and ravages of Covid-19 on our society and its most fragile members are of concern to all. While some studies suggest that children are simply less likely to be infected with the virus (Patel et al., 2020; Viner et al., 2020) and that most show only mild symptoms of the disease ( Liguoro et al., 2020), what about the impact of preventive health measures (confinement, distancing, masks, etc.) on the youngest who are in the most essential stages of their brain development?

When the brain is in pain

The Hechinger Report, an American journal specializing in investigating inequalities and innovation in education, addresses this question in an article written by Goldie Hawn and Bruce Wexler. This article discusses the issue of the stress our children have experienced during this pandemic and some of the effects on their brain development, especially in their executive function. Professor Wexler of the Yale School of Medicine states that “the greatest danger to our children is not the possibility of contracting the virus on a playground. By protecting our children from infection, and by avoiding infecting vulnerable family members, we are neglecting a danger much more important for the children themselves: stress. “ He adds that “Coronavirus-related stress in public and private spaces – as well as the disruption of the home and school environment – compromises the development of brain systems and cognitive skills necessary for academic and life success. We know this from decades of neuroscience research into the effects of poverty, trauma and violence on brain development. “

The harmful effects of stress

Indeed, stress begins to show its harmful effects on a child even before its birth. The well-being of the fetus is biologically linked to that of its mother, and during times of stress pregnant women are psychologically vulnerable to anxiety and depression (Biaggi et al., 2016; Kinsella and Monk., 2009). In young children and adolescents, the pandemic and the health measures taken to slow it down have a greater impact on emotional and social development than in adults. In one of the preliminary studies carried out on this subject during the ongoing pandemic, it was found that younger children (3-6 years old) were more likely to show symptoms of resistance to separation, attachment to a parent and the fear of their family members being infected with the virus. On the other hand, older children (6-18 years old) would be more likely to be inattentive and would have this constant need to learn about Covid-19.

However, severe psychological conditions of increased irritability, inattention and hooking behavior have been revealed by all children, regardless of their age group (Viner et al., 2020). Based on questionnaires completed by parents, the results reveal that children feel uncertain, fearful and isolated in the current period. Children have also been shown to suffer from disturbed sleep, nightmares, lack of appetite, restlessness, inattention, and separation anxiety (Jiao et al., 2020). Containment measures, such as closing schools, recreation centers and play areas for long periods of time, expose children to debilitating effects on their education and development. They are indeed faced with loneliness, anxiety and uncertainty. Compulsive use of online gaming and social media catalyzes these harmful effects.

Among the challenges of tomorrow, we will need to help our children recover and cope with the impact of Covid-19. There is a need to improve the access of children and adolescents to mental health services using both digital platforms and face-to-face meetings. For this, we must think of structures made up of parents, pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists and even volunteers who would all work together to prevent and promote these new structures. We cannot ignore this reality, our children must not be forgotten by this global crisis.

Title and titles of the editorial staff. Original title : Covid-19: impact on children’s cognitive development

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