It’s Time to Put Young People First

Professor Ellen Townsend discusses the impact of loneliness and social isolation on young people's health and well-being

Published  10 May 2021

My daughter is nine and has started wetting the bed and is too anxious to go to sleep on her own now.”

My teenage daughter and her friends think lockdowns will never end and is starting to wonder what the point of anything is. We have been talking about her thoughts of suicide. I’m terrified.”

My four-year-old son is hysterical. He’s in tears for the third time today trying to engage with online teaching.”

These are some of the real and heart-breaking issues that parents shared with me during the most recent round of restrictions enacted by the UK government in January.

Young people are not okay. We need to listen to them.

Urgently.

* * *

It’s a common belief that social connection is ‘nice to have’ – not necessarily essential – for human beings. That perception could not be more wrong, especially for young people.

We are social creatures by nature and social interaction is a biological imperative.

From tots to young adults in their mid-twenties, social interaction supports health and development. Very young children learn about the world and how to interact with others through play. In the teen years, our brains literally rewire themselves according to our social environment, activities and interactions.

Over the past 14 months, young have been denied access to the face-to-face social world they desperately need. They have been lonely in this crisis – far lonelier than their parents. And that loneliness has consequences.

Loneliness is associated with depression and anxiety and can impact mental health up to nine years later.

Loneliness is as bad for health as obesity.

Loneliness is also associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

High quality, long term data on children’s mental health tells us that, following school closures and restrictions in 2020, the number of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health problems increased from 1 in 9 in 2017 to 1 in 6 in 2020.  This means a growing group of vulnerable young people now need clinical support (around five children in a class of 30).

Missing out on school and education is life-limiting and, along with poverty and mental health problems, is associated with reduced life chances and shorter life expectancy. Education is vital for developing cognitive skills including self-control and flexible thinking, which impact choices and behaviour further down the line.  It also influences risky behaviour including criminality and substance abuse.

Family relationships have been strained by living in relentlessly close quarters during restrictions, and, sadly, calls to domestic violence and child abuse helplines have soared during this crisis. Reports of physical abuse to the NSPCC rose by 43% during the first English lockdown.

* * *

There is no doubt now about the damage being inflicted on our young people’s development, social-emotional learning, well-being, mental health, and education. This impact will shape their futures and how long they might live.

We have demanded that young people make tremendous social, educational, and economic sacrifices during this crisis, despite the infinitesimally small chance of their health being adversely affected by COVID-19. And while some children will sadly get ill – as they do with flu and other respiratory diseases – their risk from COVID-19 is extremely low.

Open schools are not a danger to the community, either. Several countries and regions around the world have prioritized children and kept schools open during the pandemic with no adverse impact on transmission, cases or deaths. Indeed, within schools transmission and infections are rare. We also know that the risk posed by COVID-19 to teachers is no greater than in other professions.

The rights and needs of young people have been ignored in this crisis, resulting in a pending global disaster. Young people’s futures have been sacrificed in service of the mere possibility that doing so could protect adults. This runs contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 3), which clearly states:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

* * *

During the second world war, we protected children by sending them away from bombing hot spots to safer places in the countryside. There is a reason we have always put women and children in lifeboats first, but we have forgotten this in our panic.

We protect children because they are our future.

Let us now compose ourselves and put children first. We must protect their right to education, to see friends and family, to an environment promoting their development, and to secure their health, well-being and futures.

Children have no vote and no voice. We must be their voice and come together with compassion to do what is right – acknowledge the distress we’ve imposed, and correct it.

We must put the children first – or hang our heads in shame.

Ellen Townsend is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham. She specialises in self-harm, suicide prevention, and mental health and is the featured editor for this week’s issue of ‘CG Editions’.

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