Edward Ng, PhD, and Nadine Badets

August 27, 2020

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Spring and summer 2020 have been a unique time for children and youth in Canada, as families across the country have been adapting their routines, plans and activities in light of physical distancing and other public health measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With schools closing their doors and moving online in the spring, nearly 5 million children and youth across the country were no longer spending their days near their friends and peers as they and their families adapted and reacted to the evolving situation.1

While surveys have shown that most youth are adhering to public health measures and have demonstrated resilience, this disruption had been difficult for many. In a poll conducted by UNICEF Canada, the toughest aspects cited by youth have been not being able to leave the house, go to school and spend time with friends.2 This matters for the well-being of children and youth, since research shows that social interaction is fundamental in youth development, as positive influences by and among peers are important for students’ academic achievement and success later in life.3

Youth more concerned about family contracting COVID-19 than themselves

While youth have mostly been homebound and self-isolating themselves, some of their immediate family members have continued commuting to work, and therefore risking infection and transmission.

In the COVID-19 Social Impacts Youth Survey conducted in mid-May jointly by the Association for Canadian Studies, Experiences Canada and the Vanier Institute of the Family, nearly 4 in 10 (39%) youth aged 12 to 17 surveyed expressed concerns of contracting COVID-19 themselves,4 compared with more than half (56%) of adults who were surveyed in early May.5 This may be in part due to the current understanding regarding the perceived lower likelihood of experiencing complications and risk with COVID-19 among younger age groups. As well, the same sets of polling data showed that the fear of someone in one’s immediate family catching the virus is higher for both youth and adults (71% and 67%, respectively).

Most youth bored, but also happy, under public health measures and physical distancing

In the same youth survey, more than 80% of youth reported being bored but, interestingly, a similar proportion also reported being happy (89% among youth aged 12 to 14 and 84% among those aged 15 to 17).6 This may be in part due to shifting time use patterns due to school closures. Nearly 7 in 10 of surveyed youth reported they were relaxing more than before the pandemic, with the common activities including watching videos/movies/television or listening to podcasts (78%), spending time on social media (63%), listening to music (59%) and playing electronic games (51%). Youth who reported feeling bored or happy during the pandemic were more likely to report that they spend more time watching videos/movies/television during the pandemic than before it (79% and 81%, respectively).

Technology may be playing a larger role in many people’s lives, but it is not the only way youth are keeping busy. Nearly half (45%) of youth reported helping with chores around the house more than before, while slightly more than one-third of youth were doing arts or crafts (36%) or puzzles (35%) more so than before the pandemic.7

Meanwhile, even before the pandemic, parents had already been expressing concerns about youths’ preoccupation with technology.8, 9 During the lockdown, approximately 64% of the parents who responded to a Statistics Canada crowdsourcing survey were worried about their children’s amount of screen time use.10 According to UNICEF, however, the most robust studies suggest that moderate use of digital technology tends to be positive for children and youths’ mental well-being, while no use or too much use can have a small negative impact.11 Internet and digital technology, while providing a positive source of help and a sense of inclusion, can also open up possibilities of cyber-bullying, impact mental health and exacerbate sleeping problems.12

More than one-third of surveyed youth experienced a negative impact on their mental health

Prior to COVID-19, youth were known to experience higher rates of mental illness and poor mental health than older age groups in Canada. For example, the rate of depression among youth aged 15 to 24 was higher than any other age group.13 A recent study of Canadian Community Health Survey data show that among youth aged 12 to 17, there was a decline of 6% in reporting excellent or very good mental health from 2015 to 2019 (78% and 73%, respectively).14 Further compounding the issue of youth mental health is that, in 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death among male youth aged 15 to 19 and was the second leading cause of death among female youth in Canada.15

In mid-May, more than one-third (37%) of respondents in the youth survey reported that they have experienced negative impacts to their mental health.16 When compared with adults aged 18 and older surveyed in early May,17 youth aged 12 to 17 were more likely to report feeling sad (57% versus 45%, respectively) and irritable (65% and 39%) than adults, and were more likely to report having trouble sleeping (50% versus 35%).

Another survey of youth and young adults aged 14 to 27, conducted April 10 to 14, 2020 for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), also found a decline in reported mental health early in the pandemic, both for those with pre-existing mental health issues and those without.18

One immediate effect of the mental health repercussions of the pandemic has been an increased demand for mental health and support services for youth. The Kids Help Phone, a 24/7 national support and crisis line for children and youth, saw a jump in the number of calls and texts for help in mid-March 2020, double that of the previous year, with close to 2,000 calls or texts per day.19 The number of crisis calls has also increased, resulting in more interventions by emergency services than usual, with the organization making 8 to 10 calls to emergency services per day since the pandemic started.

Youth spending more meaningful time with their family, but they miss their friends

The shift to working and schooling from home and the disruption of regular routines and schedules have provided families with more opportunities to connect. The youth survey data from mid-May showed that two-thirds (67%) of youth reported having more meaningful conversations with their families during the pandemic than before.20 By comparison, only 50% of surveyed adults in early May reported having meaningful conversations with their spouse or partner.

In terms of family relationships, close to one-quarter of parents reported spending more time with children under lockdown (24%).21 For both youth and adults, the vast majority reported that they are supporting each other well within the family during the lockdown (74% and 81%, respectively). However, around 43% of youth reported arguing more with their families, while only 19% of adults reported arguing with their spouse or partner.

On the other hand, youth are feeling a strong loss of connection to their friends. About 70% of youth reported that they have been homebound during the pandemic, with the exception of going out for necessities, with only 24% reporting that they visited friends and family during the week before the survey.22

According to Angus Reid, youth reported that missing their friends has been the worst part about being stuck at home (54%).23 More than half of youth indicated that the COVID-19 lockdown has had a negative impact on their relationships with friends (53%).24 Statistics Canada’s crowdsourcing survey also provided the parents’ perspective. Almost three-quarters of participating parents (71%) were concerned about their children’s lack of engagements to socialize with friends, and 54% of parents were concerned about their children’s social isolation.25

Distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic: A painful lesson?

The virtual home school arrangement has been challenging for many families and teachers across Canada. This pandemic-induced online learning has been described as the biggest distance learning experiment in history.26 Amid the abrupt shutdown of schools, teachers had to adjust their teaching styles with little training or resources.

More than half (51%) of youth indicated that the pandemic has had a very negative effect on their school year and/or their academic success.27 Only 27% reported that they “totally agree,” and another 43% partially agreed, that they are doing a good job at getting schoolwork done from home.

About 41% of youth aged 12 to 17 reported missing going to school “a lot,” and another 31% said they “somewhat” missed school. Lack of access to peer/school/academic resources, motivation, time management and online settings make up just some of the challenges of distance learning.28 Though 75% of youth claimed to be keeping up with school while in isolation, many were also unmotivated (60%) and disliked the arrangement (57%) (i.e. online learning and virtual classrooms).29

Distance learning requires Internet access, and while the 2018 Canadian Internet Use Survey found that 94% of Canadians had home Internet access, there nonetheless exist inequities in the ability of school children to actively participate in online education. The reasons among those who did not have Internet access included affordability of the Internet service (28%), equipment (19%) and unavailability of Internet service (8%).30

In addition, while around 8 in 10 youth said they always have enough money to meet their basic needs, such as for food, clothing, health care and housing,31 meeting basic needs and having access to a comfortable study environment at home during the pandemic may be even more difficult for youth and families living with low-income or newly experiencing job and income loss. In addition, closures of schools may impact food security, as some school meal programs were designed to alleviate family food insecurity for those students in low-income situations.32

Long-term monitoring of COVID-19 impacts important for youth well-being

Without school, extra-curricular activities and other opportunities to see peers, youth are missing out on important and valued time for socializing with friends, classmates, teachers, coaches and more – all of which could be fundamental in their scholastic and character development. Although alleviated somewhat through social media, texting, calling and other communication technologies, the mental health of youth in Canada has been greatly impacted during COVID-19.

Previous studies on the impact of school interruptions, such as teachers’ strikes and school closures during the 1916 polio pandemic, have shown short- and long-term negative effects on academic development and knowledge acquisition.33, 34, 35 A recent study on the potential impact of the pandemic on youth education in Canada highlighted that the adverse effect might increase the socioeconomic skills gap by as much as 30%.36 As provincial authorities and school boards consider how to proceed to re-open schools in a safe way to control COVID-19 spread,37 innovation and adaptation in our education system will be important in avoiding or mitigating gaps in academic achievement, now and in the years to come.

Edward Ng, PhD, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada

Nadine Badets, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada

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Notes

  1. Erin Duffin, “Enrollment in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools in Canada in 2017/18, by Province,” Statista (October 29, 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/311SjPn.
  2. UNICEF Canada, U-Report Canada: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Young People in Canada – Poll 2: Examining the Issues (May 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2FvZg41 (PDF).
  3. Shqiponja Telhaj, “Do Social Interactions in the Classroom Improve Academic Attainment?” IZA World of Labor (June 2018). Link: https://bit.ly/3hPqGzR.
  4. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth (May 21, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3jlmZn3 (PDF). The Association for Canadian Studies’ COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, in partnership with Experiences Canada and the Vanier Institute of the Family, conducted a nationwide COVID-19 web survey of the 12- to 17-year-old population in Canada April 29–May 5, 2020. A total of 1,191 responses were received, and the probabilistic margin of error was ±3%.
  5. A survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, conducted May 1–3, 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. Using data from the 2016 Census, results were weighted according to gender, age, mother tongue, region, education level and presence of children in the household in order to ensure a representative sample of the population. No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (web panel in this case). However, for comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,526 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.52%, 19 times out of 20.
  6. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” Pew Research Center (May 31, 2018). Link: https://pewrsr.ch/30aWglE (PDF).
  9. Wesley Sanders et al. “Parental Perceptions of Technology and Technology-Focused Parenting: Associations with Youth Screen Time,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (May–June 2016). Link: https://bit.ly/30gsCeV.
  10. Statistics Canada, “Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Families and Children,” The Daily (July 9, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3gIzM0U.
  11. Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, How Does the Time Children Spend Using Digital Technology Impact Their Mental Well-Being, Social Relationships and Physical Activity? An Evidence-Focused Literature Review, UNICEF (December 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/33b3TKQ (PDF).
  12. OECD, “Children & Young People’s Mental Health in the Digital Age” (2018). Link: https://bit.ly/3jXBFcg (PDF).
  13. Leanne Findley, “Depression and Suicidal Ideation among Canadians Aged 15 to 24,” Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 82-003-X, Health Reports, Vol. 28, no. 1, 3–11, (January 18, 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/3ffdt1A.
  14. Statistics Canada, “Understanding the Perceived Mental Health of Canadians Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Canadian Community Health Survey, 2019 (August 6, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/33VJPwj.
  15. Statistics Canada, “Table 13-10-0394-01 Leading causes of death, total population, by age group” (Accessed August 13, 2020). Link: https://doi.org/10.25318/1310039401-eng.
  16. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  17. Association for Canadian Studies. A survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, conducted May 1–3, 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. Using data from the 2016 Census, results were weighted according to gender, age, mother tongue, region, education level and presence of children in the household in order to ensure a representative sample of the population. No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (web panel in this case). However, for comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,526 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.52%, 19 times out of 20.
  18. Robert Cribb, “Youth Mental Health Deteriorating Under Pandemic Stresses, New CAMH Study Reveals,” The Star (May 28, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3ikLMaf.
  19. Jeff Semple, “Kids Help Phone Calls for Back Up Amid Record Demand – and Canadians Respond,” Global News (June 28, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3gbeDMr.
  20. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Angus Reid Institute, Kids & COVID-19: Canadian Children Are Done with School from Home, Fear Falling Behind, and Miss Their Friends (May 11, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3kVRReK.
  24. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  25. Statistics Canada, “Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Families and Children,” The Daily (July 9, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3gIzM0U.
  26. Paul W. Bennett, “This Grand Distance-Learning Experiment’s Lessons Go Well Beyond What the Students Are Learning,” CBC News (May 11, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/33bNEgo.
  27. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  28. UNICEF Canada, U-Report Canada: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Young People in Canada (May 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2CUd9Z9 (PDF).
  29. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  30. Statistics Canada, “Canadian Internet Use Survey,” The Daily (October 29, 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/3hWlwSN.
  31. Association for Canadian Studies, Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth.
  32. Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Indirect Adverse Effects of COVID-19 on Children and Youth’s Mental, Physical Health,” EurekAlert (June 25, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/2BWMvOr.
  33. Michael Baker, “Industrial Actions in Schools: Strikes and Student Achievement,” Canadian Journal of Economics (March 2011). Link: https://bit.ly/3gaona6.
  34. Michèle Belot and Dinand Webbink, “Do Teacher Strikes Harm Educational Attainment of Students?” (2010) Labour Economics 24(4): 391–406. Link: https://bit.ly/3aYuJI3.
  35. Keith Meyers and Melissa A. Thomasson, “Paralyzed by Panic: Measuring the Effect of School Closures During the 1916 Polio Pandemic on Educational Attainment,” NBER Working Paper Series 23890 (September 2017). Link: https://bit.ly/3hSzswU (PDF).
  36. Catherine Haeck and Pierre Lefebvre, “Pandemic School Closures May Increase Inequality in Test Scores,” Research Group on Human Capital Working Paper Series (June 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/30elgbN (PDF).
  37. Carly Weeks, “Rising Rates of COVID-19 in Children, Adolescents Spark Concerns About Back to School Plans,” The Globe and Mail (June 23, 2020). Link: https://tgam.ca/3hTmFuk.

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015, Canada and 192 other UN member states in the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a framework for action that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

This resource/blog post is associated with the following SDG (click on the icon to see other content from the Vanier Institute on each goal):