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The negative impact of lockdowns on health, especially that of children and young people, has been and continues to be, immense.

This week marks Children’s Mental Health Week in the UK. As its theme is ‘Express Yourself’ we’ve decided to give young people a voice so their voices can be heard over and above the external pandemonium. Not only do our young today, who are at significantly reduced risk from COVID-19, face the burden of shouldering the pandemic costs incurred by governments across the globe, but children are substantially more likely to suffer long-term physical, mental and emotional effects too.

School closures resulting from the response to the pandemic could cost an individual child £40,000 in lost future earnings, based on the likely average earnings of £1 million over their working life. This equates to an astronomical £350 billion in lost lifetime earnings across the 8.7 million children in the UK alone according to figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

However, the more devastating impact of such losses is far more likely to be felt by children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This also doesn’t take into account the knock-on effects to people of a severely depressed economy due to the reduction in earnings.

Let’s also not forget all those newly graduated young adults who’ve had the rug pulled out from under their feet in 2020. Their hopes and dreams brutally ripped away by the response to the virus known as SARS-CoV-2.

Children and young people have been affected in a multitude of ways. We take a look at five areas where their health, happiness and futures are being impacted by current events — many might say unnecessarily impacted.

Mental health

Media reports and social media posts reflect the impact of lockdowns on young people. Many are on the verge of giving up as they see their futures destroyed before their eyes. Over 1.5 billion children globally have been impacted by school closures since April 2020. It may have been less than a year, but for children and young people it feels like a lifetime already.

Not only have school closures and lockdowns separated young people from their friends, they’ve also been parted from their grandparents, wider family and communities. The very support networks on which they rely. The comfort of hugs and squeezes are a distant memory for too many. Video calls a poor substitute.

One of the biggest impacts for many children and adolescents has been the loss of face-to-face schooling. This is the first generation of young kids who’ve been forced to adopt online learning. Something many children are struggling to cope with. Lack of suitable tech, space in which to study at home, support from parents, reduced access to support services for those with special educational needs and school lunches for others. Being at home can mean many distractions that are far more attractive than schoolwork, making it that bit harder to knuckle down.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. For some, lockdown has been a positive experience that has resulted in a reduction in stress levels as pressure to achieve at school is lifted, less bullying and negative peer pressure. Yet for others it has increased levels of anxiety, depression, irritability, boredom, inattention, fostered a fear of illness and worsened existing mental health issues.

Increased screen-time due to online learning is impacting young children’s health in multiple ways while lockdowns and lack of schooling have led to a substantial rise in anti-social behaviors as young people find other outlets to vent their frustrations.

Sadly, for many young people the loss of their support networks has left them believing suicide is their only way of dealing with their distress. In Las Vegas, the rapid increase in the number of young people committing suicide has pushed authorities to reopen schools.

For others, being at home can be a terrifying ordeal due to the abuse they suffer at the hands of the very adults who should be protecting them as they no longer have the safety of school. Many adults may also be suffering from the effects of the pandemic restrictions.

Social interactions

Children and young people’s immune systems rely on their mixing and mingling to learn, mature and develop cross-reactivity to different bugs. The true health cost of enforced isolation and draconian lockdowns won’t be felt for some time yet, but unless specific action is taken to restore immune resilience, we could be facing a health crisis of unforeseen proportions in a few years time.

How will young people’s socialization skills and related neuronal development be affected? How will it affect their ability to find partners or jobs in the future? On the plus side, we’re likely to see a reduction in teenage pregnancies, but we don’t know how fertility in general might be impacted in the ‘pandemic generation’ as fertility is very closely associated with immune health.

Nutrition and diet

Many families have used lockdown as an opportunity to start cooking at home together, teaching children how to cook from scratch and improving the quality of their diet.

On the flip side lockdowns have also seen increased consumption of junk foods as family budgets are hard hit and fast food outlets go mobile. Food has always been an age-old method of reward and comfort.

For UK footballer Marcus Rashford, the exponential rise in poverty and child hunger due to lack of access to free school meals has led him to campaigning to ensure kids from disadvantaged homes in the UK don’t go hungry. Children in the U.S. and beyond are similarly going hungry too often due to a combination of family poverty induced by restrictions and loss of earnings, as well as reduced access to food.

Poor food choices combined with a lack of exercise is leading to children gaining weight and exacerbating additional weight gain in the already overweight group. The stark reality of the association between lockdowns and rapid weight gain has resulted in a yet another new term — ‘covibesity’.

Physical activity

Is it any surprise kids have been less active during lockdowns? For many going to school provides their main opportunity to take part in a variety of sporting activities. For those who take part in extracurricular sporting activities, those too have been closed down. This has led to far too many hours sitting in front of screens and TVs as the motivation to move rapidly dwindles.

Sedentary behaviors are self-fulfilling as the less you move, the less you want to move as the body conserves energy by making less energy. Add that to an increased consumption of junk food and you have a ticking time bomb for future health prospects.

Team sports and sports in general are integral to the development of children’s gross motor skills, like catching, kicking and overarm throws, but they’ve been suspended for nearly a year. Often forgotten is how much these activities contribute to tactical and problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to work effectively in teams.

And what about sleep? Good sleep is vital for developing healthy bodies and minds. Lack of exercise, along with anxiety about the pandemic, contributes to disrupted sleep for many children. Chronic sleep debt acts like a silent assassin to health and wellbeing for adults as well as children.

Environment

Most kids love a good muddy puddle to jump into or to dig in the dirt to find worms. So does their immune system. It’s what helps to prime it to protect them against infectious diseases. For kids with reduced access to outside space or those in city apartments less exposure to soil and other outdoor microbes may slow the development of the immune system.

Conversely, kids who live in urban areas may be exposed to fewer outdoor airborne pollutants due to there being fewer vehicles on the road and because they spend less time outside. However, exposure to more indoor pollutants such as second-hand tobacco smoke, household chemicals and fire retardant fabrics can be increased.

The lockdown legacy for children who’ve become used to spending less time outdoors is a likelihood of less connection to — or love for — nature. In turn, this is likely to manifest as having less interest in protecting the natural environment, which presents a critical challenge for the future of nature conservation and sustainability.

The increase in online learning and reliance on digital tech means children are being exposed to greater radio-frequency radiation sources, yet another factor in long-term health outcomes. Young kids are more sensitive to radiation sources so are particularly at heightened risk from the rise in use of electronic devices for learning.

Multiple studies have shown the low risk of the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The idea that kids might be driving the pandemic has also been proven unlikely. How much longer can we justify the damage pandemic restrictions are wreaking on our children and their futures?

Re-framing a generation

Whilst we are aware that too many children are feeling they’re in a never-ending nightmare, we wanted to finish on a positive note. Here are testimonials from three young people who are working hard to keep focused on the silver lining in their clouds:

I’m a cup half empty lad, seeing the last 12 months of our lives as a negative is so easy, but where does that get us? Over this time I tried saying get lost to my negative mindset and flip it on it’s head, instead choosing to see the positive in my life.  I love being outdoors but as winter set in and we hit a second and third lockdown it was no longer something I could do and so I started writing!

I’ve always struggled with it and couldn’t spell for my life. And to my surprise I found out that I wasn’t that bad at it either, althought i still can’t speel!!!!!

I’m now in the process of starting a blog and thinking about publishing a book to inspire other young lads to overcome their struggles and remind them that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.

– Evan, 15

I am so fortunate not to have been as directly affected by the pandemic as some, but the isolation has definitely been hard. I am very much a people person and so I miss getting out and connecting with other human beings, but lockdown has given me the opportunity to find other ways of connecting. Through social media I have met young people from all around the globe who have given me different perspectives on life, opened my eyes to the world around me and inspired me to share what I’ve learnt.

The deep divisions in our society and all the issues that are only made worse by lockdown have definitely been overwhelming and frustrating to see, but lockdown and the whole Covid situation has also given me hope that people will realise what’s valuable and see that the only way we can overcome this pandemic — and any other problem we face — is by coming together, supporting each other and acting as one.

– Gracie, 17

This year like so many other people I have had to stay at home, I have taken this opportunity to get to know all my neighbours young and old. I think that for many people they have only managed to cope with the pandemic because of the kindness and generosity of the people around them and that is why I did something kind and positive for someone else every day over lockdown two and continue to do whatever I can now.

Having more time on my hands has meant that I can now have a dog and some chickens, I have always wanted lots of animals and my wish has finally come true.  Having pets has taught me how to take responsibility for something and how important it really is in all aspects of life from looking after pets to people’s safety during the pandemic.

– Irys, 13

Originally published by Alliance for Natural Health International.