Evidence Paper: The Impact of Covid-19 Restrictions on Children and Young People


Youth Sport Trust is a children’s charity that works to ensure that every child enjoys the life-changing benefits that come from play and sport. We do this by harnessing the power of sport, physical activity and PE to increase young people’s life chances through improved wellbeing, healthier lifestyles and greater attainment.  Our work reaches as many as 20,000 schools across the UK and we operate on a local, national and global level to build a brighter future for young people.

This paper summarises key evidence relating to the impact of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions on children and young people. With an ever-changing landscape, and a narrow window for data capture, this document is a rapid review of information, condensing the latest quantitative evidence from a range of external sources. Additionally, it references qualitative and low-sample research, aiming to build a rounded picture. This paper covers information published up to 6th July 2020 and is an update to an earlier paper with the same title (amended as new evidence is published).

The paper covers the following themes:

  1. Young people’s mental health & concerns
  2. Physical activity during lockdown
  3. What’s helped during lockdown
  4. The challenges of home learning
  5. Returning to school
  6. Positives from the COVID experience
  7. What next?

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1. Young people's mental health and concerns 

Restrictions imposed as a result of COVID have had substantial and wide-ranging implications for young people’s mental health and wellbeing. For some, these impacts may be deep and long-lasting. Many organisations are not set up to respond to the increased demand.

At least one-third of children have experienced an increase in mental health issues including stress, loneliness and worry. More than two-fifths (41%) of children and young people aged 8-24 say that they are lonelier now than before restrictions were put in place. More than one-third say they are more worried (38%), sadder (37%) or more stressed (34%), and a third report that they have had more trouble sleeping. Boredom (51%), worry (28%) and feeling trapped (26%) are the top three emotions experienced by children and young people.

Two thirds of primary school children report feeling lonely (May 2020). This is up 50% on normal levels. A recent rapid evidence review indicates that loneliness as a result of COVID could precipitate long term mental health problems in young people and that strategies to prevent these should be an international priority. Children and young people aged between 4 and 21 years old have been found to be up to three times more likely to develop depression in the future as a result of loneliness during lockdown, and that the duration of loneliness may be more important than its intensity in increasing this risk.

Children have missed many things during lockdown: 74% of children and young people (age 8-24) report missing going to school or college, with the same number saying that they had found it hard to maintain friendships during lockdown. They are also missing their friends, family and their “milestones” e.g. leaving school, outings, trips, celebrations, and sports and activities. Many young people will have experienced “unplanned endings” to their school life. Research has shown these abrupt endings can lead to consequent feelings of disappointment, loss, abandonment, confusion and sadness.

Amongst girls, 24% of those aged 11-14 and 50% of those aged 15-18 reported that COVID-19 and lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health. 33% of girls aged 4-10 say that they feel sad most of the time and 42% of girls aged 15-18 feel stressed or worried. Their key concerns are uncertainty about school and education (76%), loneliness and isolation (51%) and a lack of freedom and independence (44%). Younger girls (aged 4-10) report that they miss their friends (95%), their teachers (79%) and playtime (59%). Older girls (11-18) miss school trips, events and celebrations (70%), learning (50%) and school sports (29%).

Older children (16-19) are also worrying about life after lockdown, with 73% worried about the future and 59% saying that their well-being is being affecte.  Key concerns for those aged 14-25 are about those close to them being at risk (61%), the strain on the NHS (42%) and about a future economic crisis (34%).

COVID is leading to uncertainty about future employment: More than a quarter (29%) of 16-25 year olds feel that their future career prospects may have been damaged, 46% believe that finding a new job now feels “impossible”, with one-third feeling that “everything they have worked for is now going to waste”. 69% feel that their life is “on hold” and almost half (47%) don’t feel in control of their lives (rising to 65% for those Not in Education, Employment, or Training).

There is concern that physical distancing and consequent social deprivation (albeit slightly abated by the use of social media), may have a long-term and disproportionate impact on people’s mental health and on adolescents in particular (aged 10-24) where the need for peer interaction and sensitivity to social stimuli are heightened. Young people have been shown to feel stress more acutely than adults as the parts of the brain that regulate emotion are still developing. This means that they are more susceptible to life disruptions such as COVID than adults. These disruptions could have a longer-lasting impact on teenagers as a result. Some children report having “vivid nightmares” about COVID -19 and death, indicating that children are internalising concerns and for some, they may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There has been a significant deterioration in mental health in recent months for all young people but particularly for those of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) origin who appear to be suffering disproportionately worse damage to their mental health than their white peers. Kooth, who provide online mental health support for Children and Young people, report that of 51,321 requests for help, 7,482 were from a BAME background. The number of BAME children contacting them with suicidal thoughts went up by 26.6% (vs. 18.1% for White children) and rose also for self-harm incidents with an increase of 29.5% for BAME vs. 24.9%. Similarly, depression amongst BAME young people went up by 9.2% (vs. falling by 16.2% for their White peers). It is thought that the higher risk of dying from COVID -19 is behind the large rises in anxiety and self-harm amongst the BAME community.

Calls to Childline have increased: The NSPCC conducted over 2,200 counselling sessions to children and young people between 21 Jan and 8 April 2020, of which 1,600 were delivered in March when government restrictions were introduced. Children have reported issues with increased feelings of depression and anxiety, more frequent panic attacks, having difficulty sleeping and in feeling lonely or isolated.

Pre-existing mental health problems are worsening: There is growing concern that the mental health and wellbeing of young people has declined during the pandemic. 83% of children and young people with pre-existing mental health problems believe that their problems have worsened. They have particular concerns about their family’s health, school and university closures, a loss of routine and a loss of social connection (to family, friends and trusted adults).

Restrictions could exacerbate existing issues:

Government restrictions have placed families under increasing pressure and have the potential to turn relatively stable but difficult pre-existing living situations into higher-risk ones with consequent impacts on children:

1.5mil children in England live with a parent who has a severe mental health problem and there are an estimated 102,000 young carers in England, many of which will have shouldered significant additional responsibilities without the previous respite that school gave them. Young carers are an already at-risk group for mental health with an estimated two in five young carers currently experiencing a mental health problem. There are 270,000 children with an education, health and care plan, many of whom have staying at home and whose education will have been particularly challenging for parents.

Many children already live in dangerous circumstances and have been forced to stay at home in places where they are likely to be scared or in danger: 50,000 children are on child protection plans and 830,000 children live in homes where domestic abuse had taken place in the last year. Issues will be amplified by the removal of many of the support networks and places of safety which are usually available to them.

Parent carers of children with disabilities are struggling, with many feeling ‘exhausted, stressed and abandoned by society’. Around three-quarters of carers report worsening emotional and mental health for them and their children, with just under half saying that their child’s physical health has deteriorated. Concerns about health or provision mean that many eligible parents have not taken up the offer of a school place but 64% are worried about how much home schooling they can do at home with 32% receiving no support specific to their child’s needs from school.

There are challenges for mental health services:

Fewer referrals are being made to CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) in some areas of the country. Whilst in some areas they have been able to continue to offer support by phone or digitally, for other areas referrals are down which means that children in need may not be getting the support they need e.g. referrals to CAMHS in Birmingham have seen a 50% reduction since COVID-19 measures were first introduced in March 2020.

Current restrictions mean that school mental health services are no longer available for most children and community structures aren’t in place to reach the children they need to. Additionally, only 15% of the emergency school places available for vulnerable children have been taken up, which means that children are missing the vital interventions to support mental health provided in a school setting.

There are practical issues around the provision of digital mental health services. For practitioners, these include having physical infrastructure (hardware, platforms, internet access), addressing GDPR/safeguarding (including accessing school records), lack of specific staff training/upskilling and difficulties in being able to do as effective a job when delivering remotely i.e. when you can’t see body language. For young people, they are experiencing issues relating to digital access, have reduced ability to find out about alternative support arrangements and they appear less inclined to want to access digital support. They may also struggle for the necessary privacy required to access support in their home environment.

2. Physical activity during lockdown

With widespread closure of schools, leisure centres, gyms, pitches and courts, lockdown has been massively disruptive to the amount and type of activity undertaken by young people and has highlighted differences by demographic characteristics.

Sport England’s recent report on ‘Children’s experience of physical activity in lockdown’ has shown how restrictions are impacting children:

  • The majority of children under 16 (93%) have continued to do something to stay active during lockdown but the amount of activity they are doing has fallen; The number of children meeting the Chief Medical Officer's guidelines (of taking part in sport or physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more every day) has dropped from 47% to 19%. 43% are doing less than half an hour of activity and a worrying 7% are doing nothing.
  • The usual, pre-lockdown inequalities have continued: 13% of children from less affluent backgrounds have done no exercise (vs. 6% from more affluent) and 9% of secondary school pupils are also doing nothing (vs. 5% primary). However, lockdown appears to have brought about some behavioural changes: Whilst 12% of BAME children are inactive (vs. 6% white), they are more likely to say that they have increased activity during lockdown. Similarly, girls are more likely to say that are being more active during lockdown.
  • Children say that they are exercising for the benefits that activity brings (69%), including keeping fit and healthy, because they enjoy it or because it helps them relax or worry less. This said, 52% of children are exercising because they are made to do it or there is nothing else to do. Before lockdown, boys and those from affluent backgrounds were more likely to say that they enjoyed sport and activity, however these differences do not exist at the moment. Similarly, those from a BAME background say that are enjoying being active more than usual, which, coupled with an increase in girl’s activity levels, suggests that a shift away from organised, competitive activity appears to be proving beneficial for traditionally less engaged groups of children.
  • Barriers to being active include lack of access to usual clubs and facilities (36%), local spaces/pitches (24%) and concerns about the virus (14%). Those with access to outdoor space are more likely to have done an hour or more of activity a day than those that do not (20% vs. 13%) and there has been an increase in walking and cycling during lockdown, probably due to the accessibility of these during restrictions. 

Significantly, over one-third of children (36%) say they've had less chance to be active as they are not at school. This is not only reflective of the lack of formal provision at school but also that school affords additional opportunities for activity. Professor Viner, who leads the Royal School of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said that a return to school was needed for children’s physical health as the closures have led to less exercise : children are no longer walking to school, moving between classrooms or playing sport with friends.

Despite lower levels of inactivity, lockdown has made many children appreciate the importance of sport in their lives and the benefits that it can bring. In research from Youth Sport Trust, over a quarter (27%) of children and young people said that doing PE, sport and exercise had made them feel better during restrictions. This was particularly true for junior-school-age pupils (8-11). Half of all children and young people said that they planned to do more sport and exercise in the future and over a third (37%) said that they now see sport and Physical Education as more important to their lives than they did before lockdown.

Exercise is seen as one of the best parts of an adult’s day, alleviating some of the more challenging elements of lockdown. They have seen the benefit of digital wellbeing services and content such as meditation audio, yoga videos and home workouts have become staples. Large scale “event” workouts have helped promote a sense of community. People intend to stick at this new focus on exercise when lockdown ends.

Parents are valuing the time they are spending on activity with their children, believing that sports and fitness are bringing families together: 53% of parents were doing more physical activity with their children than they did prior to lockdown and 61% felt that playing sport and keeping fit was helping maintain their family’s physical and mental well-being. Hopefully this enthusiasm may convert into increasing importance being placed on exercise within the family as restrictions ease.

Parent/Carer activity feelings towards sport and their own activity levels significantly influence their children. 71% of children have been active with their parents during lockdown and data shows that the more active a parent is, the more likely the child is to be active. Similarly, where a parent has increased their activity during lockdown, the child is also likely to be doing more and vice versa. Parent/carer attitudes also influence their children’s behaviour: Sport England research showed that ‘If the parent/carer enjoys sport and physical activity, feels they have the ability to be physically active and/or feels they have the opportunity to be active, the child is more likely to be active and more likely to be doing more compared to pre-lockdown’.

3. What's helped during lockdown

Qualitatively, we’ve seen that during lockdown, young people have valued interacting via social media, volunteering, walking/activity, doing schoolwork, playing, gaming, watching TV, enjoying more free time and spending time with family and pets. They are looking forward to being able to do “normal” things again: socialising, seeing friends/family and watching and participating in sport. For young sports leaders, there are still many concerns and logistical questions about they will be able to get back to everyday life and sport safely. 

For young people with existing mental health issues, they found some things to be beneficial to their mental health including face-to-face calls with friends (72%), watching TV (72%), exercise (60%), learning new skills (59%) and reading books (55%), whereas other activity was felt to be unhelpful for some such as watching/reading the news (66%) and using social media (36%).

For 16-19-year olds, it was a similar picture: Things which helped them cope with staying at home included watching TV (79%), staying in touch with friends and family remotely (75%), and exercise (68%).

4. The challenges of home learning

For the last three months, home learning has become the new “normal” for most UK school children. It has not been without its challenges for parents, children and teachers alike and prolonged home learning without tailored support has the potential to deepen educational inequalities.

In the first week of June, 65% of parents reported that their children had been learning from home. They were using laptops and tablets (73%) and accessing digital resources provided by school e.g. lessons, assignments etc (61%) and digital on-line resources found by parents e.g. BBC Bitesize (49%). However, this might not be amounting to a lot of learning time: A UCL study estimates that pupils are spending an average of 2.5 hours a day doing schoolwork during lockdown and around 20% of UK pupils (2mil children) have done no school work or managed less than one hour a day.

Home learning is presenting particular problems to some groups of children and highlighting inequalities. Whilst there have been a host of approaches developed to help provide on-line learning, these require access to a computer. Overall, around 7% of children do not have access to a computer but there are variations across socio-economic groups: One in five of those on free school meals (FSM) had no access to a home computer whilst nearly all attending private schools had access. Alongside this, children also need a good internet connection, something unavailable to 8% of British households. Others live in over-crowded conditions where finding space to learn and play is harder: 4.6% of children live in crowded homes but in some parts of London, this rises to 26% (e.g. Newham). Around 60% of primary school children from the least affluent families do not have access to a dedicated learning space vs. 35% for the most affluent.

Many parents are struggling to support their child’s home learning. Around 4 in 10 parents said that their children were struggling to continue their education and a report by the Institute for Fiscal studies found that almost 60% of primary school parents and around half of secondary parents say that they are finding it ‘quite’ or ‘very hard’ to support learning. Parents often don’t have other resources they need for learning at home such as printers, stationery and craft materials, which limits their children’s ability to engage with learning. To support home learning, parents value good, regular communication from school, visual and verbal contact with teachers and friends, and more pastoral support to help with wellbeing and isolation.

School closures have the potential to further increase educational inequality:

  • 20% of girls were spending four or more hours on schoolwork compared to only 14% of boys.
  • The proportion of children in receipt of free school meals who spent more than four hours on schoolwork was 11 percent, as compared with 19 percent among those not eligible.
  • The type of lesson provided varies by school: 31% of private schools have had four or more online lessons every day vs. 6% in state schools.
  • 64% of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest households are being given active help from their schools, such as online teaching, vs. only 47% from the poorest fifth of families, leaving children more reliant on their parents for help.
  • Children from wealthier families are spending 30% more time each day on home learning compared to those from poorer families. 

By September, inequalities will have created a 15-day gap in learning between rich and poor. It’s estimated that school closures are likely to reverse the many of the hard-won reductions in attainment gaps made since 2011 between disadvantaged children and their peers, with some believing that the gaps could widen by 36% (median estimate). Even with mitigatory steps in place, catch-up provision will be essential.

Schools are looking to lessen the impact of closures on inequality: 34% of teachers have contacted specific parents to offer advice and 21% say that their school is offering laptops to those in need although this still differs between advantaged state schools (28%) and the most deprived schools (15%). To reduce the inequality gaps, teachers cite the need for providing food boxes for vulnerable families, government funding for the provision of tech devices and the sending out stationery and resource packs.

The Education Endowment Foundation have identified five competencies necessary for Social and Emotional Learning which are predictive of improved child outcomes; self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. In the absence of a physical school setting, they have suggested ways to achieve these remotely including:

  • Building belonging and connectiveness by having photographs of the school or classroom on their online learning area and regular calls or cards from the teachers.
  • Helping self-awareness with teachers running daily emotional check-ins and related writing exercises.
  • Addressing self-management by helping pupils construct self-care plans to regulate feelings and using a “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan (WOOP) model.
  • Encouraging and supporting parental engagement.
  • Enable collaborative learning e.g. on-line breakouts, phone-pals.
  • Continuing to deliver PSHE lessons.

When children return to school, a ‘National Tutoring Programme’, announced for the 20/21 school year, will make tuition available to state primary and secondary schools to provide additional support to help those whose education has been affected by school closure. Currently around 80% of disadvantaged pupils do not have access to quality tuition.

5. Returning to school

Schools have a vital role in society and without it, young people have been missing out, not just on their learning but on its many other benefits too. It is vital that children can return to school as soon as it is safe to do so but as lockdown eases, school leaders, parents and children are aware of the issues that lay ahead.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by over 1500 paediatricians, schools were cited as “a vital point of contact for public health services, safeguarding and other initiatives [including] mental health support, vaccinations, special therapies, free school meals, physical activity and early years services”.

However, as lockdown eases, parents are reluctant to send their children back to school and inequalities may result. Surveyed on 15th May 2020, only 39% of primary parents and 45% of secondary said that they would send their children to school , but there were discrepancies by income: less than one-third of parents in the poorest fifth of families said that would send their child back to school if given the choice vs. over half from more affluent backgrounds, which could further exacerbate educational inequality.

New data from 1st June showed that 46% would keep children at home (50% of parents in disadvantaged areas) and 25% of teachers were likely to be absent because of health issues for themselves or their families. On 1st June, as some primary schools were allowed to re-open to a wider cohort, Headteachers reported “highly variable levels of attendance ranging from 40-70% of reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils.

Parents are looking for reassurances that the schools will be safe and also that there is provision of emotional and mental health support, an emphasis on playtime, phased returns and extra help with learning, with no pressure to “catch up” straight away. Of those reluctant to send their children to school, 70% said that a vaccine would ease their concerns and 67% said that reassurance that their school was fully prepared would also help their confidence.

Research from Youth Sport Trust shows that children have concerns as they come out of lockdown with 4 in 5 expressing some level of worry. Girls in particular are likely to have concerns (84%) compared to boys (77%).

  • Worries include their ability to spend time with friends (52%), that they or someone they know will catch the virus (50%), that they will miss their family (28%) and how they will be able to do PE, sport and exercise safely (22%). Girls are more likely than boys to worry about someone they know catching COVID (54% vs. 46%) and whether they can spend time with friends (56% vs. 47%).
  • Those in lower socio-economic groups are more likely that their counterparts to worry about personally catching the virus, perhaps reflecting the reality that people living in lower SEG areas have continued to experience COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas.
  • Under 10s are particularly worried about missing their family (40% vs. 20% for over 10s) and whether they can spend time with their friends at school (55% vs. 21%), perhaps as they are less likely to be able to freely access social media to help keep in touch.

Children have school-specific concerns too, including pressures around getting back into a school routine (40%) and catching up on lessons (40%), the latter of which is particularly prevalent for 13-14-year olds. This may reflect the reduced focus from schools who have been giving more active support to 15-year olds who are closer to taking their GCSEs next year. Other studies point to pressures around transitioning (particularly for those in Year 6).

School leaders are anticipating issues as they prepare to welcome children back to the classroom, many of them mirroring children’s concerns. Leaders believe that pupils will find it difficult to adjust to routine (76%). Additionally, they are anticipating the need to help students catch up on their work (66%), managing pupil anxiety/fear (60%), difficulties focusing on schoolwork (45%) and dealing with low physical fitness (44%). These are alongside practical problems such as logistics and timetabling (61%), adherence to social distancing (61%) and wellbeing issues (25%). Teachers are looking for clarity over how teaching and learning will be delivered in 20-21.

In response to a question in Parliament, Vicky Ford (Department for Education Minister) said that the government “are encouraging schools to prioritise physical activity as they welcome more children back to school” and “there are well established links between physical activity, improved mental wellbeing and educational attainment”. The key will be to deliver this safety and effectively.

Schools recognise the importance of PE and report that they are keen to use it to help address some of the emerging needs of young people after lockdown. Consequently, they are looking to access tips and ideas of how to use PE and sport to do this as well as get support to help them use PE to improve personal development and wellbeing outcomes.  As children return to the classroom, many schools are unsure how to offer PE and extracurricular clubs safely and would welcome advice and guidance on topics including social distancing in PE, school sport and competitive sport, the use of share equipment, changing and hygiene.

6. Positivies from the COVID experience

There are predictions that the disruption caused by COVID may bring about significant change: accelerating the destruction of existing work models and forcing us to develop methods of organisation that are sustainable and equitable, with greater youth-led activism.

Restrictions have forced use and reliance on digital delivery methods, and this has encouraged creativity and innovation in how technology can be used to connect with young people. Similarly, it has created opportunities for schools and other organisations to interact more with parents, many of whom have been spending more time with their children and engaging with schoolwork. This may in turn lead to greater engagement in education and children’s wellbeing after the crisis.  

Whilst home schooling has been challenging, it’s prompted greater intergenerational interaction and families have valued the opportunity for more creative learning e.g. exploring nature, reading, construction, freedom and choice.

Girls have reported some positive factors that have affected how they are feeling. These include environmental improvements (61%), spending more time with family (52%), having more time for hobbies (50%), not going to school/less academic pressure (34%), being more connected through video calls (22%) and connected to their community (11%).

There may be a more positive view on the use of technology for children: Around one-third of parents of 8-15 year olds have a more positive view on technology for children because of the role it has played in education, entertainment, and helping them stay active. They are using a range of apps and resources they haven’t accessed before. Screen-time was up by at least 50% for 38% of 10-12-year olds and 32% of 6-9 year olds in March 2020.

51% of young people are making more effort than they normally would to help those in need

56% of young adults (16-19) believe that Britain will be more united after the crisis (vs. 19% before).

Brands are likely to be judged by their response during COVID, with 85% of adults saying that it is now more important than ever that brands support local communities with 65% wanting brands to tell them how they have helped during the crisis. Similarly, people may start to look more to ‘Influencers’ who have “suffered” alongside them and engaged with them during the crisis.

With a probable economic downturn on the horizon, there may be a rising number of young people looking to go into more stable professions such as teaching or medicine: Becoming a doctor is now the number one career aspiration for all 5-18-year olds in the UK and there has been a 9% increase in children who want to be scientists.

Others are also predicting longer term trends influenced by experiences of COVID restrictions including move towards more authenticity for brands, the rebirth of quality family time, children having a greater say in family decision making, and an increased focus on community, inclusion and belonging.

7. What next?

The restrictions brought in to tackle COVID have had an immediate and significant impact on nearly every aspect of life including children’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. COVID has presented a new set of challenges but magnified pre-existing issues and inequalities too. As we tentatively emerge from lockdown and start to understand how to live with a “new normal”, we will be presented with a new set of issues but also a new set of opportunities.

There will be some immediate challenges to tackle.  Some young people will need focused support to help their mental health or to ensure that educational gaps are addressed quickly. Schools need to work out how to deliver lessons and support their students within changing guidelines, whilst parents need reassurance that it is safe for their children to return. Other issues affecting children may take longer to emerge and pre-emptive work now could help stop or reduce the severity of future problems.

More optimistically, restrictions have given people the space to reassess their lives and identify what is important to them. Increased family time and home learning may lead to parents and carers to become more engaged with schools and education and, potentially, to an increased importance being placed on all aspects of their child’s wellbeing.

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