The effects of lockdowns on early (language) development of children

This is relevant stuff. Two studies with data from 13 countries examined the effect of lockdowns and isolation on 2,200 young infants and toddlers between 8 and 36 months of age. The results aren’t clearcut good or bad, but still pretty clear. Again it shows how the pandemic can make differences between children bigger. Do read on.

From the press release:

An international consortium with researchers from 13 countries has investigated the impact of Covid-19 related social isolation measures on 2,200 young infants and toddlers between 8 and 36 months of age. Their findings provide insights into the effects of lockdown on language acquisition and screen time in the generation of youngsters growing up during this extraordinary period. A study on the impact of lockdown-related activities on language development, led by the University of Oslo, was published in the journal Language Development Research. A second study on the increase in screen-time during lockdown and its impact on language development, led by the University of Göttingen with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Shortly after lockdown began in early March 2020 across 13 countries, parents were asked to complete an online questionnaire containing questions on the child’s age, exposure to different languages, number of siblings and vocabulary development. Parents were then contacted again at the end of the lockdown (for that family or in that area, in general). They were asked about the activities that they undertook with their child during lockdown, the amount of time their child had access to screens both during lockdown and before, as well as questions on how much screen time they typically had themselves and their attitudes towards children’s screen time. Parents were also asked to complete a standardized vocabulary checklist indicating the number of words their child understood and/or said at the beginning, and again, at the end of lockdown so that an increase in the number of words gained over lockdown could be calculated.

The studies find that, during lockdown, children who were read to more frequently were reported by their caregivers to have learned more words, relative to their peers who were read to less frequently. However, children with increased exposure to screens learned to say fewer words, relative to their peers with less screen time. In addition, while children were exposed to more screen time during lockdown than before, overall, children were reported to have gained more words than expected during lockdown, relative to pre-pandemic levels. The increase in screen time during lockdown was greater if lockdown was longer, and in families with fewer years of education, and where parents reported using screens for longer themselves.

“Identifying the effects of parent-child activities on the child’s vocabulary growth is a significant finding, given that we assessed changes in children’s vocabularies over an average period of just over one month in our study,” says Professor Julien Mayor, University of Oslo.

“While this suggests that the relatively short isolation did not detrimentally impact language in young children, we should be cautious in assuming this would apply during normal times or to longer lockdowns, given the extraordinary circumstances that children and their parents faced during this time,” adds Associate Professor Natalia Kartushina, University of Oslo.

Indeed, the authors attribute increased screen time precisely to the unprecedented circumstances that families found themselves in during lockdown, including but not limited to the closure of day care centres, sport facilities and play groups for children. “Many caregivers were in the novel situation of caring for and entertaining their young infants at home all day without recourse to other activities and in addition to their other responsibilities. Allowing your child increased screen time is an understandable solution to this unprecedented situation, in which caregivers were juggling multiple responsibilities — meetings at work or chores that require concentration, together with a small child who needs entertaining. We’ve all done it during lockdown,” says Professor Nivedita Mani, University of Göttingen.

The authors suggest, therefore, that it makes sense that even young children — who had no online schooling or attendance requirements — had increased screen time during lockdown. Nevertheless, the authors find it reassuring, that despite having increased exposure to screen time during lockdown, children learned more words during the lockdown period in March 2020, relative to before the pandemic. This is potentially due to other activities that parents undertook with their children during lockdown.

Abstract of the first study published in Nature:

Older children with online schooling requirements, unsurprisingly, were reported to have increased screen time during the first COVID-19 lockdown in many countries. Here, we ask whether younger children with no similar online schooling requirements also had increased screen time during lockdown. We examined children’s screen time during the first COVID-19 lockdown in a large cohort (n = 2209) of 8-to-36-month-olds sampled from 15 labs across 12 countries. Caregivers reported that toddlers with no online schooling requirements were exposed to more screen time during lockdown than before lockdown. While this was exacerbated for countries with longer lockdowns, there was no evidence that the increase in screen time during lockdown was associated with socio-demographic variables, such as child age and socio-economic status (SES). However, screen time during lockdown was negatively associated with SES and positively associated with child age, caregiver screen time, and attitudes towards children’s screen time. The results highlight the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on young children’s screen time.

Abstract of the second study:

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting closure of daycare centers worldwide, led to unprecedented changes in children’s learning environments. This period of increased time at home with caregivers, with limited access to external sources (e.g., daycares) provides a unique opportunity to examine the associations between the caregiver-child activities and children’s language development. The vocabularies of 1742 children aged8-36 months across 13 countries and 12 languages were evaluated at the beginning and end of the first lockdown period in their respective countries(from March to September 2020). Children who had less passive screen exposure and whose caregivers read more to them showed larger gains in vocabulary development during lockdown, after controlling for SES and other caregiver-child activities. Children also gained more words than expected (based on normative data) during lockdown; either caregivers were more aware of their child’s development or vocabulary development benefited from intense caregiver-child interaction during lockdown.

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