Lessons from the COVID-19 global pandemic: Implications for social relations, loneliness and the well-being of Canadian children and adolescents

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About the project

Social connection is a fundamental human necessity insofar as humans are "wired" to belong for survival. Loneliness, or the discrepancy between desired and perceived relationships, impedes this need to belong and is related to a host of mental and physical health problems. Recent evidence indicates an increase in adolescent loneliness over the last decade. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted child and adolescent social relationships during a developmental period when the peer group becomes increasingly important. Recent evidence indicates that loneliness during the pandemic was associated with more internalizing and externalizing difficulties. What remains unclear is the extent to which prolonged social isolation continues to impact child and adolescent loneliness and well-being as the pandemic continues.

We conducted a systematic review of empirical studies from around the world to examine: (1) the prevalence of loneliness in children and adolescents throughout the pandemic, (2) the associations between loneliness and indicators of well-being throughout the pandemic, and (3) any moderators of the association between loneliness and well-being (e.g., study timing, sample characteristics). Our goal was to provide a synthesis of knowledge that can help inform research, policy, practice and decisions across sectors on the significance of social relationships for the development and well-being of children and adolescents in Canada, to have sustainable implications that will last long after the pandemic.

Key findings

  • Most of the quantitative studies in the systematic review were cross-sectional and fewer were longitudinal. Most of these studies were conducted in Europe, followed by the United States and Australia. Only two studies were from Canada. There remains a need to better understand loneliness and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic among Canadian children and adolescents.
  • Findings on the prevalence of loneliness were mixed. Results from most of the longitudinal studies indicated significant increases in loneliness compared to pre-pandemic levels. Prevalence rates in cross-sectional studies conducted during the pandemic varied from one-third to one-half of participants reporting feeling lonely, with responses ranging from feeling lonely sometimes to feeling lonely often.
  • The most common indicator of well-being examined with loneliness was depression symptoms, followed by anxiety symptoms and overall well-being. Overall externalizing symptoms were examined less often.
  • Cross-sectional findings indicated that higher levels of loneliness were significantly associated with higher levels of depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and poorer overall well-being. Loneliness was also more commonly associated with internalizing symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety). In some studies, no significant associations were found with certain forms of externalizing symptoms (e.g., hyperactivity).
  • Longitudinal results were more complex than cross-sectional results and varied by timing or indicator of well-being. Increases in loneliness compared to pre-pandemic levels were associated with increases in poorer well-being compared to pre-pandemic levels (e.g., depression symptoms). Higher pre-pandemic social connection also buffered the negative effects of school closure on well-being. However, in one study, decreased well-being was associated with decreased school belonging, but only for students assessed after school closures.
  • The mixed evidence when comparing cross-sectional to longitudinal studies highlights the need to consider timing. More longitudinal studies that compare additional assessments across the pandemic are needed to help understand not only the impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents, but specifically for who, when, and for how long.
  • Most of the studies were conducted on community samples of adolescents, with very few studies focusing on clinical samples or children. The limited number of studies comparing clinical versus non-clinical samples had mixed results. Some researchers found a significant difference in loneliness or well-being by clinical status, whereas other researchers did not. These contrasting findings indicate additional studies are needed to examine the impact of the pandemic on loneliness and well-being in children and adolescents by specific experiences of clinical status.

Policy implications

  • Practices for improving child and adolescent well-being in a post-pandemic Canada should incorporate the prolonged impact of existing adversities from before the COVID-19 pandemic. Children and adolescents who had pre-existing difficulties with loneliness and well-being continued to experience these difficulties at similar or increased levels during the pandemic.
  • Policies should prioritize ways to build meaningful social connections to improve the well-being of children and adolescents in Canada across sectors inside and outside of school, including in health, community, and social services.
  • Given the lack of evidence from Canada, more research, policy, and practice efforts need to be applied to understanding the well-being of Canadian children and adolescents, in particular tailoring practices in culturally sensitive ways for underrepresented youth populations (e.g., clinical, racial/ethnically underrepresented populations) that are sustainable beyond the pandemic.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Ann Farrell, assistant professor, Department of Child and Youth Studies, Brock University: afarrell@brocku.ca

Irene Vitoroulis, School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa: irene.vitoroulis@uottawa.ca

Mollie Eriksson, BSc. College of Health and Science, DePaul University. meriksson@brocku.ca

Tracy Vaillancourt, Full Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, Counselling Psychology, Faculty of Education and School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa: tracy.vaillancourt@uottawa.ca

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