Research Snapshot: Impact of isolation and loneliness on mental health of children and adolescents in the COVID-19 context

What you need to know

Governments around the world have put in place numerous measures to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Previous research in adults showed that social isolation has negative mental health effects. Researchers conducted a rapid review of studies to determine the effects of isolation on children and adolescents. They found that social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression, and possibly anxiety. This effect was apparent during the study period and three months to nine years later. The duration of loneliness was more strongly linked to mental health symptoms than was the intensity of loneliness.

 

This Research Snapshot was written by Rossana Coriandoli based on the article, “The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19” which was published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2020. Read it below or download the PDF

Research Snapshots are brief, clear language summaries of research articles, presented in a user-friendly format.

What is this research about? 

Governments around the world have put numerous measures in place to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). These measures include school closures, physical distancing, and restricting leaving the home for essential purposes only. 

Previous research showed that quarantines generally have negative effects on adult mental health, such as confusion, anger, and post-traumatic distress. Factors that increase the risk of negative mental health include the duration of quarantine, fear of infection, boredom, frustration, lack of supplies, lack of information, financial loss, and stigma. 

To understand the mental health effects on children and adolescents, researchers conducted a rapid review.

What did the researchers do? 

Researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a rapid review, using various measures to shorten the amount of time they spent obtaining data (three weeks). These measures included limiting search criteria, faster data extraction, and using narrative synthesis methods.

They looked at peer-reviewed studies published between 1946 and April 2020 that had the following characteristics:

  • reported on primary research 
  • included mostly children and adolescents younger than 21 years
  • published in English 
  • had participants who experienced either social isolation or loneliness
  • assessed depression, anxiety, trauma, obsessive compulsive disorder, mental health, or mental well-being.

What did the researchers find? 

The review authors analyzed 83 articles (80 studies). One of these was a retrospective study after a pandemic  (H1N1, SARS, and avian flu). Two studies evaluated interventions. 

Studies had a high risk of bias, although the 18 longitudinal studies had higher-quality methods (they used repeat testing of the variables over a certain period).

The review authors found that social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression and might have increased the risk of anxiety. They observed this effect during the study period and three months to nine years later. The duration of loneliness was more strongly linked to mental health symptoms than was the intensity of loneliness.

How can you use this research?

This research may be useful to inform health care and public health policy decision-makers when they develop measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Limitations of the research

The main limitation of this review is the lack of high-quality studies looking at mental health problems after enforced isolation. Another limitation is the short amount of time they had to conduct the review (three weeks).

About the researchers

Maria Elizabeth Loades,1 Eleanor Chatburn,1 Nina Higson-Sweeney,1 Shirley Reynolds,2 Roz Shafran,3 Amberly Brigden,4 Catherine Linney,4 Megan Niamh McManus,5 Catherine Borwick,1 Esther Crawley4

  1. University of Bath, Claverton Down, United Kingdom
  2. School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, United Kingdom
  3. UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, London, United Kingdom
  4. University of Bristol, United Kingdom
  5. University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Keywords 

COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, loneliness, isolation, mental health, depression, anxiety, public health, infection control

This Research Snapshot was written by Rossana Coriandoli based on the article, “The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19” which was published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2020. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016%2Fj.jaac.2020.05.00