A recent study run by five leading UK universities, including the University of Oxford, suggests that the development of young children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds has been disproportionately affected by lockdown compared to children from wealthier families.

The study follows the UNICEF projection just before 10th May this year that “an estimated 116 million babies will be born under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic”, giving rise to the prospect that a very large number of children will be missing out on important enrichment opportunities as restrictions continue. 

It is generally understood that the first 1000 days of an infant’s life are the most critical to development.  As Alex Hendry, one of the leading Oxford researchers in the study said in a press release to the University: “Children depend on high-quality interactions to support all aspects of their development.”

Socialisation with other children is also crucial and the cancellation of most group activities as a result of the coronavirus means all children below school-age are missing out.  Amongst other things, participation in day cares, play dates, and pre-school preparatory programmes allow adults to gauge possible issues in the development of individual children by comparing them to one other.  This in turn facilitates early intervention, something that is not possible under the current state of affairs when all parents are monitoring their children individually. 

The Social Distancing and Development Study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.  It surveyed 500 parents of children under the age of three to understand how their experience has been altered by lockdown. 

The study had two major findings.  The first was that 90% of parents reported an overall increase in the amount of time they spent with their children and the number of enriching activities they were able to fit into a day.  The second was that 75% also reported an overall increase in their children’s screen time, something that is generally understood to be unhealthy for very young children. 

However, although these findings might indicate most children are being engaged in more enrichment opportunities than they otherwise would be, this increase is substantially lower for disadvantaged children. Moreover, these same children have experienced a greater than average increase in screen time. Sally Hogg, Head of Policy and Campaigning at the Parent-Infant Foundation, said: “This research demonstrates, yet again, that babies in families from more disadvantaged communities have been impacted more by the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis has been difficult for most people, but has had a particular impact on families without the resources to buffer its impacts for their babies.  Sadly, too many of our young children live in poverty, poor housing and without stimulating toys and books at home.”

Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez, a researcher from Oxford Brookes who leads the SDSS project, has two recommendations to rectify this inequality: “In the event of continued local lockdowns, it is vital that disadvantaged families are given extra support to promote children’s early development. Access to communal outdoor spaces and shared resources such as libraries should only be restricted as a last resort. This extra support will take the form of the one-off Baby Boost fund that will enable local communities to provide for their most vulnerable children.”  

The full paper titled ‘Not all babies are in the same boat: exploring how socio-economic status, parental attitudes, and activities during Covid-19 lockdown affect early executive functions’ is currently under peer review.