The disrupting lifestyle changes of COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines have been brutal on children. Their usual routines have been thrown out of whack by virtual schooling and the emotional and physical toll of the virus, leading to significant health and well-being issues.
These issues are reflected in a new poll that shows the top concerns for parents of under-18 children during the pandemic. But the poll, conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, also reveals the reality that not all pandemic problems are equal across communities—and that Black parents were more concerned with fundamental societal problems that 2020 has continued to expose.
The top three concerns among parents polled relate to the shift toward more technology use during the pandemic. The overuse of social media topped the poll, concerning 72% of parents, followed by cyberbullying and internet safety, both at 62%. In the middle of the top-10 issues were various emotional and physical health problems. On the emotional side, depression, and stress and anxiety, both concerned 54% of parents; in terms of physical health, unhealthy eating (59%) and the lack of physical activity (54%) were the biggest worries.
In response to these concerns, Gary Freed, the co-director of the poll and a pediatrician at Mott, says parents should worry less about overall technology use and more about the context of the use. “Right now, screen time is an important vehicle for their children to maintain social and family connections,” Freed says, “which are actually really vital for their emotional well-being.” Parents could set connectivity boundaries and times when children must unplug so that internet use doesn’t interfere with sleep or exercise. But many of the emotional and physical problems come down to changes in routine, especially lack of sleep during a turbulent time. Parents can try and maintain routines and regular sleep schedules to combat shifts in mood, appetite, and willingness to exercise.
Sometimes, the problems are deeper rooted, and parents may want to discuss their children’s emotions or reach out to therapists. “I think parents need to make sure that they encourage teens and kids to talk about their feelings, and find ways to help them cope with this new reality,” he says.
When you break down the concerns by race, they show a considerable difference. While the overuse of social media, cyberbullying, and internet safety were the top three concerns of white and Latino respondents, those categories were further down the list for Black parents. The top two issues for Black parents were racism and COVID-19—neither of which appeared on the list for white parents; for Latinos, they were sixth and eighth, respectively. On the combined list, COVID-19 was tenth (48%), and racism did not appear.
Freed says it’s likely the higher COVID-19 rates, mortality, and complications among Black people explain the higher virus concern. As for racism, he adds that other emotional and physical ailments are interconnected. Systemic racial disparities, like housing, can cause other health disparities, such as asthma, and also directly cause emotional troubles such as depression and anxiety.
Black respondents highlighted several other issues that didn’t appear on either list, including poverty (66%), unequal healthcare access (62%), and gun injuries (61%), which eclipsed issues like bad eating and lack of exercise. Freed admits those are fundamental systemic issues that are harder to combat. “Certainly, societal concerns are beyond the ability of a single parent to address,” he says, adding that parents can focus on the short-term issues and then encourage children to safely participate in racial justice protests or causes, which allows them to feel included as valuable parts of the solution.
Just as parents’ tactics to help their children will vary across racial groups, Freed says, they’ll also be distinct from family to family. “Parents know their children better than anyone, and different strategies are going to work better for different children,” he says. “Parents need to be sensitive to the needs of their own children and realize that one size doesn’t fit all.”