AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
More than two years removed from the first pandemic lockdowns, the devastating effect of prolonged social isolation on children in the United States and throughout the world is only becoming clearer. As studies and data continue to show, school closures and a sudden loss of contact with friends and peers not only led to dramatic learning loss, but also a persistent shadow pandemic of depression and anxiety among young people that has continued to this day. Many Americans are now asking what could have been done differently to avert this burgeoning mental health crisis and calling for accountability from those responsible for prolonging the lockdowns and closures.
According to a new report from CBS News released earlier this month, “In 2022, fifteen percent of kids ages 12 to 17 reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode.” That figure represents an increase of 306,000 cases from 2021, a trend line that is troubling health experts. One family therapy center in Florida told CBS that before the pandemic, they were treating around 70 children per week. Now, that number has more than doubled to 185.
Tragically, this rise in mental health conditions for American youth has also coincided with a sharp uptick in suicide and suicide attempts. According to one study of 14 states published earlier this year, the pandemic saw a marked increase in the proportion of adolescent suicides relative to suicides by people of all ages – even as youth suicide had already seen sharp increases before the pandemic. The CDC has also found that one in five American teenagers say they have contemplated suicide, while four in ten say they feel “persistently sad or hopeless.”
While there are likely a number of factors contributing to this spike in suicide and mental health disorders, experts have specifically pointed to a relationship between excessive screen time – a problem that has existed for years but was drastically worsened during the pandemic – and health deterioration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, multiple studies have shown that extended screen time is directly correlated to obesity in young people, and that obesity often leads to other serious mental and physical health issues. Additionally, extended use of social media has been directly linked to an uptick in depression and suicide attempts in young people – disproportionately young girls.
Despite acknowledging these risks, in April of 2020, the Office of Global Insight and Policy for UNICEF – the United Nations organization dedicated to helping children – actually encouraged parents to let their children play more video games and use more social media. Their rationale was that it would keep kids connected with friends throughout the quarantine and make feelings of isolation easier during the lockdown. They encouraged parents to “revisit” beliefs about the dangers of too much screen time, dismissing such concerns as “fear of the unknown.”
Notably, these assurances came with no corroborating data that suggested digital human connection was an adequate substitute for real-world human connection.
A year later, however, UNICEF released an updated report that explicitly contradicted their earlier assertions. The new findings said that “social isolation and loneliness during lockdowns contributed to a range of outcomes including depression, irritability, anxiety, stress, alcohol use, and sedentary behaviours.” Unsurprisingly, they also found that “children and adolescents who spent more time on physical activities and maintaining routines were better protected from depressive symptoms.”
Prolonged school closures are another major factor that is likely contributing to the spike in mental health issues for young people. As former President Trump repeatedly warned when schools began shutting down in 2020, “the cure cannot be worse than the disease” – predicting that the dangers to adolescents of school closures would be far greater than the danger posed to students by COVID-19.
Yet liberal governments and America’s health establishment – led by Dr. Anthony Fauci – were tireless advocates for school closures from the earliest days of the pandemic. Many schools in blue states like California and New York remained closed through all of 2021 – even as vaccines became widely available.
The American people learned the truth only after the worst of the school lockdown measures were rescinded. According to researchers from Harvard University, even schools that only shut down for the spring of 2020 saw 7 to 10 weeks’ worth of learning loss. By November 2021, researchers from several top universities and pediatric hospitals had linked school closures to “a rise in pediatric emergency room visits for mental health and substance use issues.” In June of this year, the World Health Organization finally admitted that COVID-related school closures have had a “deep impact” on the “global mental health crisis” in young people.
While millions of American families are already witnessing the tragic effects of this crisis, the full scope of it likely won’t be seen for years, if not decades. An entire generation of young people had their lives turned upside down and their development stunted, all for a virus that posed little to no threat to them. Republicans have already promised to launch full investigations of figures like Dr. Fauci should the GOP retake Congress this fall, demanding answers for what U.S. health leaders knew about the potential negative downstream effects of long-term lockdowns and closures.
For people affected by this crisis, however, punishing those responsible will only be of so much comfort. To protect future generations, America’s leaders should establish safeguards to ensure that such draconian measures are never again allowed to wreak havoc on the health and wellbeing of the country’s most vulnerable and valuable treasures – our children.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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