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Secondary impacts of COVID-19 hit girls and low-income children harder

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Published on Thursday, 03 June 2021

New research suggests that adolescent girls and children from low-income homes are especially vulnerable to effects of COVID-19 that can affect mental health. Results of an international study show that key determinants of well-being are surprisingly similar in children from Luxembourg, Germany and Brazil. The study explored the well-being of adolescents across three countries that are differently affected by the global health crisis.

Children in Luxembourg, Germany and Brazil experienced a significant drop in life satisfaction during the first wave of the pandemic. Researchers from the University of Luxembourg and the University of Tübingen, together with partners from Mackenzie Presbyterian University and the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, used survey data to investigate the relationship between 20 potential factors and subjective well-being during the pandemic.

“Lower levels of well-being during the pandemic were associated with being a girl, with lower socioeconomic status and lower levels of life satisfaction before the pandemic. Furthermore, a number of additional factors were linked to children’s well-being including the fear of falling ill, schoolwork, activities at home, the satisfaction with their freedom and the satisfaction with the way adults listen to them,” says Prof. Pascale Engel de Abreu, the lead author of the study and Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Luxembourg. “The observed effects were very similar across the participating countries from Europe and South America” adds Prof. Neander Abreu, neuropsychologist from the Federal University of Bahia.

The study is part of the larger research project “COVID-Kids” from the University of Luxembourg. Principal investigator Associate Professor Claudine Kirsch explains how the project came to life: It was clear to us that COVID-19, which hit us in the spring of 2020, would not leave our children unaffected. The aim of the project COVID-Kids is to explore homeschooling experiences and the well-being in children and adolescents during the first wave of the pandemic.”

“From the start of the pandemic, one of the defining messages has been that older people are more affected. Yet health and non-health impacts on children and adolescents are proving to be significant,adds co-author Professor Sascha Neumann from the University of Tübingen.

Subjective well-being of adolescents in Luxembourg, Germany, and Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic” has now been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, and features the project findings on well-being in adolescents. It is the first cross-national study of its kind on well-being in children and adolescents from Luxembourg, Germany and Brazil.

The study

The researchers collected data from 1,613 children in Luxembourg, Germany and Brazil between May and July 2020. The participants were between 10 and 16 years old and had online access to a 68-question survey in 5 languages. The survey captured participants’ socio-demographic information, their experiences during COVID-19, as well as their levels of life satisfaction and their emotional well-being. One acknowledged limitation of the study is the sample that predominantly included children from affluent families.

The findings

The researchers developed statistical models using a set of risk and protective factors to predict adolescents’ well-being during the pandemic. They were particularly interested to find out whether common predictors of well-being would emerge in children from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds. Common factors of the models included gender, socioeconomic status, intrapersonal factors, quantity and type of schoolwork and relationship with adults.

“The fear of illness was the strongest predictor of emotional well-being across the three countries,” says Pascale Engel de Abreu.

Implications

Findings can help inform the development of quality interventions that promote mental health in children and adolescents during the pandemic. “The quantity and type of schoolwork that are known to shape student learning also affect their well-being and are therefore important to consider in lesson planning, especially in situations of remote learning,” says Claudine Kirsch.

“Anxiety and stress that might be induced by the fear of illness and the way adults listen to adolescents are other factors that may have scope for change. It could be that interventions that target those stressors and protective factors improve child well-being,” adds Pascale Engel de Abreu. 

The scientists were surprised by the similarities in their models across the three countries that had different epidemic curves and different pandemic responses. “This suggests that there are core commonalities in the factors that shape adolescent well-being notwithstanding the different contexts, which could indicate areas for action that may be prioritised in the global response plans for COVID-19,” says Sascha Neumann. “It is possible that interventions from developed countries can also help vulnerable children and adolescents from middle- and low-income countries,” adds Neander Abreu.

“The study also shows the significant impact of the pandemic on the well-being of adolescent girls and children from low income homes which calls for interventions that are tailored to the special needs of those vulnerable children,” concludes Pascale Engel de Abreu.

“The bigger picture”

While the COVID-Kids project provides a snapshot in the early phase of the pandemic, further research is needed to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on the well-being of children and adolescents. As a result, scientists Kirsch and Engel de Abreu designed the follow-on project “COVID Kids II” that will address some of the limitations of the earlier research.

Reference: “Subjective well-being of adolescents in Luxembourg, Germany, and Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic” by Pascale Engel de Abreu, Sascha Neumann, Cyril Wealer, Neander Abreu, Elizeu Coutinho Macedo and Claudine Kirsch, 2021. Journal of Adolescent Health.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.04.028