Trinity College Dublin: Pandemic negatively affecting children and young adults from low-income families

The pandemic affects children and young adults from low-income families negatively in terms of internet access, quiet places to study and higher likelihoods of living with someone vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease

In a new short report released today, the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin launch the results of a special survey of COVID-19 experiences for children and young adults participating in Growing Up in Ireland.

These first insights highlight the extent of changes to everyday life as a result of the pandemic and point to likely inequalities in impact.

About the special COVID-19 survey
In December 2020, just as Ireland was relaxing Level 5 restrictions after the second wave of COVID-19 in the Autumn, both cohorts of Growing Up in Ireland (one group of 12-year-olds and their parents, and one group of 22-year-old adults) completed a short online survey about their experiences of the pandemic up to that point.

This survey asked them about changes to their education, work and lifestyles. It also asked them about their perceptions of the disease in terms of where they got their information, whether they lived with people vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease and if they or a close contact had had COVID-19 or its symptoms.

The first findings from this survey point to the impact of the pandemic on the lived experiences of children and young adults in Ireland, but it also highlights the variation between individuals and the unequal impact on different socio-economic groups.

Here are a sample of the main findings in different aspects of the pandemic experience as of December 2020:

Lifestyle changes
• For both cohorts, the activities which increased the most were talking to friends online/by phone, spending time with family and informal screen time. The biggest decrease for 12-year-olds was participating in organised cultural activities (59 per cent spent less time on these) but for 22-year-olds it was the reduction in meeting friends (81 per cent spent less time meeting friends).

• Many 22-year-olds reported changes in their patterns of sleep, smoking and drinking – but varied in whether they did more or less than usual.

• Many parents of 12-year-olds reported enjoying time with their family (63 per cent said this was ‘always true’) and doing more activities together (48 per cent ‘always true’). But they also had less time to themselves (31 per cent ‘always true’).

Home learning
• Only half of students – in both age-groups – said it was ‘always true’ that they had a quiet place to study while learning at home. Third-level students were more likely to have a suitable computer (91 per cent versus 74 per cent ‘always true’) and access to online classes (74 per cent versus 19 per cent ‘always true’) than those in primary or secondary school.

• For two-thirds of 12-year-olds, the return to school (in September 2020) after the March-May lockdown coincided with their transition from primary to second-level education. Those who started secondary school in September 2020 were more likely to report negative experiences around the return to school, including finding schoolwork difficult (13 per cent versus 6 per cent said this was ‘always true’).

• Students in both cohorts (12-year-olds and 22-year-olds) were less likely to have a quiet place to study or adequate internet if they were from low-income families.

Health
• Parents were the most frequent important source of information about COVID-19 for 12-year-olds (80 per cent) but for 22-year-olds it was watching or reading the news (79 per cent).

• Over a third of 22-year-olds and a quarter of 12-year-olds were in a household with at least one person who was thought to be at increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease.

• Low-income families in both cohorts were more likely to report living with someone vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease.

Emotional well-being
• More than 10 per cent of 22-year-olds felt they had missed out on needed mental health support because of the pandemic. However, most 22-year-olds felt they had someone to talk to about problems and/or who could offer practical help if they got ill.

• The proportion of young adults with elevated scores on a measure of depressive symptoms increased substantially since pre-pandemic levels measured for this cohort at age 20 (from 27 per cent to 48 per cent).

• While many participants in both cohorts reported increases in symptoms of low mood and the consumption of ‘junk food and sweets’, this was more common for girls and young women.

• Despite current difficulties, most participants in both cohorts were optimistic about the future: 72 per cent of 22-year-olds strongly agreed or agreed that they were optimistic about their future and 88 per cent of parents were optimistic about their 12-year-olds’ future.

Work and income (for 22-year-olds and parents of 12-year-olds)
• Three-quarters of 22-year-olds and the majority of parents among 12-year-olds were in employment at the start of the pandemic (70 per cent and 89 per cent respectively for ‘parent one’ – mostly mothers – ‘parent two’ – mostly fathers). However, 22-year-olds were more likely to report losing their jobs or being temporarily laid off (46 per cent) than the older adults who were parents of 12-year-olds (around 20 per cent of employed mothers/fathers).

• Around 10 per cent of 22-year-olds, and a similar proportion of parents of 12-year-olds, were experiencing financial strain at the time of the survey in December 2020 (that is, having ‘difficulty’ or ‘great difficulty in making ends meet). Families and individuals who were in the lowest income group pre-pandemic were the most likely to be currently having difficulty making ends meet.

• A majority of 22-year-olds (72 per cent) lived with their parents at the time of the survey, and over 20 per cent had returned to the parental home during the pandemic.

Speaking at today’s launch, Dr Aisling Murray, Senior Research Officer at the ESRI and one of the report’s authors, commented that:

“This snapshot of changes to the lived experience of Growing Up in Ireland participants is important not just for the short-term impact but the potential ‘shift’ in the life-course pathways for individuals; especially given the timing around milestone transitions for 12-year-olds starting secondary school and 22-year-olds taking their first steps on the career ladder”.

Also speaking at the launch of this report, Dr Roderic O’Gorman, TD, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, commented:

‘Growing Up in Ireland is exactly the kind of study we need to investigate the effects that COVID-19 is having, and will have, on the lives of children, young people and parents. In Ireland, we are fortunate to have funded and established this robust longitudinal research infrastructure which will allow us to describe, understand and respond to the impacts of COVID-19 on our young people, now and for many years to come’.

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