Jan. 8, 2021

Virtual forum to address effects of COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian children

‘Our children’s burden – safety, education and isolation during COVID-19’ to feature expert panel on childhood health and wellness

While policy-makers, the media, health professionals and the business community have expressed concern, support, opinions and critique of the approaches adopted to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, children are carrying a disproportionately large burden as a result of those decisions.

A free, public virtual forum on Jan. 11, by the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), will bring together experts from across the University of Calgary and beyond to discuss this unprecedented challenge.

  • Photo above: Patricia Doyle-Baker, Gina Dimitropoulos, Kelly Schwartz, Suzanne Tough, and moderator Sara Austin will speak Jan. 11 at Our Children’s Burden – Safety, Education and Isolation During COVID-19.

"There is a growing undercurrent of worry that the costs of the pandemic are being disproportionally born by children, and the ramifications will not be fully appreciated for years or decades,” says O’Brien Institute scientific director Dr. Tom Stelfox, MD.

Activities at the centre of children’s physical and social lives have been put on hold indefinitely. Safety nets that schools and community groups provide for children are unavailable, while isolation, lack of physical activity, parents’ stress and fear of this new reality are ingredients of a toxic cocktail that threatens the physical, emotional, intellectual and social well-being of Canadian children.

There is a need to define these challenges and their toll on children, to amplify the voices of this vulnerable population, and to identify a healthy, children-centric path out of this pandemic, says Stelfox.

As such, panellists will look at the pandemic holistically, but with a focus on how decisions, approaches and strategies have affected the health, well-being and safety of children across Canada to inform policy-makers, health professionals, the media and the general public on what can be done to better protect children in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the outset of this pandemic, we have been worried that children were being disproportionately impacted,” says Sara Austin, founder and CEO of the national charity Children First Canada, and moderator for the virtual forum.

Last year, Raising Canada 2020, a report from Children First Canada, the O’Brien Institute and the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) outlined how the top 10 threats to childhood, which had been increasing over the past decade, are spiking further as a result of the pandemic.

These include mental illness, food insecurity, physical and sexual abuse, and poverty.

“Throughout the pandemic, children have paid a heavy toll as a result of the lockdown restrictions. Policy decisions like the closure of schools not only impact children’s well-being in the present moment, but also have the potential to negatively shape the trajectory of their lives as adults.” says Austin.  

Children have also been moving less and spending more time on screens due to the pandemic, according to Dr. Patricia Doyle-Baker, DrPH, PhD, a member of the CSM’s O’Brien Institute and ACHRI, who will speak at the forum.

In a recent survey of Calgary parents conducted by Doyle-Baker, Dr. Gavin McCormack, PhD, and local recreation centre Vivo for Healthier Generations, 53 per cent of parents reported their children were playing less at the park, with friends, and in public spaces since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 60 per cent reported increased time spent on a computer, gaming, or using screen-based devices.

Children of parents who reported higher anxiety about the pandemic had fewer park visits and higher computer use.

“We must recognize that physical activity is perceived as the cornerstone in the physical development of infants, young and older children, and adolescents approaching adulthood,” says Doyle-Baker, a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology. “As we navigate COVID-19 restrictions, we need to be mindful that sedentariness does not displace physical activity because of the anxiety associated with these guidelines.”

Additional speakers for Our Children’s Burden – Safety, Education and Isolation During COVID-19, which takes place Jan. 11, 10 to 11:30 a.m., will feature:

Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, an associate professor at the Faculty of Social Work, and cross-appointed with the departments of Psychiatry and Paediatrics at the University of Calgary. Dimitropoulos is a member of the O’Brien Institute, the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and ACHRI.

Dr. Kelly Dean Schwartz, PhD, is an associate professor, school and applied child psychology, in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Schwartz is also a member of ACHRI, the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, and the Owerko Centre at the CSM.

Dr. Suzanne Tough, PhD, is a professor with the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences, and a member of the O’Brien Institute and ACHRI at the CSM.