Experts: Distance learning risks isolation, lapse in child social development

After a semester of isolation, many parents are concerned their children may have missed out on critical social development this school year. News4jax reporter Joe McLean talked to parents and experts about the side-effects of distance learning, and what can be done to curb them.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After a semester of isolation, research shows parents are concerned about their child missing important social interaction.

A series of surveys from 28 educational organizations and entities found that the concern over a deficit in interaction with peers was the most common fear in the more than 3,600 participants.

The study was fielded from April 14 to May 6.

“Certainly, school is the main place, especially for younger kids, where they are getting their social interaction and development,” said psychologist Dr. Sarah Dew-Reeves, co-owner of Nautilus Behavioral Health. “For the older teenagers ... milestone times that they would be having, seniors and grad night and graduation, all of these really important social rights of passage, they’re missing out on, so it does change things.”

In a news conference with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, pediatrician Dr. Bonnie White spoke to the potential side effects of isolation on a child’s mental health.

"We’re seeing lots of kids coming in with anxiety issues and depression, and I think that’s because they’ve been isolating,” White said. "It’s really important that we get our kids socializing again. They need to see their friends, they need to be outside running around and be active, they need to be able to laugh with their friends and they need to explore and learn.”

Dew-Reeves said the impact of three months of isolation on a child’s development is difficult to predict given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic. But Dew-Reeves said it will likely vary based on factors such as the home learning environment, the attentiveness of parents or guardians and the child’s age or grade level.

“It’s probably going to be a bit tougher than usual,” Dew-Reeves said. “Kids missed out on about eight weeks of their actual interactions and academic time, but also on the socializing. So, I think that kids may regress or have problems with things that you know they’ve been okay with in the past. Bickering or having a hard time with peers, not wanting to share not wanting to play along, I think that kind of stuff would be really common.”

Ashley Harvey said her two children, ages 12 and 14, had very different experiences based on their personalities.

“I have two different scenarios: One student who could care less about the social aspect of school and the other one who that’s all they care about," Harvey said. "So the COVID situation has allowed the one who only cared about ... social interaction to thrive academically because that’s all there was to focus on.”

Harvey is also a curriculum coordinator and educational consultant.

“The effects on them socially and emotionally are going to be something that we have to keep a close eye on,” Harvey said. “Students thrive on structure, and we completely have, you know, interrupted that drastically, so the lack of structure is going to affect them.”

About the Author:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.