School Closures- A Brave New World of Experimenting with our Children

“Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth, and those who care for and protect our people.” Nelson Mandela

There is a critical period in brain development responsible for socialization to evolve normally for children. Reimmersion after school closures and remote learning may not be enough to reverse the effects of isolation during this critical period of brain development.

Safer at home policies may help reduce the spread of viral disease, but there are consequences beyond infection control that may be significant for the future of our children. Of course, appropriate safety precautions must be taken, but total isolation during critical formative years of development may be a quick fix with long term deleterious consequences.

When Covid 19 came along, there was already an ongoing experiment in child socialization that encouraged a protective environment and avoidance of failure. Some research has shown that this parenting style was destined to cause adult issues with coping. When taken to an extreme, growing up in a protected, fail safe environment may not prepare individuals for real world challenges.

The Covid 19 pandemic has changed the paradigm. While school closure and remote learning may be necessary for reducing the spread of the virus, the consequential suspension of team sports, extra curricular activities, and other opportunities for socialization has created a new experimental environment with unknown consequences. This new paradigm causes social isolation at a time when the brains of children are most receptive to social development.

There is a critical window of opportunity when a child’s brain solidifies the necessary neural connections for proper social development. In an early critical time period, the lack of consistent eye contact with a caretaking adult can lead to profound consequences as a baby develops. The effects of such psychosocial deprivation was reflected in the Romanian orphanage experience dating from the years of the Communist Regime. Large nurseries with limited caretakers resulted in an extraordinary frequency of autistic features and social disabilities in the children as they grew older.

Unfortunately, later socialization does not easily reverse early isolation. The human brain is primed to be exposed to certain stimuli at critical periods of development. It may not be possible for brain pathways to develop normally after this window of opportunity has closed.

The second critical period in social development occurs in pre-teen and teen years. Children who are isolated in these years typically evolve with significant mental handicaps. It has been an ongoing discussion as to whether isolated children may have predisposing pathology that would inevitably manifest later in life regardless of social exposure. In humans it is difficult to resolve this controversy with any degree of certainty. Animal experiments with rats however have shed some light on this discussion. Rats are, by nature are highly social. They need to learn certain behaviors to successfully integrate into the rodent world. When otherwise normal rats are bred in complete isolation, they do not acquire those social behaviors that are required for successful group integration. The concern is that humans, in ways similar to other animals, need live peer interaction within a critical period of development in order to socialize normally when fully grown.

Homebound children playing video games and engaging in virtual realities have limited opportunities to be behaviorally shaped for normal socialization and performance-oriented behavior. While some children may even prefer relative isolation and freedom from the social challenges that may occur with school attendance, nevertheless, the lack of peer interaction may hamper group integration in the future.

Are there any counter measures? Perhaps. The rapid development of an effective vaccine is obviously of paramount importance. In the meantime, there may be some creative ways to use digital technology and media to facilitate social interaction. A concerned parent might consider remote activities that encourage group interactions rather than allowing their children to spend hours alone lost in a virtual reality without any other human contact.

When it comes to real life interaction, viral testing may allow children to interact in small groups that would minimize disease transmission while facilitating socialization. An alternative view is that a relatively brief period of isolation may not consume the entire critical period and that a short time out from social interaction may teach a child to cherish their friends when renewed opportunities become available after the pandemic. For those parents who allow children to go to school and play in untested groups, there is, however, presently no easy way of weighing the short term risk of illness against the potential lifetime risk of maladjustment and its comorbidities.