The month of March brings with it the third anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdowns beginning in the United States. The year 2020 became synonymous with change and fear as major sporting events were cancelled, thousands were infected with the novel virus and died and work and school moved online for millions. The world has changed forever – especially for children.
In a fall 2022 parent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of parents with children in grades K-12 said the first year of the pandemic had a very or somewhat negative impact on their children’s emotional well-being. Additionally, a 2022 review of survey studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that “the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of children and adolescents is diverse and significant,” urging better-designed studies the psychological effects of the pandemic.
[Related: COVID-19 vaccines are still essential in preventing death in children and teens.]
Now a group of researchers in Sweden are turning to children’s drawings and their own explanations of what they drew to get a better sense of their feelings, beliefs and ideas about COVID-19. A small study published in the journal on March 2nd Acta Paediatrica noted that the common themes were detailed images of canceled activities, illness, and death, and that the children knew quite a bit about the illness.
The team collected 91 drawings by children between the ages of four and six that were submitted to the Swedish Children’s Drawings Archives between April 2020 and February 2021. The project was part of research into children’s voices in public spaces during the pandemic.
“It was a lot of fun doing the study. I was actually quite unsure if a medical journal would publish the article, but they did, including the children’s drawings and all,” co-author Anna Sarkadi said in a statement. Sarkadi is a specialist in child health and social medicine at Uppsala University in Sweden
They analyzed the drawings using a type of visual analysis called semiotic visual analysis, which looks at the meaning of the image (what images represent and how) and connotation (the meaning attached to them). The analysis also looked at the child’s own explanations of the drawings.
The results showed that even the youngest children were badly affected by the pandemic. In addition to canceled plans and pictures of sick and dying people, fear, worry and missing grandparents were common themes. The coronavirus has often been described as a monster, while other children described how to protect themselves from the virus. One drawing even showed two children sword fighting a giant virus.
[Related: It’s harder for kids with food allergies to catch COVID.]
“The drawings were often covered with a lot of snot. In one drawing, a child wrote, “You throw up, then you cough, then you get better or you die,” with extremely clear illustrations,” explained Maria Thell, co-author and PhD student at Uppsala University, in a statement.
The study found that the children also know quite a bit about the virus, including how it spreads and its symptoms. Of 91 drawings, 14 showed washing hands, 17 showed symptoms such as coughing, and 44 showed a depiction of the virus itself.
“As a researcher with a background in child and youth science, I would like to further develop this method,” says Thell.
This team’s research continues and the drawings of children aged seven to eleven will be examined next.
“By encouraging young children to draw pictures with open prompts, e.g. B. how an illness feels, looks or what is different now, it is possible to understand their interpretations of a situation and the emotions associated with it,” the authors write in the study.
Additionally, they write that pediatricians can use children’s drawings to measure emotional response to COVID-19, among other health issues, and gain a unique insight into their world. This can help adults get a better idea of what children do or don’t understand and spot “unhelpful fantasies” they may have conjured up.
A survey of children in the UK found that 7-11 year olds were highly aware of the social restrictions, illness and death caused by the virus, and similar reviews of children’s drawings were carried out in Spain and Greece.