Restricted Childhood, Interrupted Youth

Alix Helfer, Jakob Trane Ibsen, Viola Särkiluoto and Sinikka Aapola-Kari

Abstract

In this study, we conduct a research overview and report on the rights of Nordic children and youth in the spheres of education and leisure during the COVID-19 pandemic. We follow up on our first report, ‘Children and Young People’s Participation During the Corona Pandemic’ report (Helfer et al., 2023). In the first report, we explained how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled in the Nordic countries and related initiatives to safeguard the rights of children and young people. In all countries, there has been a great concern about the impact of the pandemic and how the restrictions have affected children and youth, particularly vulnerable groups.

For this report, we have charted research on the consequences of the pandemic on children and young people’s situation within the spheres of education and leisure, particularly from the viewpoint of participation. The focus has been on research conducted during the years of the pandemic 2020–2022 in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway, including related studies in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. We have extensively searched publications and filtered the most relevant studies for closer inspection. We bring forward research perspectives on children and young people’s varied experiences during the pandemic, their learning results, and their possibilities for meaningful leisure activities. Furthermore, we look at to what extent children and young people have been informed about and included in decisions that affect their lives.

We compile and synthesise findings from the research literature to illuminate these questions. We also highlight potential gaps in the research regarding those elements that need to be investigated more extensively and parts where the long-term effects of the pandemic on children and youth need to be examined in the coming years.

Key points

  • COVID-19-related research was mainly focused on children and young people’s wellbeing and learning, and less can be found on the issue of participation. A lot of research has been conducted on education, focusing on how children feel about their schooling, how students in higher education have been affected, whether their learning or motivation has suffered, and their levels of anxiety and mental health. We could not locate much research on the actual involvement of children and youth in decision-making.
  • Studies of the short-term effects raised concerns regarding children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Surveys of the views of teachers and pupils and their immediate feelings concerning distancing measures in schools showed worrying trends. Teachers and other academics were worried about the effect on wellbeing. In some studies, the results indicate higher levels of anxiety and boredom and lowered wellbeing among children and young people.
  • Some positive short-term and medium-term effects. It is important in reading the literature to note the differences between short-term impact and medium-term impact. Concerning short-term impact, we found several studies that reported positive findings for some aspects of the lives of children and youth. For example, some pupils and students felt less stressed. Perhaps more time was spent with parents. In some countries, we also see positive findings concerning online learning. Further, studies of medium-term effects on learning do not show a dramatic decline in students’ or pupils’ performance. It is important, however, to be aware of vulnerable groups who experienced a decline in learning, mental health or social connectedness.
  • Significant differences in impact. Across the Nordic region, we can see notable differences in the impact of the pandemic for different groups, both across regions within countries and across gender and cultural and social groups. In so far as there is a pattern, it is that children and youth who were already in a vulnerable position were generally affected more negatively during the pandemic. A systematic comparison between the Nordic countries was not possible based on the literature we have found.
  • Gaps in the literature: Long-term studies, vulnerable groups, broader impact on lived social lives, and influence. The studies we have surveyed cover the short-term and medium-term impact of the pandemic, which is understandable, given the timeframe of our study. Future research should focus on the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for different groups of children and youth, particularly vulnerable groups. It is important to look for negative and positive consequences beyond the ‘average effects’ for specific groups.