Health issues and loss, social isolation and mental health issues – the pandemic has had a drastic effect on our society. But how have younger members of society coped with these changes? Researchers from the University of Zurich have found that the presence of parents and caregivers is enough to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic on the social development of infants.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on our social lives. Almost overnight, people started working from home, keeping their distance and covering half their faces with surgical masks. It affected small children, teenagers and adults. And yet, there has been very little research on the effects of pandemic-related changes on infants.
Fundamental next look for social development
Researchers from the University of Zurich (UZH) have now investigated whether infants born during the pandemic exhibit different social behavior than infants of the same age before the pandemic. The study focused on children’s ability to follow another person’s gaze. “This ability is fundamental to engaging in social interactions, building relationships, and developing language skills,” says Stephanie Wermelinger, who studies developmental psychology in infants and children in UZH’s Department of Psychology. If this ability is impaired, it can hamper a person’s ability to interact with society, as is the case for people with autism.
Eighty infants aged 12 to 15 months participated in the study. They were shown different videos in which a person looked at one of the two objects. By tracking the infants’ eye movements, the researchers recorded how often and how quickly the infants followed the person’s gaze. They then compared their data with eye movement data from 133 children using the same method before the pandemic.
Parents and caregivers mitigate the effects of the pandemic
The study found no significant behavioral differences between children born during and before the pandemic. Children born during the pandemic followed the person’s gaze as often and quickly as children in the pre-pandemic group. Although the pandemic meant that children saw fewer people overall and interacted with more people wearing masks, they did not appear to develop any differently than children who experienced no pandemic-related changes.
We believe that the unchanged social interactions with parents and caregivers at home are sufficient to mitigate any influence the Covid-19 pandemic may have had on infants,”
Stéphanie Wermelinger, first author
These contacts could therefore be sufficient to provide infants with the social input they need to develop social and emotional skills such as gaze tracking.
Wermelinger, S., et al. (2022) How experience shapes infant communicative behavior: comparison of gaze tracking in infants with and without pandemic experience. Childhood. doi.org/10.1111/infa.12488.