Health issues and loss, social isolation, and mental health problems – the COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on our society. But how have the youngest members of society been coping with these changes? Scientists at the University of Zurich have found that the presence of parents and caregivers is enough to mitigate the pandemic’s negative effects on the social development of infants.
Our social lives have been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost overnight, people began working from home, keeping their distance, and donning medical masks to cover half of their faces. Small children, adolescents, teenagers, and adults were all impacted by this. However, there hasn’t been much research done into how changes brought on by the pandemic affect young children.
Gaze following is fundamental for social development
Scientists at the University of Zurich (UZH) have now studied whether infants born during the pandemic exhibit different social behavior than same-aged infants before the pandemic. Children’s ability to follow another person’s gaze was the main focus of the study. “This ability is fundamental for engaging in social interactions, building relationships, and developing language skills,” says Stephanie Wermelinger, who researches developmental psychology in infants and children at the Department of Psychology of UZH. 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 between the age of 12 and 15 months participated in the study. Each was shown different videos in which a person was gazing at one of two objects. By tracking the infants’ eye movements, the scientists 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 soften effects of pandemic
No significant behavioral differences between the children born during and before the pandemic were revealed by the study. Children born during the pandemic followed the person’s gaze just as often and quickly as the children in the pre-pandemic group. Although the pandemic meant that the children saw fewer people overall and interacted with more people who were wearing masks, they don’t seem to be developing any differently to children who didn’t experience any pandemic-related changes.
“We believe the unchanged social interactions with parents and caregivers at home are enough to mitigate any influence the COVID-19 pandemic might have had on infants,” says author Wermelinger. These contacts could thus be sufficient to provide infants with the social input they need to develop social and emotional skills such as gaze following.
Reference: “How experience shapes infants’ communicative behaviour: Comparing gaze following in infants with and without pandemic experience” by Stephanie Wermelinger, Lea Moersdorf and Moritz M. Daum, 29 June 2022, Infancy.