The confinement instituted in France in the spring of 2020 to fight against the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic has brutally changed living and working conditions. Its effects for adults are starting to be established , in particular the increase in social inequalities . Under house arrest for at least two months, the children were cut off from their social interactions and usual activities.
Based on the survey carried out among thousands of children followed since their birth, the Elfe and Epipage2 cohorts , we examine here the daily lives of children aged 8 and 9 during this exceptional period.
Did they spend their time in front of screens? Have they been busy with household chores to help their parents? Did anxiety and sleep disturbances increase in them? What are the categories of children who have suffered the most from this unprecedented episode? This experience is characterized by its diversity according to the family context, the parents’ employment, the standard of living and the living conditions.
School work: working-class families in mind
How did the children adapt to “pass the time”? They played or read, a lot; do their homework, often; sometimes helped their parents; went out for a walk, a bit.
Despite the closure of schools, contact between teachers and families has not been broken. Almost all of the parents questioned thus declared that the teacher had transmitted schoolwork and 95% considered that it was done without too much technical difficulty, by email (83%) or via the digital workspace of school (33%). The system of the National Center for Distance Learning (Cned) “My class at home” has only been used by one in five children, and most often occasionally.
Parents also report that the children’s home schoolwork has gone quite well. Two thirds of them (65%) were able to isolate themselves easily for work; 95% received help from a relative, more often from the mother than from the father (92% and 60% respectively), sometimes from a brother or sister (17%).
This rather positive assessment must nevertheless be qualified. The pupils indeed worked in very unusual conditions. Two-thirds of them worked less than three hours a day. Only 13% were helped more than 3 hours a day. And, in one in five cases, relatives would have experienced difficulties in helping the children. The “pedagogical continuity” was therefore relative, based very largely on the capacity of the children to learn under these new conditions.
It is in modest environments that the time devoted to school work by the child and by the caregiver has been the most important, a sign of the voluntarism of the parents concerned and undoubtedly also of their difficulties in implementing ” home school ”. All other things being equal, the chances of being helped at this level are 80% higher in households with predominantly employee, manual worker or self-employed person compared to those with managerial parents.
Screens and household loads: gender differences
Outside of school work, children spent an average of 2h45 per day on screens in all their forms, 1h45 on reading, artistic activities and board games, and more than two hours on physical and sports activities.
Screens represented more than two thirds of total leisure time for 13% of children. The predilection for screens is therefore reinforced by confinement. With family situation and socioeconomic status of equivalent parents, the probability of being a heavy consumer of screens (having spent more than two-thirds of the total leisure time) more than doubled among children living in the constrained space of an apartment compared to those who live in a house in an urban area.
Children living in predominantly working-class or employed households are also more inclined to be heavy consumers of screens than children of executives (respectively 2.7 and 2 times more). This situation highlights an effect linked to the size of the siblings – single children, deprived of play partners during confinement, were more exposed than those with siblings. It also illustrates an already known gender effect – boys are 1.7 times more likely to be heavy screen consumers compared to girls.
The question of gender is also found at the level of involvement in domestic tasks. The children were called upon to cope with the increased costs associated with the closure of canteens and the continued presence in the accommodation. Thus, 44% of parents declare an increase in their child’s participation in domestic tasks during confinement, girls more often than boys.
As they already participate more in normal times, confinement has accentuated gender inequalities in child domestic work. The increase in children’s participation is strongest in wealthy households and executives.
Family climate and housing conditions
This upheaval in daily activities is a potentially anxiety-provoking experience and may have had an impact on family harmony, the quality of sleep and the children’s psychological balance.
But this experience in isolation did little to affect the family climate. The vast majority of parents state that their relationship with their child (ren) has not changed (61%) or even improved (23%). A small proportion (16%) however find them more tense than usual. It is the same for relations between brothers and sisters. Children living with only one parent have more often degraded relationships with him (26%) than those living with both parents (15%).
The family climate has improved more often in executive households. On the other hand, relations deteriorate when the financial situation of the household is perceived as difficult. Housing conditions are also decisive, relationships have more often deteriorated when housing did not have outdoor space.
The onset of sleep disturbances
With the disappearance of the obligation to get up to go to school, nearly 40% of children saw their sleep duration increase, but it nevertheless decreased for 14% of them. The confinement had a deleterious impact on sleep for 22% of the children: half had already experienced sleep problems before and saw them worsen, in the other cases, the disorders appeared during the confinement.
All other things being equal, the presence of sleep-related problems during confinement was higher for girls than for boys, children from low-income households than those from wealthy households, and children who lived in a building. compared to those living in an urban home.
A small proportion of children, 13%, experienced socio-emotional difficulties such as anxiety and difficulty concentrating or impulsivity. These problems are very much related to the type of family and housing. The proportion of children with this type of difficulty is high among those living with a single parent (27%) or in an apartment, especially those without a balcony (23%).
Although they had less contact with other children during confinement, the only children did not have more difficulty. Boys suffered more socio-emotional difficulties than girls, as is observed in normal times. Children with these disorders are also over-represented in households with the lowest incomes, especially those facing a drop in income during confinement (19%) compared to well-off households with constant income (10%).
Degradation during confinement
If we summarize the range of difficulties experienced by children by a synthetic score, we observe that 55% of them had no particular problem, 30% had only one, 10% two, 5% three or more. The most common difficulties encountered are overuse of screens and sleep disturbances.
Overall, the risk of being affected by several of these problems increased by 25% between the middle and the end of confinement.
Despite the upheaval in their daily lives, children aged 8 to 9 have adapted rather well to the first confinement. The protective framework of the family cushioned the shock of the health and economic crisis. However, some of them experienced it more difficult. These are generally children who, in normal times, have specific behaviors and difficulties that the confinement has accentuated.
Author Bios: Xavier Thierry is Associate research scientist, Ariane Pailhe is Research Director both at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) and Bertrand Geay is Professor at the University of Picardy (CURAPP, CNRS), SHS Scientific Coordinator of the French Longitudinal Study since Childhood (ELFE, INED-INSERM) at the University of Picardy Jules Verne
Also co-authors of this article are: Nathalie Berthomier, Jérome Camus, Nicolas Cauchi-Duval, Jean ‑ Louis Lanoë, Sylvie October, Julie Pagis, Lidia Panico, Thierry Siméon, Anne Solaz and the SAPRIS team.