After a year of sheltering at home and online school cutting many students off from both existing friends and opportunities to make new connections, many school-aged children have reported the mental and physical effects of social isolation to their parents and pediatricians.
“We’re seeing a lot of social anxiety coming out of this in children and adults, I think because it’s just such a change from what we were used to,” Dr. Shannon MacGregor, a Mercy pediatric provider, said.
These concerns come in addition to a rise in obesity and even various eating disorders that have been documented. MacGregor even said a rise in headaches has been documented due to the additional screen time many children are faced with on a daily basis as a result of an increased reliance on video communication for both school and entertainment.
According to Dr. Delene Musielak, a pediatrician with St. Luke’s Hospital and host of The Dr. Mom Show podcast, many kids are also experiencing anxiety at the prospect of interacting with peers again after long periods of quarantine and isolation, especially during the school year.
“It’s going from ‘I’m doing virtual learning, I’m all by myself, this is awesome’ to ‘Now I have to go back to school with everybody,’” Musielak said. “We’re definitely seeing that anxiety, because the isolation has almost watered that feeling of withdrawal in a lot of adolescents.”
This withdrawal period in adolescence usually occurs between ages 11-13 where, according to Musielak, individuals going through puberty already withdraw from family and shift into focus on self-identity.
“It’s almost like a domino effect where everything has built up, so I feel like that has increased the anxiety for them about getting back into society, because at least in the past, they were going to school,” Musielak said. “There were still activities, there were still sports. You could go out and not necessarily have to worry about being next to people. Now … a year in, people haven’t really been in super close contact with each other. So, essentially, it’s almost strengthened that withdrawal, because those kids have not gotten to exercise their social skills.”
Since the start of the pandemic, summer camps across the United States made multiple changes in accordance with studies from the American Camp Association (ACA) to make sure campers and counselors alike would be able to thrive in safe environments. Going into the 2021 camping season, according to MacGregor, many of those previous guidelines and rules have since been streamlined thanks to advances in COVID-19 research and the growing availability of vaccines.
“I do think, especially now that we’ve gathered more data on how to safely allow kids to congregate in a structured setting, I think we have the tools now to safely offer some summer camp options for kids,” MacGregor said.
This, according to MacGregor, makes summer camps in 2021 an even more valuable social experience than usual for campers of all ages.
“I think there’s so many benefits to summer camp,” MacGregor said. “They provide a great social outlet for kids, physical activity, structure they lose when they don’t have school for the summer.”
Many camps have added safety regulations that don’t compromise the more social parts of the traditional camp experience.
According to the ACA, many summer camps are being recommended to operate in a cohort system, where campers are grouped together based on factors like age, interest or geographical location.
According to Musielak, group learning and activities provide a myriad of social benefits, especially in a controlled environment like camp.
“I think groups are awesome,” Musielak said. “It’s like adults when we collaborate. You learn from other’s mistakes, and then you don’t have to make those mistakes because you’ve learned from someone’s life experience. The social skills that come from interacting with different people, we all have different personalities, so knowing how to interact with another kid who is outgoing or another who may be shy.”
The different summertime activities that take place at camp, such as fishing or crafts, also offer campers the benefit of teaching their peers and sharing their own skills while simultaneously learning and collaborating with others.
“There may be someone in the group who is good at fishing or crafting or skills that another child doesn’t know, and they can learn from them during that time,” Musielak said.
Day camps and sleep away camps alike can also serve as a pivotal first experience of independence for some campers, which can help bolster feelings of self-confidence as they age.
“The independence and that courage to approach people, I think, it is very important for all kids to have,” Musielak said. “To build those social skills and life skills, the independence and confidence is needed.”
While socialization is a big part of summer camp, some may find the prospect overwhelming.
While these feelings of anxiety are normal, they can fester into growing discomfort if left unattended.
“I think one thing that is helpful, oftentimes for adolescents too, is realizing that they’re in the same boat as their peers,” MacGregor said. “Everyone is going through this together. Those feelings are normal. Having some anxiety or fear or nervousness about going into a new situation and being around new people, that’s okay.”