COVID-19: Symptoms of Depression or Anxiety in Children and Playtime For Children

From a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is not uncommon for children to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders, but the diagnoses are more prevalent with increased age. As a result, we were forced to expand the 2-5 years scope and incorporate broader data. Moreover, while we were able to find data on the percentage of young children in the US who displayed symptoms of depression or anxiety before the COVID-19 pandemic, we could not determine how that figure has changed since the onset of the pandemic. An article by CNN Health indicated that it will take years before the full impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health is realized. However, we found a recent report on how the pandemic has led to an increase in the percentage of children who displayed symptoms of depression or anxiety in Hubei Province, China, and included it. Dr. Margarita Alegria of Massachusetts General Hospital stated that the issues could be more pronounced in the US than China because of the greater income inequality.

Percentage of Young Children Who Displayed Symptoms of Depression or Anxiety Pre and During the Pandemic

  • Based on a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health, while children between the age of 3-5 years barely display symptoms of depression, around 1.6% display anxiety symptoms. On the other hand, The Whole Child stated that 1 in 40 children aged 0-5 years can be affected by depression. The CDC report further stated that diagnoses of depression and anxiety are more common with increased age.

Depression adn Axiety Disorders by Age

  • In a broader scope, the CDC reported that around 7.1% (4.4 million) of American children aged 3-17 years were diagnosed with anxiety in 2016 while 3.2% (1.9 million) had diagnosed depression. The CDC further stated that 1 in 6 children or 17.4% aged 2-8 years were diagnosed with a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
  • Another report by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) revealed that it is not unusual for children to be diagnosed with both depression and anxiety or depression and general anxiety since 2-3% of children aged 6-12 years may have serious depression. MedicineNet also stated that approximately 2% of preschoolers are affected by depression.
  • The percentage of young children who display symptoms of depression or anxiety has been increasing over the years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has further caused a spike in the number of young children displaying symptoms of anxiety or depression. As a result, children who have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression disorders need extra support during the pandemic.
  • In a recent Gallup Panel, 29% of US parents revealed that social distancing and closures amid the pandemic are affecting the emotional and mental health of their children. A further 14% said their children are approaching their limits and their mental health will suffer if they keep staying indoors.
  • CNN Health indicated that it will take years before the full impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health is realized. However, in a recent report published in JAMA Pediatrics on the mental health of children during COVID-19 in Hubei Province, China, the pandemic has elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression in children.
  • Out of the 1784 participants aged 6-12 years who completed the survey, 22.6% of them showed depression symptoms while 18.9% reported anxiety symptoms. These results were higher than other surveys conducted before the pandemic. Science Media Centre stated that the percentage of children who showed depression symptoms in the study was “30% higher than historical norms.”
  • Based on the results of the study conducted in China, the chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Dr. Margarita Alegria, stated that the issues could be more pronounced in the US because there is greater income inequality in the US than China.

Playtime for Children

Playtime plays a critical role in the development of children. For example, it helps in their physical and mental development. Here are research studies that highlight the importance of playtime for children.

Study 1: Randomized control trial of Tools of the Mind: Marked benefits to kindergarten children and their teachers

  • This 2019 research applied a play-based teaching system called Tools of the Mind to teach kindergarten children and compare their performance with that of a control group under a daycare program.

Key Findings

  • By the end of the research children under the play-based system improved their reading skills from 14% to 33% and writing skills from 15% to 64%.
  • This group improved its ability to work without supervision from 22% to 100%.

Study 2: Guidelines on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Sleep for Children Under 5 Years Of Age

  • This is a 2019 World Health Organization report that recommends the time healthy children below the age of 5 years should be active or sleep within a 24-hour period. It also highlights the salient benefits of playtime among children and gives recommendations on how play should be administered to healthy children.

Key Findings

Study 3: The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children

  • This report was published in September 2018 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • It seeks to show how playtime influences the interaction between kids and parents by promoting the development of healthy and stable relationships.
  • It also examines the aspects of play development and recommends how the best approaches in playing with kids.

Key Findings

  • According to this report, play reduces anxiety in children two times better than telling them stories.
  • Playtime enhances a sense of urgency, development of language, and math skills.
  • Moreover, the study reveals that peer play helps children to develop negotiation and corporation skills.
  • Children who have 1 hour of playtime every day are better at multitasking and creative activities.

Study 4: Playtime Matters

  • This is a May 2019 report by Outdoor Classroom that provides research-backed evidence that shows that outdoor playtime encourages an all-round development of children.
  • The study focuses on kids in the 6-13 years age bracket and compiles data from 2,535 respondents in primary schools from 76 countries.

Key Findings

  • According to this research, playtime varies between 15 minutes to 2 hours in elementary schools world over.
  • It states that recess stirs up curiosity in children and helps them connect better with the environment.
  • These kids are likely to develop better mental health, be more creative, have high self-esteem, and interact better with both younger and older children.
  • Other benefits of playtime as per this research include good mood, reduced stress, and better eyesight.
  • Also, this research shows that over 65% of teachers around the world see playtime as an important part of child development.

Study 5: IPEMA 2018 Survey on Recess

  • The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) research was conducted in March 2018 by Wakefield Research.
  • It sought to examine the impact of recess on the development, social interactions, and general behavior of young students.
  • This survey targeted 500 elementary school teachers in Harrisburg, PA, who gave their expert opinion based on observations on how the students behaved during recess.

Key Findings

  • According to the research, 100% of respondents agreed that outdoor playtime was beneficial for the physical, cognitive, and emotional development of young children.
  • 97% of respondents indicated that playtime encouraged positive behavior among young learners who tend to have bad conduct.
  • 95% of the teachers said that playing in groups enhanced the social skills of children. Moreover, 81% of the respondents reported a positive change in children’s mood, eagerness to learn, improved attention span, and better academic performance.

Gaps in Education

Some key gaps parents see in the education of their children aged below 12 years include inadequate support for children with disabilities, a biased education system, and a low-quality pre-K education. Parents feel that some children with disabilities have exceptional ability but the methods commonly used for identification of exceptional gifts may not be appropriate for such children. Parents and other education stakeholders feel that the current education system is not conducive for students who have English as a second language.

Inadequate Support for Children with Disabilities

  • According to Reading Rockets, there are more than 6 million children with disabilities enrolled in public schools in the US and Reading Rockets indicates that the parents of these children have serious concerns about their children’s school participation.
  • The first concern these parents have is about their children’s safety at school during activities, such as games, field trips, and during practical lessons. Some parents feel that most schools do not have the facilities needed to effectively cater to the safety needs of such children.
  • The second concern parents having children with disabilities have is that most public schools do not create an environment that makes it easy for children with disabilities to have friends at school, especially those with communication challenges and those with chronic diseases.
  • The third concern these parents have is that some teachers may focus on the child’s disability and fail to discover the child’s gifting. Parents feel that some children with disabilities have exceptional ability but the methods commonly used for identification of exceptional gifts may not be appropriate for children with disabilities.

A Biased Education System

  • According to a report by the Center for American Progress, parents and teachers in the US feel that the education system does not guarantee quality education for every American child. The report indicates that the system is not favorable for students from minority groups and those from low-income families.
  • US parents and teachers say that the American education system right from early childhood level to high school to college-level is faulty. Statistics show that there are extreme variations in how states provide support for public education and that only about 11 states in the US have good plans for funding education by providing more resources to the needy students.
  • Parents and other education stakeholders in the US feel that the education system has many challenges, including frustrated teachers, low state funding for education, and a narrow curriculum. It is felt that the system is not conducive for students with disabilities, and those to whom English is a second language.

Low-Quality Pre-K Education

COVID-19: Impact on US Children

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, kids aged 2-5 in the U. S are watching more TV, but they are also playing outside more than before the pandemic. The largest change in their habits has been a jump in using internet-connected devices to watch videos. Below are some major impacts of the pandemic on children aged 2-5 in the U.S.


  • Compared to a similar period in 2019, kids aged 2-5 have increased their TV viewing hours by 60% at their peak time during the day, which is between 9 am and 2 pm.
  • When breaking down the different ways to watch TV, a study has found that kids aged 2-5 consumed 11% more cable, 16% more DVD/Blu-ray, 23% more traditional TV, and 25% more broadcast TV than before the pandemic.
  • Before the coronavirus crisis, the American Association of Pediatricians recommended one hour of quality TV content per day for children aged 2-5.
  • During the crisis, those guidelines have been relaxed, acknowledging that screen time for young children would inevitably increase, but that it should be limited to avoid impacting on times dedicated to sleep, physical activity, and family time.
  • However, in reality, kids that age group averaged 2h39 min of TV viewing time prior to the coronavirus crisis.
  • In terms of numbers of hours of TV, according to a Common Sense Media parent survey, children aged up to 8 watched an average of 1h40 min/day before the coronavirus.
  • In comparison, Nielsen, which used tracking to evaluate the same data in 2015, found that children aged 2-11 watched around 3.9 hours/day of TV.


  • At the same time as watching more TV, kids aged 2-5 also increased the time they spent playing video games by 56%.


  • A study by Nielsen found that the most important change in the habits of kids aged 2-5 during the pandemic was a 153% increase in the use of internet-connected devices such as smartphones or tablets.
  • In comparison, an IPSOS study found that the use of smartphones and tablets increased by 44% during the coronavirus for children under 5.
  • In addition, kids under 5 have increased their consumption of online videos by 43%, according to the same IPSOS study.



  • Despite kids under 5 watching more TV during the pandemic, an IPSOS study also found that the same kids would also spend 43% more time playing with toys than before the crisis.

COVID-19: Impact on Parents

Some of the most significant pain points for US parents around remote work and childcare during COVID-19 include the decreased availability of childcare and work/life balance by working parents.

Increased Costs/Unavailability of Childcare

  • Childcare is often regarded as a “top household expense.” Due to the pandemic, childcare in the US has become relatively unaffordable to low-income parents who work for minimum wage. In about 30 states in the US, the cost of childcare surpasses the average mortgage.
  • The decreased availability of childcare facilities is considered a pain point because it has impacted the productivity of working parents and caused job losses. A survey of about 2,557 parents indicates that “13% of US parents had to quit their jobs or reduce work hours as a result of childcare.”
  • Parents, most notably single parents, have been forced to choose between work and their kids. According to Eliza Navarro, “she was forced to quit her nursing job when she could not find childcare for her 2 children.”
  • Remote working parents are also not left out of this problem. Karin Brownawell, a mother of 2 boys under the age of 6 stated that she dreads video conferences; she said that while she was on a conference call with her bosses, her 3-year old son came in and screamed: “mom I want to poop.”
  • The decreased availability of childcare facilities is expected to be a long-term problem. Despite the re-opening of some childcare centers, guidelines by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reduces the capacity to 10 people per classroom. Additionally, a publication by the Washington Post indicates that about 258,000 childcare workers have lost their jobs.
  • Furthermore, different industry groups are urging the US Congress to approve $50 billion in federal aid to ensure that childcare centers remain in business. However, only $3.5 billion have been allocated so far.

Work/Life Balance

  • 50 million children have been sent home due to the coronavirus pandemic; this has complicated the lives of working parents remotely and otherwise. The shutdown of schools highlights the ever-growing challenge of finding a balance between work and family.
  • According to Jessica and Josh Witt, “the boundaries between work and home have been completely broken down. Their 3-year old daughter has become their office mate, background music, chief distractor, and star of video conferences.”
  • Finding the work/life balance is a pain point because the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “three-quarters of mothers and more than 90% of dads work.” Due to the pandemic, teachers expect parents to continue with schooling, and parents are multi-tasking with their children’s needs, education, and work.
  • A survey shows that work/life balance has become much harder for parents working and taking care of the kids. 31% of US parents believe that one of the toughest coronavirus-related challenges is trying to work from home while taking care of their children. This shows that most parents still find it challenging to maintain the work/life balance.
  • After continuous interruptions in her conference calls, Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, was forced to state the “that she is trying to manage her children, and she thinks they are going to see a lot of that.” Caitlyn Collins, a professor at Washington University, states that there is an “acute pressure for women to keep the family live out of the workplace.”
  • Actions by the government, such as the extension of paid family leave, free childcare in some states, and employers offering flexible hours indicate that this pain point may be long term. These long-term indications could be a result of the shift to more permanent remote structures.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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