Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Kids Are Feeling Isolated. P.E. May Help Them Bounce Back

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 02, 2021 3 min read
Kids join their parents in a workout in the park Monday, March 16, 2020, in Coronado, Calif. A local gym moved their class outdoors as kids staying home from school due to coronavirus concerns joined the group.
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Adolescents coming of age during the pandemic have experienced social “learning loss,” and will need remedial support in social, not just academic, development, suggests new research presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience’s virtual annual conference.

And at a time when recess and physical education programs may feel a squeeze from schools seeking more time for reading or math, studies suggest boosting students’ physical activity time also has an important role. It may help students rebound from the social isolation many have experienced during the pandemic.

Even as most schools have returned to in-person classes, the last two years have created habits of greater distancing, the use of virtual technology in social situations, or other practices that “fundamentally changed the way we interact with people,” said Alexa Veenema, an associate professor in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Michigan. “The global pandemic, even though it affected all of us, especially caused children and teenagers to be isolated from their peers for prolonged periods of time—and especially during these developmental periods that they showed the most intense need for interactions with peers.”

While the neuroscience studies used animals to model the longer-term effects of social isolation on adolescents’ brain development, their findings mirror similar research on human children, which finds social isolation has increased stress, anxiety, and depression, particularly among teenagers.

For example, in an array of new studies, researchers found isolating young mice from peers during adolescence changed their brain systems linked to fear, risk-and-reward, and social recognition.

For example, Yong-Seok Lee, a neuroscientist with the Seoul National University College of Medicine, found that mice that were separated from others for eight weeks during early adolescence showed changed brain patterns and less ability to recognize friendly versus threatening peers in social situations, even after they had been returned to close interactions with peers for four weeks. The results echo human studies that have found children who have experienced trauma and isolation can become hypersensitive to perceived threats from peers.

“I think that educators should be prepared to see some much less mature social interaction among those [isolated] children,” Lee said. “I think the educators need to be very patient ... because these children will need more time.”

Separate studies found adolescents with gaps in their social interaction also were more anxious and at a higher risk of abusing drugs such as cocaine.

Activity Buffers Against Social Isolation Problems

One series of experiments suggests that boosting adolescents’ exercise could counter some of those negative effects during and after periods of isolation.

Enrique Pérez-Cardona, a professor and the chairman of the education department at the University of Puerto Rico, tracked the anxiety and stress levels of adolescent rats who had been isolated from peers. Those who exercised on a treadmill at least four days a week during and after being isolated showed lower activity in areas of the brain associated with stress, and showed less anxious behavior.

Also, the increased exercise helped alleviate anxiety, even if it did not involve exercising with others—important, as more than 60 percent of teachers in a 2020 survey by the Society of Health and Physical Educators reported needing more virtual and physically distanced activities for students during and after the pandemic.

“Our results suggest for those students that are returning to school and that were socially isolated, schools need to understand that they may bring anxiety and they could be aggressive,” Pérez-Cardona said. “The school has to be prepared and define a good physical education program, so those children can try to release those negative effects of isolation.”

For example, federal guidelines recommend adolescents get an hour a day of exercise that includes at minimum:

  • Moderate or high-intensity aerobic activity, such as running or dancing, at least three days a week;
  • Muscle-strengthening, such as using weights or hiking, three days a week; and
  • Bone strengthening, such as resistance exercises, three days a week.

One recent study of nearly 10,000 children and adolescents in China found their average daily physical activity has dropped substantially during the pandemic, and students with less time spent doing at least moderate exercise had significantly worse moods and mental health.

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