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How Are Kids Handling The Pandemic? We Asked Them.

After an excruciating wait for many families, children ages 5 and older can now be vaccinated against COVID-19. The decision marks a turning point in the pandemic for millions of Americans as they can worry a little less and live a little more.

For more than a year and a half we’ve been told that the worries of adults have changed the lives of kids in all sorts of deleterious ways. And so, on the eve of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to approve vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds, we wanted to know just how kids (and their parents) were doing. Are kids and teenagers stressed, depressed and scared? How do they see themselves and their families changed by the pandemic? And how has their behavior changed to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in their daily life? 

To help answer those questions, we partnered with our friends at Ipsos, the polling firm, to work on a poll that asked parents and kids how they’re doing. Between Oct. 25 and Nov. 2, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos used Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel to survey 689 kids ages 5 to 11, 572 kids ages 12 to 17 (let’s call them “teens” for our purposes), and more than 1,500 of their parents.1 The answers were surprising! We found a population of kids who appear to be pretty resilient, even in the face of loneliness and isolation, and who are forming strong relationships with their parents and families. Any one kid who’s struggling because of the pandemic is a source of concern. Overall, though, America’s kids aren’t as downtrodden as they’re often made out to be.

A child walks with her mother to the observation area after receiving a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Most kids said their teachers and friends regularly wear masks at school, though there were differences depending on where they lived.

Emily Elconin / Bloomberg via Getty Images

You can see all the poll results here. These were our highlights:

Parents are concerned about their kids, but kids are having a pretty good time

The kids are all right — or, at least, they report being a lot more all right than we were expecting. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the lives of children and teens, cutting them off from friends, activities and adults other than their parents. The combination of limited social contact, disrupted schooling and fear of the virus itself led many to anticipate a major mental health crisis looming in youth. A poll conducted this past spring by the Children’s Hospital of Chicago found 65 percent of parents believed the mental health consequences for kids will be worse than for adults. So we were surprised to find that the kids who participated in our survey almost universally don’t describe themselves as struggling.

For example, we asked teens, ages 12 to 17, about the current state of their mental health and a vast majority had good things to say.

All things considered, teens (and parents) are feeling good

Answers to questions about mental health and share of respondents from FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll on COVID-19, by cohort

How would you describe your mental health? parents teenagers
Very good or somewhat good 88% 89%
Very poor or somewhat poor 10 8
No response 1 2
How concerned are you about your kid’s/your mental health? parents teenagers
Very or somewhat concerned 34% 17%
A little or not at all concerned 65 80
No response 1 2

Survey conducted Oct. 25 to Nov. 2, 2021. Based on a sample of 1,509 parents and 572 teenagers (ages 12 to 17).

Source: FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos

In fact, their parents were a little more likely to report poor mental health — 11 percent of parents to 8 percent of the teens. FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos asked kids aged 5 to 11 a slightly different question — “How do you feel right now?” — and 96 percent of them said they felt very or somewhat good.

“That’s great. It’s really good news,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, a professor of psychology and public policy at Duke University, when we told her the results of the survey. “There’s a lot of good developmental science behind the idea that ultimately kids will be resilient.”

The good vibes extended to more specific parts of their lives, too. Overall, teens were less likely than their parents to be worried about their ability to perform in school, less worried about their ability to participate in activities, less worried about catching COVID-19, and much less worried about their mental health. While 34 percent of parents were concerned about their kids’ mental health, about half as many teens — 18 percent — found their own mental health concerning. More than half said their mental health hadn’t changed at all since the start of the pandemic — 24 percent said it had gotten worse and 20 percent said their mental health was now better.

High School basketball cheerleaders in the stands wearing masks.
Most kids reported they’re still playing outside with each other, but less than half of kids are attending club meetings or playing sports inside.

Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Meanwhile, while parents were busy worrying, teens were reporting … having a good time with them. Twenty-seven percent of teens reported that the pandemic led to improvements in their home lives and 30 percent reported having better relationships with their parent(s). And more than 90 percent of kids of all ages felt that their parents had done a good job keeping them safe during the pandemic. 

Gassman-Pines’s own research has focused on the impacts COVID-19 had on low-income families, and particularly the families of people who worked in the service industry during the pandemic. She was pleasantly surprised to find that the good news remained largely good even when we broke our respondents down by income and race. There were some differences, though. Black parents were more likely than white parents to report that they were concerned about their personal finances, and low-income parents reported worse finances and physical health than higher-income parents. And teens and children of color were more scared of COVID-19 and of being lonely. But the shares of teens who felt good about their home lives, relationship with parents, mental and physical health, and current loneliness were mostly consistent across race and income.2 Even when parents were having a harder time, and kids were more worried, the outcomes for those kids weren’t particularly worse. It’s possible, Gassman-Pines said, that this is an indicator of the positive, stabilizing impacts of stimulus and child tax credit payments — something that’s been observed in other research.  

Kids say they’re living in a world trying to keep them safe from COVID-19

We were also surprised to see high rates of reported mask usage and other behaviors to keep people safe from COVID-19. Eighty percent of teens and younger kids reported that their teachers were consistently or always wearing masks at school, 70 percent of both groups reported that their friends were consistently doing the same, and more than 70 percent said other kids at school were. The kids and teens in our survey also reported that they, themselves, were mask wearing at rates higher than 70 percent. 

Predictably, there were geographic differences in this data. Teens in the Northeast were most likely to say their teachers always wear masks — more than 75 percent of them. Those rates were less than 50 percent in the Midwest and South. This tracks with regulations. Schools in the Northeast have been more likely to implement and maintain masking mandates than schools in the South. Cases of COVID-19 in children have followed the same patterns, with higher rates in the Southeast and South than in the Northeast. 

There were also differences in behavior by race. White kids were more likely to report having indoor playdates in the last month — a particularly interesting result given that white kids were also the ones least likely to be worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves. 

Kids’ relationships with their friends are relatively worse off

While kids and teens have generally positive things to report about their overall mental health and their relationships at home, the pandemic does seem to have had an impact on how young people interact with each other and how they feel about those changes. Indoor activities are still not the norm for most kids. Fewer than 50 percent of both teens and younger children had had an indoor playdate in the last month; fewer than 40 percent had attended an indoor party; and only 41 percent of teens and 31 percent of younger children had attended an indoor club meeting or played sports inside. In contrast, 64 percent of teens and 77 percent of younger kids had played with their friends outside, an activity that is significantly less likely to lead to COVID-19 transmission.

Bus driver Roberta Steele waits for students.

Related: Would You Manage 70 Children And A 15-Ton Vehicle For $18 An Hour? Read more. »

And we see some big contrasts in how kids and teens think about their friends versus their family. While 30 percent of teens reported improved relationships with parents since COVID-19 began and only 7 percent reported those relationships worsening, the changes in relationships with friends were a lot more split, with 27 percent reporting that their friendships and social lives had gotten better and 29 percent reporting they had gotten worse. 

Likewise, 26 percent of teens reported feeling less connected and more lonely since the start of the pandemic, while 25 percent reported feeling more connected and less lonely. While the raw numbers were small, we did see correlations that connected a strong sense of feeling lonely to a sense that one’s mental health had gotten worse. 

Families generally agree on vaccines

Parents have spent a lot more time talking about the vaccine to other adults than teens have spent discussing it with their peers — 50 percent to 38 percent. But that doesn’t mean the teens haven’t formed opinions on the vaccine and how it should be rolled out. Those opinions tend to track with the opinions of their parents. For example, 60 percent of parents and 61 percent of teens agreed that schools should mandate vaccines for adults in schools, including teachers and administrators. And a smaller majority agreed that schools should mandate vaccines for students 12 and older: 54 percent of parents and 57 percent of teens. 

About 50 percent of parents in the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll were interested in vaccinating their under-12 children, depending on the age of the child, and between 50 and 60 percent of the teens we interviewed had already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. (The survey was conducted before the CDC approved vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds.)

A child in a Captain America costume displays a sticker reading "COVID-19 Vaccinated"
About half of the parents of 5- to 11-year-olds in the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll said they were interested in vaccinating their kids, and that was before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved vaccination for that age group.

Hannah Beier / Bloomberg via Getty Images

We found strong correlations between parents’ attitudes about personal vaccination and the attitudes of their children. If you focus just on teens whose parents had already gotten vaccinated or were very likely to, 79 percent of them said they were already vaccinated or were very likely to be soon — compared to just 9 percent of teens whose parents weren’t vaccinated and weren’t likely to be. We found similar patterns with younger kids: 46 percent of those whose parents were vaccinated said they were (or were going to be soon), compared to just 1 percent of kids whose parents weren’t vaccinated and weren’t likely to be. 

Teens’ and kids’ attitudes about whether they should get the vaccine themselves were also highly correlated with parents’ attitudes. Among teens and kids who were unlikely to get vaccinated, parent opinions mattered significantly more than whether peers were getting vaccinated or not. 

So, to summarize, kids are relatively happy and listening to their parents. Just as we always assumed. 

Additional reporting by Anna Rothschild.


How COVID-19 vaccines work

Footnotes

  1. We began by surveying a representative sample of parents with children under 18 in the household. After they completed the survey, we randomly selected a child 5 to 17 (if applicable) and asked if their selected child was available and would consent to take a short survey. For the 5- to 11-year-olds, we directed the parent to ask the child the questions and record the answers. For the 12- to 17-year-olds, we asked the parent to have the teen complete the survey. Parents and kids alike could take the survey on a computer, tablet or mobile phone, in English or in Spanish. Each surveyed population (adults, teens and children) received its own weighting, based on benchmarks from the 2019 American Community Survey and 2021 March Supplement of the Current Population Survey.

  2. The survey asked respondents about race and ethnicity, so white includes only non-Hispanic white respondents, and Black non-Hispanic Black respondents.

Maggie Koerth is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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