COVID-19 Pandemic: A Psychosocial Epidemic

By Samantha McMahon ’26

The following was written for FYS 101: Who Succeeds in College?

Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com

COVID-19 Pandemic: A Psychosocial Epidemic

As children, our favorite part of school is recess. During recess, children are encouraged to engage in social interactions with their peers, engaging in games where they share culture, make decisions, and determine rules while testing their moral values of right vs. wrong (Jarrett, 2002). All these components help strengthen and enhance their social skills such as choosing teams, building relationships, and learning what it means to have the confidence to be a leader. The idea behind gaining confidence in one’s skill and learning how to flourish socially through interactions with both peers and the surrounding environment was highly praised by the psychologist, Erik Erikson.

This article will dive deeper into the younger stages of identity, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted future stages. Erikson’s theory emphasizes that one cannot properly move onto the next stage of life without satisfying the needs and questions of their current stage, putting a heavy emphasis on the earlier stages of life (Erikson, 1959). During the COVID-19 pandemic, children ages K-12 could not gain valuable social experiences, necessary nurturing needs, and maintain basic academic standards crucial to moving onto new stages.

The Stepping Stool of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson’s theory of identity development is a foundational explanation of tasks and/or struggles an individual must overcome in each stage of their life to successfully prepare for the next chapter. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development are Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, Integrity vs. Despair (Erikson, 1959).

To dive deeper, Trust vs. Mistrust is experienced from birth to 1.5 years old and if the infants’ basic needs are met such as feeding or nurturing, they learn to trust others (Erikson, 1959). Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt is experienced from 1.5 to 3 years old, and toddlers learn to exercise their abilities to do things for themselves, or else they will begin to doubt their skills (Erikson, 1959). The third stage, Initiative vs. Guilt, is experienced from ages 3-5 and young children learn to start initiating acts of independence or they feel guilty about their efforts to be independent (Erikson, 1959). In the fourth stage, Industry vs. Inferiority, children ages 5-13 gain confidence in their ability to apply and challenge themselves, or else they feel inferior to everyone else (Erikson, 1959).

Thefifth stage, Identity vs. Role Confusion, explains the period of adolescence where teenagers ages 13-21 explore personal self-identity or begin to feel confused about themselves and their place in the world (Erikson, 1959). The sixth stage following adolescence, Intimacy vs. Isolation, refers to young adults ages 21-39 and tests their ability to form meaningful relationships with peers and/or loved ones, or else they begin to feel socially isolated (Erikson, 1959). The next stage, Generativity vs. Stagnation, is experienced by adults ages 40-65, and their sense of giving back to the world through work, family, and community service is increased or else they begin to feel useless (Erikson, 1959). The final stage, Integrity vs. Despair, lasts from late adulthood until death and they begin to look back on their life and they either feel satisfied or a sense of failure (Erikson, 1959).

Erikson’s theory of lifespan development has been recited and used as a basis for social and behavioral psychology research surrounding identity and how outside or internal perspectives affect one’s personality. The beauty of his theory is that the milestones can connect or be supported by each stage. To successfully overcome the next conflict, the previous challenge must have been conquered and in doing so it shows signs of maturity and more complicated life experience that is expected as age matures. More importantly, it offers a deeper investigation into one of the most crucial life stages, adolescence, where teenagers are answering questions such as: who am I? What is my role in this world? How do I fit in? What do I want to do with my life? This stage can be referred to as “Identification” or “identity formation” (Sokol et al., 2009). However, none of these milestones can be met by teenagers if they are not given proper care as a baby by their caregivers.

Stressed Mother Leads to Poor Nurturing

            During the pandemic, many studies were conducted by the American Psychology Association that stated parental stress levels increased significantly. This can be attributed to factors such as employment uncertainty, worries about their children’s adjustments, or finding a way to still care for their family (Haskett et al., 2021). Mothers were especially impacted because they typically take over parental tasks such as feeding, childcare, and household needs. As a result, there was added stress with the closures of alternative childcare. When assessed on a COVID-19 Family Stress Screener sent out by the National Council of Family Relations, mothers had shown high rates of depression and anxiety (Haskett et al., 2021). These factors can lead to conflicts with family members, isolation from loved ones, as well as neglect of parental duties.

As previously stated, during the first stage of development: Trust vs. Mistrust, children have a dependence on their caregiver and if their caregiver is unable to provide for them, they experience developmental lags and begin to lose feelings of trust toward others. Not to mention, if the mother is isolating herself from her child/ren, they are unable to attend to their child/ren and provide them with the basic, bare-minimum amount of nurturing such as feeding, tummy time, hygiene needs, etc. As a result, if a child’s needs cannot be met, they are unable to be given the tools to move onto the next stage of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt and have the confidence to be independent in a supportive environment. They have learned mistrust and will lack visceral senses such as the deep sensibility of instinct when it comes to making decisions.

Taking a more intersectional approach, low-income families were significantly more affected. Unemployment rose from 3.8% to 13.0%, mostly involuntarily affecting nonessential businesses which had more female employees compared to the male population of workers under this position (Pew Research Center, 2020; Haskett et al., 2021). Most women either lost their job or were forced to work about 4 to 5 hours more compared to a man (Collin et al., 2020; Haskett et al., 2021). Those living in low-income positions ran into issues such as a lack of healthcare or an inability to provide basic needs. Furthermore, looking at this issue from a race perspective, African Americans were 71% more susceptible to getting COVID-19 compared to their Caucasian counterpart (American Psychology Association, 2020; Haskett et al., 2021). Statistically, African Americans were more likely to lose their job and have limited access to healthcare (either lost through their job or inability to have access to a healthcare service based on demographic). Although COVID-19 affected the parents of young children, children of color and/or low-income families were hit harder and those parents were under more stress. As a result, they are more susceptible to feeling neglected and lacking trust in their caregivers and environment based on their parents’ behavior and would be unable to want to move on to the next stage of their life.

Children who fit under those demographics have a significantly larger chance of having these discrepancies in social development compared to their Caucasian counterparts because those parents have significantly larger stress levels, causing more strain on parental relations that a child needs to gain trust. Although mothers serve as an important resource for development at such as young age, as a child grows older, their actions and behaviors become the important resource needed to grow as they enter the next life phase of schooling.

Online School is for Fools

The purpose of school is to pick up stronger habits to better understand the content. The transition from in-person school to online school was detrimental to success in the classroom because students developed bad habits and lost academic motivation, which has  led to issues in higher education settings. Most education systems are built on learning content through discussion and visualization, which is then tested through an examination of the comprehension of the concept. Among students, exams have the stigma of determining future trajectory and success, which in turn, motivates students to want to achieve mastery of content (Putwain, 2009). Learning can be seen as a trial-and-error process in which students manage factors that influence personal learning (Dembo et al., 2016). Throughout their years of schooling, children and even adolescents follow six major components of academic self-regulation: motivation, methods of learning, use of time, physical environment, social environment, and monitoring performance (Zimmerman et al., 1997; Dembo et al., 2016).

            Motivation refers to setting goals such as setting up expectations and beliefs in hopes that an individual can direct their behavior and learn discipline (Zimmerman et al., 1997; Dembo et al., 2016). Methods of learning refer to learning strategies a student uses to retain the information they are trying to study. Examples of these methods include underlining, asking questions, creating phonemes, summarizing concepts in different wording, etc. (Zimmerman et al., 1997; Dembo et al., 2016). The use of time refers to the concept of time management and “carving” out time to succeed in each class (Zimmerman et al., 1997; Dembo et al., 2016). Physical and social environments coincide with one another, but essentially it refers to a student manipulating their environment to fit their needs. This could involve moving to a quiet place and eliminating as many distractions as possible (Zimmerman et al., 1997; Dembo et al., 2016). Finally, monitoring performance refers to detecting past errors to better prepare for future assignments. This can come in terms of internal or external feedback from an outside source (Zimmerman et al., 1997; Dembo et al., 2016).

No Lessons to Be Learned

When transitioning to online school, children were forced to stay at home and learn concepts in different settings. Many lessons were cut in half or had to be taught in a different way to fit the needs of Zoom or Google Classroom, which in turn, lessened achievement gaps. This phenomenon of losing learning gains is known as the “summer learning loss” (George et al., 2021). During the year 2020, students were projected to learn 30% less than their typical intake (Kuhfeld et al., 2020; George et al., 2021). In theory, students are learning less than normal, eliminating any need to test time management or handle a heavier course load. Children who are unable to learn how to manage themselves and start learning means of independence, especially in the Initiative vs. Guilt stage of schooling, will be unable to apply themselves when they are older, especially in college when students are expected to manage their learning (Bembenutty, 2011). If this stage is not met, children will continue to revert to feeling that they cannot be independent without help from others.

            In addition, online schools took away the means of motivation. There were strong indications of cheating due to the increase in opportunities to use outside resources such as notes or the internet during tests conducted online (Erguvan, 2021). Students could rely on outside sources for answers, eliminating any need to study before taking an exam. There was no motivation to understand mastery when students had access to the internet that could find the answer easier. Through studies conducted in Asia, it was found that motivators of cheating were primarily driven by “laziness” and the result of “getting an easy grade” (Erguvan, 2021). In theory, if no studying was done beforehand and there was little motivation to study and challenge themselves, methods of learning strategies such as summarizing and outlining passages declined. Students were unable to test and practice ways for them to study efficiently, which will affect them in further stages of adolescence and adulthood. The inability to understand self-regulation causes them to lack the maturity and independence needed to flourish in their next stage of development in settings where they need to act maturely in front of a higher power (bosses, employees, etc.). This type of epidemic was most prevalent during the grade-school developmental stage of Industry vs. Inferiority. If children cannot apply themselves to complete basic academic tasks, they will begin to feel inferior to their peers when schools open again, and it will affect their social development as they reach later stages of their life.

“Unmute Yourselves!”

Behaviorists such as Erikson believe that behavior and personality are shaped through observations and interactions among peers and adults. The emphasis on social interaction is most prevalent in Erikson’s third stage of development: Initiative vs. Guilt (Erikson, 1987). During this stage, most of a child’s social development is guided through play and regulating activities with their peers (McLeod, 2018). Children are starting to initiate plans and create games, as well as interact with other kids their age. The goal is to gain a sense of initiative and leadership and have confidence in themselves to make decisions (McLeod, 2018). In return, children strengthen their ability to interact with others and build their social skills, which are needed for the next stages of Identity vs. Role Confusion and Intimacy vs. Isolation.

Throughout the brink of the COVID-19 pandemic, upper and lower-level schools were shut down and learning was moved to a virtual, remote setting. Students lost the valuable in-person learning interactions that are so crucial to social development (Dikkers et al., 2014) According to psychologists Barbour and Reeves, “many students stated feelings of isolation and a lack of community in asynchronous environments” (Dikkers et al., 2014). Isolation and deprivation of human interaction cause children to demonstrate symptoms of anxiety and behavior change such as unwarranted aggression or withdrawal, heightened irritability, and high levels of depression. Studies have also shown that children in isolation suffered mainly from emotional and behavioral problems, making it difficult for them to communicate effectively with others in their environment (Asvaroğlu et al., 2021). Students in a remote setting are unable to gain confidence in the Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt stage and learn how to interact with others in the next stage of Initiative vs. Guilt because of limited in-person interactions. This delay will inhibit their ability to communicate with others as an adult going through stages of Intimacy vs. Isolation where it is expected that they form lifelong social connections.

 In addition, transitioning to strict interactions with parents and siblings may lead to regression in dependent behaviors that are present in earlier stages of life (Asvaroğlu et al., 2021). Erikson’s structure of social “building blocks” is completely dismantled and a child either learns habits that either keep them stuck in that stage or helps them progress into future stages. Lack of emotional regulation can lead to future discrepancies of self-destructive tendencies in social success as an adult goes into the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage in which individuals are expected to have more mature interactions with spouses, partners, and employers.

Future Success at Risk

It’s human nature that as an individual gets older, priorities change. As one slowly reaches adulthood, they begin to form all different kinds of relationships whether those are romantic or professional. Regardless of what age these occur, the skills needed to maintain those relationships start during the college age. College is a pivotal moment in an individual’s life when they are still deciding who they want to be and what they want to do with their life (Erikson, 1959). They begin to go through “self-exploration” where they explore different life paths by getting involved in activities and actively make decisions for themselves (McLeod, 2018). The means to be successful in college are socially establishing independence from their family and other adults and making meaningful connections with peers. It is important to know how to network and speak to other adults professionally and respectfully. These goals wouldn’t be possible without flourishing in younger stages such as Initiative vs. Guilt where play and social interactions are crucial, and independence is supported. Mentally and physically, success is knowing how to take care of oneself mentally and physically (as well as understanding their “normal”) and understanding their goals and aspirations, as well as keeping themselves disciplined to achieve that satisfaction. These goals would not be achieved if the stages leading up to Identity vs. Role Confusion were not supported in terms of academic motivation and health practices taught by parents.

Conclusion

Although COVID-19 was advertised in the media as a physical health epidemic, it was just as detrimental as a social epidemic. During the pandemic, children ages K-12 were unable to gain valuable social experiences, necessary nurturing needs, and maintain basic academic standards that are crucial to moving onto new stages.

The effects of social development on the younger generation range from regression, depression, stress disorders, fear of isolation, and mental health declines. Behavioral theorists such as Erik Erikson create theories that emphasize the needed tasks and struggles an individual must overcome in each life stage to successfully prepare for the next chapter of their life. The main goals of his theory include the importance of children building trust with peers and developing social skills, but the lack of in-person exposure caused them to miss out on important milestones in learning such as mental and emotional regulation.

Some may argue that at-home learning was positive because families became closer, and children were able to stay in an environment they were comfortable and familiar with (Haskett et al., 2021). However, as previously stated, parents were in high states of stress due to more work and their families being home, which often led to feelings of hostility and rejection projected onto their children. A child’s strain in their relationships with their parents not only affects their first developmental stage of Trust vs. Mistrust, but it also affects the next stage of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt where parental support can help flourish their sense of independence (Haskett et al., 2021). On the other hand, staying in the same environment did not challenge children to “branch out” and explore new areas of life that can allow them to truly find themselves and grow. The lack of personal growth could also cause children to regress into tendencies of dependency that were prevalent in early childhood. Disruptions affect Erikson’s stages of Industry vs. Inferiority where they learn different ways of communicating and interacting with peers similar in age, but also future stages of Identity vs. Role Confusion where children are expected to get involved in their outside community as much as possible to discover whom they want to be. The idea of social development as a “domino effect” explains why the pandemic puts a strain on social development, and psychologists should be concerned about delays in the proper social development of children ages K-12 as they approach late adulthood.

References

Dembo, M. H., & Seli, H. (2014). Motivation and learning strategies for college success: a focus on self-regulated learning. New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Friends Group.

Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. New York: International University Press.

Erguvan, I. D. (2021). The rise of contract cheating during the COVID-19 pandemic: a qualitative study through the eyes of academics in Kuwait. Lang Test Asia, 11(34). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40468-021-00149-y

George, G., Dilworth-Bart, J., & Herringa, R. (2021). Potential socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on neural development, mental health, and k-12 educational achievement. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences8(2), 111–118. https://doi.org/10.1177/23727322211032248

Haskett, M. E., Hall, J. K., Finster, H. P., Owens, C., & Buccelli, A. R. (2022). It brought my family more together: mixed-methods study of low-income U.S. mothers during the pandemic. Family Relations, 71( 3), 849– 864. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12684

Jarrett, O. S. (2002). Recess in elementary school: what does the research say? ERIC Digest, 1-7. www.eric.ed.gov

McLeod, S. A. (2018). Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html

Putwain, D. W. (2009). Assessment and examination stress in key stage 4. British Educational Research Journal, 35(3), 391-411. http://doi.org/10.1080/01411920802044404

Ragelienė T. (2016). Links of adolescents’ identity development and relationship with peers: a systematic literature review. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent25(2), 97–105.

Sokol, J. T. (2009). Identity development throughout the lifetime: an examination of Eriksonian theory. Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1(2).

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