Are lockdowns and social distancing more harmful to young girls? Beyond the CDC report of suicide attempts

Are lockdowns and social distancing more harmful to young girls Beyond the CDC report of suicide attempts

Note that views expressed in this opinion article are the writer’s personal views and not necessarily those of TrialSite.

Dr. Ron Brown

June 13, 2021

Social distancing and lockdowns may come with an extra harmful risk of suicide attempts for young girls. In an analysis of data between February and March, 2021, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a 50.6% increase from the prior year in emergency department visits by girls aged 12 to 17 suspected of attempting suicide. Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Suicide Attempts Among Persons Aged 12–25 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–May 2021 | MMWR (cdc.gov). The study authors suggested these numbers may not represent additional suicide attempts in girls who avoided hospital admissions for fear of COVID-19. The authors also suggested that disruption from social distancing and lockdowns may have been a contributing factor in these cases, along with other factors such as substance abuse, lack of mental health treatment, and anxiety about health and economic insecurity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Separation from friends and teachers was an additional factor mentioned in the study. But what is it about young girls that make them particularly susceptible for risk of suicide under stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and social distancing? The answer may lie in gender differences in children’s social development.

A foundational review describes how peer relationships are a normal part of social development for both boys and girls from preschool throughout middle childhood. Gender Differences: Implications for Social Skills Assessment and Training (tandfonline.com). Due to differences in children’s gender-segregated peer interactions during social play, lockdowns and social distancing may have a stronger negative impact on girls, making it more difficult for girls to acquire the skills, values, and goals necessary for socialization. 

From a traditional gender-role perspective, boys tend to play in large groups while girls form more intensive personal relationships with each other as exclusive best friends whom they play with and interact daily. Boys more often have multiple roles in coordinated interactions like team sports, while girls tend to be more involved with coactions that they share with their friends. Boys play in groups away from home, school, and adults, while girls tend to stick closer to home, interacting with female adults and younger infants. Girls are also more likely than boys to seek out teachers for assistance in problem solving. At similar ages, girls are generally more advanced developmentally than boys, and girls have higher motivation to acquire social skills as part of the traditional nurturing feminine gender role. Boys, on the other hand, are motivated to acquire independence and self-mastery skills as part of the traditional masculine gender role.

Stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and social distancing over extended periods are likely to take a psychological toll on almost everyone. Additionally, these draconian infection control measures may seriously disrupt young girls’ social interactions with friends and teachers, which are so vital for girls’ social development into young adults. Further research investigations are particularly needed in this area to protect our children from psychological harm caused by extreme infection control measures.

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