Kids suffering from 'social malnutrition' during pandemic, pediatricians warn

The COVID-19 pandemic is starving our children of the activities and social interaction they need to develop into healthy adults, and some experts worry that could have a lasting impact.

Loss of normal socialization could have lasting effect on young minds and bodies

Pediatricians fear the lack of human contact caused by the pandemic could have a long-term impact on the physical and mental development of our children. They call it 'social malnutrition.' (

The COVID-19 pandemic is starving our children of the activities and social interaction they need to develop into healthy adults, and some experts worry that could have a lasting impact.

There's even a name for it: '"Social malnutrition," a term recently coined by Vaughan, Ont., pediatrician Saba Merchant, refers to the long-term damage that lack of normal socialization is having on our kids' physical and mental health.

According to Dr. Kelley Zwicker, founder of the Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network, the symptoms can include "behavioural challenges in younger children, lots of temper tantrums and outbursts. In older kids, there's a lot of mood dysregulation, anxiety [and] depression."

Zwicker told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning pediatricians are even worried about the pandemic's potential impact on the cognitive development of younger children.

"Part of learning speech, for example, is to see how other people talk and how their lips move," she said. "All the masks that we're wearing might be affecting that."

Dr. Kelley Zwicker is founder of Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network and a mother of four young children. (Rohit Saxena)

Then there are the physical symptoms of social malnutrition.

"They've been gaining weight because they're less physically active," said Zwicker. In other cases, pediatricians are seeing the opposite effect. "Their weight is going down. We're seeing more cases of eating disorders."

What's worse, Zwicker said, is that many of those children aren't getting the medical attention they need.

"I'm worried about the kids that are not coming to the doctor," she said. "I'm worried about kids that may not be nutritionally … or financially stable." 

Yet the warning from pediatricians comes as some of their peers in the medical and scientific community call for even stricter measures to stall the spread of COVID-19.

Mina Rosen shows off her pine cone and dandelion garden in Fairmont Park in Ottawa in May 2020. Pediatrician Kelley Zwicker says outdoor play is part of the antidote to social malnutrition. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Zwicker, who's also a mother of four kids ages one to seven, acknowledges that finding the right balance can be difficult during a pandemic.

"Exposing them to social situations is not possible right now. We have to come up with ways to … get outside and be physically active, but also remain safe and remain socially distanced, and that's really tricky," she said.

"The message that I try to tell families …  is to take a minute and just be in that moment. Even when things are going crazy and things are falling apart — just live moment to moment."

For many children, going to school is a key element of their social development. Most students in Ontario are now learning from home. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Zwicker's prescription calls for parents to read to kids, take them outside to enjoy nature and encourage them to keep their bodies moving. That can be difficult at a time like this, she said.

"Kids are resilient, [but] I think now kids are tired and I think families are tired and parents are tired," Zwicker said.

But the cost of ignoring the building crisis is too great, she warned.

"We need to keep in mind all of the psychological, social and mental health supports we're going to need," said Zwicker. "[Or] we're going to see some of these things come out of the woodwork as time goes by."

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here's where to get help:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 | 45645 (Text, 4-12 p.m. ET)
  • In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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