Over three months into the coronavirus pandemic, many parents might feel like broken records as they give instructions to their children: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay six feet apart. These are all crucial health measures that are worth repeating, but how do young children, who have had their lives uprooted along with the rest of us, interpret these precautions?
“Kids are often undersold, given less [information] than they deserve in terms of explanation,” says Deborah Kelemen, Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychology and brain sciences. She specializes in cognitive and conceptual development in children. Kelemen says that kids are often privately ruminating on information they receive from their parents, trying to make sense of the context. With support from the National Science Foundation’s RAPID program, which is currently expediting funding for coronavirus-related research, Kelemen will investigate how young children understand the coronavirus pandemic and how children’s knowledge of the virus is influenced by misinformation or scientific misconceptions that adults pass on to them.
“One of our challenges is tracking [misinformation] and seeing what children are understanding [and what they aren’t] so we can reduce their fears while making sure they understand why they need to [adhere to certain public health measures] to stay safe,” says Kelemen. Her team will first investigate how adults understand COVID-19 and then examine how a child’s understanding of COVID-19 relates to the adults in their lives.
Kelemen will begin the project in collaboration with John Coley, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and Samuel Ronfard at the University of Toronto, who was previously a postdoctoral researcher of psychology and brain studies at Boston University. They will conduct large-scale surveys with adults and children across the country, all done remotely.
Respondents will be asked factual questions about coronavirus and the infection it causes, COVID-19. Kelemen says they will also ask participants how they assess different levels of risk, how other illnesses like the flu or common cold influence their understanding of COVID-19, and other questions to broadly gauge their knowledge related to the pandemic. Since kids and parents have been stuck at home, she suspects children are primarily learning about coronavirus by talking to parents, older siblings, or other adults in their life. And since states are in various stages of reopening, Kelemen suspects that responses will vary geographically.
“Children often put together information that they are hearing around them in novel ways,” says Kelemen. “This could be reflecting in some of the nightmares we’re hearing about, like kids having dreams about terrorists and zombies,” one possible unintended consequence of children hearing news about the pandemic and experiencing abrupt changes to their daily lives.
Along with changing environments, the language adults use to explain coronavirus can muddle children’s interpretations. For example, hearing people say that the virus is “targeting” older populations makes the virus sound more like “a person” than a substance, explains Kelemen. “To reduce children’s fears, it might be best to talk about the virus as the substance that it is,” she says.
By the end of the yearlong grant, Kelemen, Coley, and Ronfard will create kid-friendly learning tools-likely in the form of animations, though the format is still being decided-that comprehensively explain the workings of the virus and provide thorough explanations suitable for children who are learning at home or in school. The researchers are expecting to tackle topics such as how people get infected, why there is no single pill or simple cure to the disease, how the virus is able to maintain itself on surfaces, the importance of washing hands and not touching your face, and the chain of transmission, an especially delicate concept since children could be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 while still spreading it to others.
Kelemen has written evidence-based children’s books as director of BU’s Child Cognition Laboratory, explaining other tricky biological concepts, like evolution and natural selection, including How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses (Tumblehome, Inc., 2017), a picture book featuring fictional bug-sniffing creatures called piloses. In her experience, Keleman believes children deserve better, more accurate information than they are sometimes given.
“A lot of the work we’ve been doing undermines the idea that children can’t understand complex ideas,” says Kelemen. “But taking the time to [explain complex ideas] benefits them in the long run for when they encounter similar future situations and realize they can apply what they understand.”
This work is supported by the National Science Foundation.