The Lost Lockdown Generation

If human history is, as H. G. Wells said, ‘a race between education and catastrophe,’ then catastrophe is clearly in the lead.

“Don’t worry, it’s just allergies.” These words were spoken warmly, though somewhat phlegmily, on the evening of March 7, 2020. At that time, a mysterious new illness that Americans were still calling the “Wuhan coronavirus” had started appearing in headlines, and some were worried. My daughter was hours from drawing her first breath, and our nurse at the hospital in Oklahoma City was reassuring us—facetiously since only a handful of Americans had contracted this new disease—that she wasn’t infected.

The nurse soon stopped sneezing and the delivery the next morning went well. But three days later, the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic. And the events that followed would profoundly alter the next couple of years for my daughter and millions of other children. Their critical years of development took place under the cold shadow of fear and lockdown. The results are chilling.

Part of this is shown in “America’s report card.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep) regularly tests hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders across the country. Its fall 2022 tests have shown that the covid years atrophied millions of young minds and reduced reading scores to their lowest levels in 30 years. The overall literacy score dropped by 3 points. In the lowest performing districts, 79 percent of fourth graders and 68 percent of eighth graders could not read at a basic level. In math, the damage was even worse. In 2019, an already alarming 31 percent of eighth graders failed to demonstrate comprehension of the most basic concepts of math, such as the ability to calculate the third angle of a triangle after being given the other two. In 2022, that figure had climbed to almost 40 percent. Overall math scores plummeted to the lowest levels at any time since naep testing started in 1969.

This indicates what kind of contribution these students will be able to make to society in the future. A World Bank report in February calculated that today’s teenagers may lose 10 percent of future earnings because of covid-induced education shock. For preteens, the loss may be closer to 20 percent.

The evidence shows that there are potential effects on even those around my daughter’s age, too young to have undergone school disruptions or to consciously grasp the aberrancy of the times. Perhaps the most formative years in their lives were 2020 and 2021, when they were denied most or all of their playdates with peers or outings to parks, stores, churches and homes of relatives. They also noticed any stress and fear that their parents were feeling and, on some level, internalized it. The World Bank says this age group’s future earnings may be slashed by 25 percent.

Meanwhile, since the pandemic began, emergency rooms have seen stunning increases in young people visiting for mental health-related crises. Even in the pre-covid era, from 2015 to 2019, such visits were increasing by a disturbing 8 percent per year. Now they’ve soared. For those aged 12 to 17, self-harm injury visits are up 50 percent compared to pre-covid levels, mental health disorder visits are up 60 percent, and overdoses are up by 70 percent. Compared to 2019, rates have surged among children for everything from depression, tics and eating disorders, to extreme anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rates of some afflictions have tripled.

In addition to the major disruptions of turning to remote learning and then going back to classrooms, these children experienced authority figures warning that the sky was falling, and others warning that those who were issuing the warnings were dangerously untrustworthy. Parents were losing jobs, losing businesses, losing faith in authorities and institutions. Political and racial tensions were in the stratosphere. For many young people, it overwhelmed the half-baked prefrontal cortex of their young brains.

Millions of young people are now failing to manage their lives in the most basic ways or are feigning affliction to gain attention. And increasing numbers are turning to the most violent crime. In 2020, homicides committed by individual American juveniles increased 30 percent over the previous year, while those carried out by multiple juveniles increased 66 percent. The number of murders committed by children under 14 was the highest in 20 years.

A generation of young Americans have suffered a twisted introduction to the real world. They had already been born into the imbalances of the Internet age, and were then overwhelmed by lockdowns, lies, losses and fear. Even now, many are still reeling in ways they can understand and in ways they can’t.

This doesn’t mean the children in your life or mine have to be lost. Giving children a loving education is a universe-sized task for a parent, but it’s a critical responsibility that can remedy damage done and prepare them to navigate the vicissitudes that lie ahead and to lead successful lives. In Proverbs 22:6, God tells parents to give their children exactly this kind of education: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

With this kind of education, you can immunize them to the turbulent gyrations of our civilization that are yet to come.

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