Nicholas Barnes, 11, has always been a social kid. Before the pandemic, his busy schedule included school, Cub Scouts, basketball practice, church, and playing with friends in his Winter Park, Florida, neighborhood.
Now the only people Nicholas sees in person are his parents and two older brothers. But even before his school started online, his interactions with others had become extremely limited. At a small, family-only birthday party for his older brother in July, he had trouble describing his feelings at the get-together. “I enjoyed seeing my people enjoy being around each other,” he said. It’s a complex feeling he never thought about before. But it’s also a feeling that’s deeply rooted in our genes and helps explain why the social isolation of the pandemic is especially hard on kids.
Humans have evolved to need each other. For many of the same reasons, kids need each other, too. Our primate ancestors were once solitary creatures who rarely interacted beyond small family units, just like modern human babies. Then millions of years ago, early humans started to band together, which led to the development of communication skills and language. Similarly, once kids move through infancy and toddlerhood, their play becomes more cooperative and their language skills increase.
For our primate ancestors, language development meant their brains grew larger and evolved to reward their social behavior. We see these rewards happen for kids, too. Interacting with other children allows them to learn new behaviors, inspires their curiosity and creativity, and gives them a chance to discover who they are. Kids need to be social. Biology compels them to be.
“Social interaction is a motivator,” says Lori Markson, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University St. Louis. “It enhances and drives our ability to learn. We look to others as resources, and kids are paying attention to social interactions from early on.”
For most kids, this means that learning social behaviors or engaging with difficult school work is often much easier in groups than it is alone, Markson says. That can be challenging right now, as many children are going to school online or dealing with physical interactions that are limited by social distancing protocols.
“Even if you’re on Zoom, and you’re getting some of those social cues and that social feedback, it’s not the same,” Markson says.
Although kids can succeed in virtual classrooms, Markson observed that many children lose their motivation to participate in activities they once loved because they can no longer do them with friends. But when parents understand the science behind why kids need to be social, they can help their children deal with those challenges—and figure out new ways to be social.
How we’re hardwired to be social
One way kids develop socially is by working together. That’s not simply a life skill they learn in kindergarten: It’s something our primate ancestors developed millions of years ago. To survive, they had to learn how to help each other develop tools and hunt.
“We are intensely social, as monkeys and apes are,” says Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford. “We depend on group-level cooperation for solving the problems of everyday survival and successful reproduction. That’s the primate adaptation, above all else.”
Although kids might not be learning to hunt, they are developing the vital social skill of cooperation through playing. That, in turn, makes them feel good because that kind of socializing releases endorphins, the hormones in the nervous system that can make us feel exhilarated or relaxed.
“We’re hardwired to seek this social engagement and social interaction, because it fulfills a lot of our needs and pushes development forward,” Markson says. “But at the same time, we then get to crave it and want it, and those positive feelings motivate us to engage."
Why being social helps kids develop
Since the last time Nicholas saw his friends, he has new glasses and a stylish haircut and is trying out new hobbies and styles. His mother, Nicole Barnes, believes he’s at the age when kids start figuring out who they’re going to be as adults.
“Kids at Nicholas’s age are going through a transformation,” says Barnes, a veteran high school English teacher. “But for him, that transformation is going to happen in our house. So his search for his identity and his place in the world are on hold.”
The Barneses have tapped into an idea that evolutionary anthropologists have been studying for decades: that socializing helps kids form their adult selves.
In fact, some anthropologists believe that social learning is the entire reason that childhood, the period of growth when young are cared for and learn from their elders, exists. In the Pleistocene epoch (otherwise known as the Ice Age), Homo habilis, one of our more recent hominid ancestors, became the first to experience the distinct life stage we call childhood. Before then, scientists speculate that hominid offspring joined their kinship groups in adult roles not long after they were weaned.
Now, that childhood social stage is hardwired into children. Their genetic code leads younger kids to explore the world around them and learn how to behave. Older children and teens use social learning to navigate emotions, personalities, and desires. In other words, for kids, socializing teaches them who they are.
“As kids are developing, they look at others and start making comparisons between those people and themselves,” Markson says. “These sorts of social comparisons influence how we develop our sense of self and our identity.” That sense of self and belonging is vital to development because it helps kids cultivate emotional stability and resilience, two things successful adults need, no matter what they want to do in life.
Keeping kids’ social lives intact
Although it's true that much of normal life is on hold right now, complete social isolation isn't realistic—or even natural—for most children. To ensure a child’s successful social development, they need to play and interact with their peers—just as their ancestors have done over millions of years.
When our primate ancestors gathered in larger and larger groups, they had to evolve mechanisms that rewarded kinship behavior the same way that grooming did originally. Similarly, when kids connect virtually, their brains will release more neurochemicals that make them feel connected to their friends if they’re doing something together instead of just talking.
For example, Ozlem Ayduk, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, has encouraged her kids to have regular Zoom dinners with their friends. Adding food and laughter to online rituals will help them mimic in-person interactions—at least to their brains.
Creating a regular social ritual is another way to trigger those feel-good connection chemicals. For Nicholas, that means keeping a daily phone date with his best friend to talk and play Minecraft for two hours. (Here’s an article on how your kid can be the virtual host with the most.)
Additionally, when done correctly, a quarantine pod with one or two other families can also give kids the opportunity to socialize and develop social learning tools. (Bonus: Pods can give parents a much-needed reprieve from isolation as well!)
“Even though kids are missing out on a critical aspect of their development, it’s important to keep in mind that this is temporary,” Markson says. “Humans, and children especially, are very resilient, and we’re going to get past this. We’re all going to be OK.”