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.