A University of Guelph project investigating the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical and mental health of children in Canada has received more than $100,000 in new federal funding.

The project, led by Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS) researchers, will investigate the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions and concurrent stressors on Canadian children’s growth and mental health.

The researchers plan to identify which factors have contributed to or mitigated these impacts and identify those populations at greater risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19 stressors.

“We know from our own surveys that public health restrictions from the pandemic profoundly disrupted the daily routines of Canadian families,” said project co-lead Dr. Jess Haines, a professor in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences and co-director of the GFHS.

“What is now needed is longitudinal research to understand the long-term impact of these disruptions on children’s health outcomes. This new funding will allow us to measure specific health indicators before and after the lockdown and evaluate how those affected children’s growth and mental health outcomes.”

Clarifying the effects of the pandemic on our children

Dr. Jess Haines

The research project is one of 89 across the country that recently received more than $13.7 million in funding from the Government of Canada through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Together, these projects will provide evidence to help governments, communities and health-care providers identify programs that have helped meet the needs of children, youth and parents.

“Once again the University of Guelph shows the importance of federal support for ongoing research, this time with the longitudinal study of families begun before the pandemic, which can now continue to see long-term effects post-pandemic,” said Lloyd Longfield, MP for Guelph.  “The commitment of Dr. Haines and her team to our understanding of family and individuals will inform policy reactions to improve the lives of Canadians as we move toward our new normal.”

“GFHS researchers are ideally positioned to contribute indispensable research to help clarify the effects the pandemic is having on our children across the country,” said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research).

The COVID-19-causing virus has had far-reaching impacts on the physical and mental health of many Canadians, including children, he said.

“Understanding those impacts more acutely so that we can safeguard the well-being of young people is a vitally important undertaking, and one we at U of G are proud and eager to be a part of.”

Haines, a professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, said research from the GFHS families provides unique insights into how the pandemic affected Canadian children and families.

Learning how pandemic has affected health of Canadian families

Started in 2014, the study has followed families of preschool-aged children to learn ways to help them set good routines for eating, activity, sleep and screen time at home.

“Because we were working with these families before the pandemic and know how they were doing then, and because we were able to take health measures throughout the lockdowns, we can evaluate how many of their health indicators were affected, including their screen time, their physical activity, their sleep habits, their diets and more,” said Haines.

In survey results published by the GFHS this past summer, families said they were exercising less, eating more snacks and spending more time on screens since the pandemic began.

“While those survey results are important, this funding will allow us to objectively measure specific indicators before and after the lockdown and evaluate how those affected children’s growth and mental health outcomes,” she said.

The findings from the research can provide insight into behaviours that are particularly critical to families during times of stress and disruption.

They will also help inform decisions about interventions needed after the pandemic to address behaviours such as excessive screen time or mental health challenges among young children. As well, they will help inform planning for future incidents when kids might be out of school for extended periods.

“We might also gain insights about the kinds of families who were able to bounce back after the lockdowns and return to healthy behaviours and how they differ from those who didn’t return as easily to routines in place before the pandemic,” said Haines.

It’s important to learn lessons from how this pandemic has affected the lives of families in Canada to be better prepared for the future, she added.

“No time in my research career has there ever been something that has had such a substantial impact on family health and behaviours,” she said. “We’re grateful we have both this ongoing cohort and this new funding to allow us to study those effects.”


Dr. Jess Haines