Survey: Pandemic school shutdowns reduced bullying among kids with food allergies
Children who are bullied because of their food allergies at school saw some relief from their torment during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, according to a study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Kaitlyn A. Merrill, an undergraduate research assistant in the department of biochemistry at University of Winnipeg, and colleagues collected data from the year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and from May 1 to June 30, 2020, when schools largely were closed.
The pre-pandemic cohort included 65 patients (50.8% boys; mean age, 6.9 years) recruited from a tertiary pediatric allergy clinic during follow-up visits related to food allergy, as well as 53 controls (56.6% boys; mean age, 7.4 years) recruited via convenience and snowball sampling. These participants, who all hailed from the province of Manitoba, and their caregivers completed similar questionnaires based on the Food Allergy Economic Questionnaire.
The pandemic cohort — recruited from across Canada via convenience sampling through email and social media advertising — included 62 children (72.1% boys; mean age, 9.2 years) who were the oldest in the family and who had one or more food allergy and 40 controls (40% boys; mean age, 8.7 years) who also were the oldest in their family but did not have any food allergies. These participants and their caregivers completed an online version of the questionnaire.
The most common food allergies in the pre-pandemic cohort were peanut/tree nut (81.5%), egg (29.2%) and fish (21.2%), and those in the pandemic cohort were peanut/tree nut (51.6%), milk (32.3%) and egg (27.4%).
In the pre-pandemic and pandemic cohorts alike, the patients with food allergy and controls had similar frequencies of patient-reported anxiety and depression as well as bullying and isolation.
The prevalence of anxiety appeared comparable between the patients and controls (19% vs. 29.4%) in the pre-pandemic group. Those percentages increased among both patients and controls (67.2% vs. 59.5%; P < .005) during the pandemic.
In effect, the researchers wrote, rates of childhood anxiety doubled between the year before the pandemic and the early months of the pandemic.
However, rates of bullying decreased for children with food allergy between the pre-pandemic and pandemic periods (31% vs. 6.9%; P < .008) but remained consistent for controls (20% vs. 16.2%).
Similarly, children with food allergy did not report a significant change in social isolation between the two periods (31% vs. 5.7%), whereas the children in the control groups did (19.6% vs. 48.7%; P < .005).
Because children with food allergy experienced significantly less bullying during the pandemic, the researchers concluded that these children tend to be bullied more substantially on school grounds.
The researchers said that these findings underscore an urgent need to address bullying related to food allergies in schools, which they said abruptly and significantly decreased once the pandemic began.
Noting that children with food allergy did not report any differences in isolation between the pre-pandemic and pandemic periods, the researchers also suggested that such children feel less food-related pressure during virtual events.
The researchers further recommended that schools adopt and enforce zero-tolerance policies for bullying that involve food-allergic students.