Tackling COVID-19: Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Her plans to study the effects of social isolation on adolescents have become particularly pertinent this year. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a cognitive neuroscientist who has spoken out about the importance of supporting and empowering young people, not suppressing and blaming them, during the pandemic.

I usually work in the University’s Department of Psychology on the Downing Site. Currently I work from home most of the week, and go into the department one day each week to have socially distanced face-to-face meetings with students and lab members.

My group’s research focuses on brain and social development and mental health in adolescence. We run large-scale behavioural studies in schools and in the lab, as well as neuroimaging studies. Humans are inherently social. Our research has shown that the network of brain regions that enable us to recognise the mental states, feelings and actions of others develops throughout adolescence, and that adolescence is a period of increased social interaction and peer affiliation.

It is important to consider the developmental needs and wellbeing of children and adolescents in this pandemic. Young people around the world now have fewer opportunities to interact face-to-face with peers at a time in their lives when this is crucial for their development. Waves of social distancing and restrictions, even if only temporary, represent a large portion of a young person’s life. At the beginning of lockdown I wrote a paper with my colleagues, Dr Amy Orben and Dr Livia Tomova, on the effects of social distancing on adolescent development and mental health.*

Right now, young people around the world are being blamed and shamed for their role in the spread of coronavirus. In my view, this is not fair and might be counterproductive. Young people are naturally driven to socialise, and meet new people and romantic partners. There is evidence that empowering young people to influence each other to make positive and healthy decisions works better than adult-led campaigns. In the case of COVID-19, educating young people about the importance of social distancing and reducing social contact in order to reduce infection rates, and then incentivising them to run their own campaigns amongst their social networks, might have more of an impact than adults lecturing and blaming them. I recently wrote a short paper on this with my PhD candidate Jack Andrews and our colleague Dr Lucy Foulkes.**

It’s crucial to take into account the social needs of young people when making policy decisions , and to allow the voices of young people to be heard. I was recently involved in setting up an organisation called Reachwell , to highlight the importance of considering the needs of children and adolescents when making policy decisions around the pandemic. It draws on the expertise of a group of developmental psychologists and psychiatrists.

Education is a basic human right. Schools shutting for long periods will be detrimental to the development and learning of the younger generation. The pandemic has thrown up many challenges and nothing is simple. From my point of view, one of the biggest challenges is reducing the spread of the virus so that schools are safe for teachers, children and adolescents and can stay open.

Cambridge provided written evidence to the Education Select Committee reviewing the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services. This was a fantastic example of Cambridge experts from different areas coming together in a time of crisis, and prioritising this vitally important issue. We formed the Cambridge University Cross-Disciplinary Special Interest Group for Policy related to children and young people (CUSP), galvanised and brilliantly chaired by Professor Tamsin Ford in the Department of Psychiatry.

My group has been planning a study on the effects of social isolation in adolescence since early 2019. The pandemic has made this a much larger part of our research plans. We recently embarked on a large-scale study to investigate the effects of social isolation on adolescent cognition and emotion processing, led by Dr Tomova, a research fellow at Hughes Hall who is based in my lab. It involves participants having a brain scan, and experiencing short periods of social isolation followed by behavioural tasks and questionnaires.

When the pandemic is over I’m looking forward to enormous amounts of face-to-face social interaction with friends and family, with lots of hugs.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

*Orben, A, Tomova, L & Blakemore, S-J. (2020). The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 4(8), 634-640.

**Andrews, J.L., Foulkes, L. & Blakemore, S-J. (2020). Peer influence in adolescence: Public-health implications for COVID-19 . Trends in Cognitive Science, 24(8), 585-587.

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