Father and son looking at laptop screen

Science snapshots: Pandemic podcast power

social scienceGreg Seitz, Science CommunicatorNov 30, 2021

Are you listening? Discover a few insights into how some children are feeling about the pandemic with this science snapshot. 

Science has rarely been more up-front into people’s lives than during the coronavirus pandemic. Numerous fields of study have helped us understand what is going on, how to stay safe, and how to stop the spread. But, it has also been difficult to find the right information, and to talk about it in helpful ways. Science can help solve those problems, too.

Kids have big questions

Parents have been particularly concerned about answering their kids’ questions while not unnecessarily scaring or traumatizing them. Researchers at the Science Museum of Minnesota set out to study what kids are worrying about in the pandemic, and how parents and podcasts can help. The project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Amy Grack Nelson, Evaluation and Research Manager, and a team of researchers from the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Department of Evaluation & Research in Learning, partnered with American Public Media’s Brains On! podcast to examine how kids and their parents were using the podcast and family discussions about the episodes to help alleviate kids’ fears about COVID.

“When will things go back to normal?”

Science Museum researchers surveyed caregivers* who listen to Brains On! with children twice during the pandemic: in June 2020, and January 2021. They were two very different times in regards to risks, impacts, vaccines, and more. The podcast is powered by questions about science submitted by its young listeners, so the researchers were also able to analyze questions submitted about COVID.

Throughout the pandemic, kids’ main questions concerned the many changes in their life and when things would be back to “normal.” And they worried about prevention and transmission, people getting sick (themselves and others), and death from COVID-19.

But some things changed as the pandemic progressed. Early on, most questions were about how to get rid of the coronavirus and about the symptoms of COVID-19. In January 2021, as people were weary and case counts were peaking, kids were asking why some people weren’t following public health guidelines, about the government’s response to the pandemic, and about the potential for future pandemics.

Providing reassurance with science

For many caregivers, these are tough questions to answer. The research also found that kids and their caregivers clearly need resources like Brains On! and other informal science education. Nearly two-thirds of caregivers said they had used coronavirus information, targeted at adults, to help answer kids’ questions, which put a lot of pressure on them to communicate that information clearly and reassuringly.

The research found that caregivers most wanted help talking to their child about school, preventative measures, safely re-entering society during the pandemic, kids’ emotions, and uncertainty around the length of the pandemic. They also wanted more resources that deal directly with children’s mental health struggles and emotional well-being during the pandemic and vaccine-related topics.

With these insights into kids’ questions and worries, and caregivers’ needs and concerns, the team was able to quickly create specialized resources. Brains On! produced numerous episodes answering key COVID questions from kids,and collected them on a special website. The Science Museum produced a resource guide for talking to children about COVID. And they shared the research findings widely to support other educational efforts.

Science is helping us beat COVID, but it’s taking a while. In this case, science is also helping children live through these tough times with the information they need to feel less worried.

*Both surveys tended to reflect the experiences of white identifying, high income, and highly educated families. The experiences and voices from populations of children and families that have been most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of economic and racial disparities were not adequately represented. The researchers acknowledge it is a major limitation, and encourage other researchers to build on the finding and improve representation and findings.