Chicago Sun-Times

Teens want COVID advice on so­cial­iz­ing safely — not just rules for what they can’t do

- BY TAMMY CHANG AND MATTHEW DUNN Tammy Chang is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of fam­ily medicine at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. Matthew Dunn is a grad­u­ate stu­dent re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. This ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally was pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion. Health · Mental Health · Social Isolation · Society · Lifestyle · Social Media · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · Social Issues · United States of America · Michigan · University of Michigan · Youtube · Instagram

Amer­ica’s teens and young adults have a cru­cial role in con­tain­ing the spread of COVID-19, but a se­ries of youth sur­veys sug­gests that many mis­un­der­stand so­cial dis­tanc­ing guide­lines and want clearer advice on how to safely live their lives.

This is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant now that uni­ver­si­ties are back in ses­sion and many cam­puses are see­ing COVID-19 out­breaks.

Over the last sev­eral months, our team at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan has con­ducted sev­eral na­tional text-mes­sage sur­veys of more than 1,000 Amer­i­can youth ages 14-24 to bet­ter un­der­stand what they are go­ing through dur­ing the pan­demic.

What we have learned sheds light on young peo­ple’s per­spec­tives and could help im­prove public health prac­tices.

I can hang out with friends, right?

The re­sponses by young peo­ple in our sur­veys sug­gest that they are tak­ing the pan­demic se­ri­ously.

From our sur­veys start­ing in March and con­tin­u­ing through­out the sum­mer, we found about three-quar­ters of young peo­ple were feel­ing some level of anx­i­ety about the pan­demic. Many re­ported fol­low­ing guide­lines such as dis­tanc­ing, wear­ing masks, and stay­ing at home, most of­ten due to their con­cern for oth­ers. These re­spon­dents cited the im­por­tance of pro­tect­ing friends, fam­ily and high-risk groups.

How­ever, as youth de­scribed their think­ing and be­hav­iors to us, it be­came clear there are mis­un­der­stand­ings about the guide­lines re­lated to so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

Of­ten, young peo­ple in our sur­vey did not fully com­pre­hend the rig­or­ous na­ture of so­cial dis­tanc­ing rules. For ex­am­ple, a few re­spon­dents rea­soned that it was safe to hang out with friends if both par­ties were po­ten­tially ex­posed due to work or other rea­sons. “Most of my friends are ‘es­sen­tial’ work­ers and are al­ready ex­posed to lots of peo­ple. It seems moot to be su­per strict about so­cial dis­tanc­ing,” one wrote.

Other mis­con­cep­tions were that younger peo­ple don’t get sick from the virus, or that vis­it­ing friends is an ap­proved ex­cep­tion.

While young peo­ple are less likely to have symp­toms, they are still in­fec­tious and can spread the virus to oth­ers with­out know­ing it. Some also end up se­ri­ously ill and hos­pi­tal­ized.

Our stud­ies also found that young peo­ple tended to view so­cial dis­tanc­ing as a short­term obli­ga­tion, in hopes of a re­turn to nor­mal ac­tiv­i­ties. Yet, public health of­fi­cials agree there is still a long way to go. In­ter­mit­tent so­cial dis­tanc­ing could be nec­es­sary through 2022.

It can’t all be neg­a­tive

When asked about the im­pacts of so­cial dis­tanc­ing, many young peo­ple shared what they’ve lost, of­ten talk­ing about the abil­ity to so­cial­ize with oth­ers. “I can’t talk to peo­ple,” was a com­mon re­sponse. “I have not been able to see friends or work at all,” was an­other.

Telling young peo­ple only what they can­not do could lead to fa­tigue and riskier be­hav­ior. So, help­ing young peo­ple un­der­stand how to stay safe should also in­clude rec­om­men­da­tions for what they can do.

Al­though any in-per­son in­ter­ac­tion with oth­ers car­ries some risk, not all in­ter­ac­tions are equally risky. Our find­ings show that many young peo­ple have an “all or noth­ing” men­tal­ity re­gard­ing risk. Teach­ing them how to assess the spec­trum of risk could help their de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

So­cial in­ter­ac­tion mat­ters for men­tal health

So­cial in­ter­ac­tions are crit­i­cal for healthy ado­les­cent de­vel­op­ment. Past stud­ies of chil­dren and ado­les­cents ex­pe­ri­enc­ing so­cial iso­la­tion have found neg­a­tive men­tal health ef­fects, and we may be see­ing this al­ready among our re­spon­dents.

For ex­am­ple, when we asked young peo­ple how they are deal­ing with the pan­demic, nearly one-fifth de­scribed a dif­fi­cult emo­tional re­sponse.

Across mul­ti­ple sur­veys, de­pres­sion was men­tioned as a chal­lenge dur­ing the pan­demic. An­other wrote, “My de­pres­sion is ex­ac­er­bated and I feel re­ally un­mo­ti­vated to do any­thing.”

Fig­ur­ing out how to so­cial­ize safely

As the pan­demic con­tin­ues, public health mes­sag­ing will have to help young peo­ple find ways to so­cial­ize safely and speak to them in their lan­guage and on their plat­forms.

Al­most half of re­spon­dents said they learned about COVID-19 from news me­dia sources. How­ever, these re­ports are gen­er­ally geared to­ward an adult au­di­ence. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions can be adapted for youth and ex­tended to so­cial me­dia plat­forms pop­u­lar among younger Amer­i­cans, such as YouTube, In­sta­gram and TikTok.

A crit­i­cal mes­sage is that risk of in­fec­tion is greater for cer­tain types of in­ter­ac­tions, such as go­ing to a crowded bar.

Young peo­ple should also be made aware that while their so­cial sac­ri­fices will pay off in the long run, there will not be an im­me­di­ate re­turn to the “nor­mal” they knew be­fore the pan­demic.

Im­por­tantly, young peo­ple also need safe op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­ter­act and guid­ance on how to so­cial­ize safely.

Hold­ing more gath­er­ings outdoors is one so­lu­tion. The risk of trans­mis­sion has been found to be lower out­side com­pared to in­doors. In fact, en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to bet­ter con­nect with na­ture is a po­ten­tial pos­i­tive out­come from our chang­ing way of life.

In­creas­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­act­ing online can also help, es­pe­cially as many schools and uni­ver­si­ties con­tinue re­mote in­struc­tion. In­ter­net ac­cess is more im­por­tant than ever, but youth from low-in­come fam­i­lies are less likely to have in­ter­net ac­cess or the nec­es­sary de­vices. Help­ing them gain ac­cess should be a pri­or­ity for schools and pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Help­ing teens and young adults nav­i­gate so­cial dis­tanc­ing re­quire­ments is im­por­tant — for the sake of their health and the health of ev­ery­one around them.

 ?? GETTY IM­AGES ?? Univer­sity of Michi­gan stud­ies sug­gest that teens of­ten mis­un­der­stand so­cial dis­tanc­ing guide­lines.
GETTY IM­AGES Univer­sity of Michi­gan stud­ies sug­gest that teens of­ten mis­un­der­stand so­cial dis­tanc­ing guide­lines.

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