Opinion: many young people appear to be disregarding the need for social and physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus

By Sinéad McGilloway and Maria Gialama, Maynooth University

As numerous countries race to contain and delay the spread of coronavirus, non-drug-based measures have been widely implemented and recommended. These include regular and proper handwashing, social and physical distancing, self-isolation and school and workplace closures.

However, many young people appear to be disregarding the need for social and physical distancing (i.e. keeping 2 metres apart), one of the key recommendations of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in slowing the spread of the virus. For example, photos circulated on social media showed mainly 20 to 40 year-olds packed into bars in several locations in Ireland. Similar scenes, involving mainly younger people, have also been witnessed recently in the UK, US and Australia.

Governments and public health personnel are keen to convey to young people that they are not invincible. Should they contract the virus, the consequences could be very serious for their middle aged parents, older relatives or significant others, especially if they have underlying conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease. They themselves could also become very ill.  Recent US data shows that approximately one in five coronavirus cases aged 20 to 44  - the so called "millennials" - have been hospitalised and that 2 to 4% require ICU treatment. Approximately 20% of coronavirus cases in Ireland to date have been aged under 34.

From RTÉ One's Six One news, young people are being reminded of importance of social distancing

Health psychologists and public health researchers suggest that we can significantly reduce our risk of infection by changing health-related behaviour and, in this case, complying with social distancing. Risk communication is key to encouraging positive health behaviours, but this relies on how we see and judge risk, as well as the belief in our ability to make the necessary change and that such change will be beneficial.

The perception of risk may be particularly pertinent when communicating with young people about coronavirus and encouraging their compliance. Several factors may shape this, including the perceived credibility of public health information and the misinformation occasionally circulating on social media platforms like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram which are widely used by young people.

Some researchers have also suggested that we can over-or under-estimate risk based on intuition and a reinterpretation (or perhaps denial) of uncertain or changing information. This, in turn, may lead to lower perceived risk to self and reduced compliance. A study conducted  in Toronto following the 2003 SARS outbreak found that adolescents felt that press reports were "exaggerated" though most of the general population complied with quarantine measures. Young people may also be especially sensitive to what might be described as "information-overload", which can lead to fear, anger, frustration, resistance and anxiety, all of which may influence behaviour and compliance.

From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli on 2FM show, Cork GP, Dr Doireann O'Leary on the importance of social distancing at the moment

This raises questions about how public health officials and governments can best communicate information to younger people to support and inform them, whilst maximising compliance in relation to physical distancing and other measures. Of course, such communication and compliance are important for the entire population. Here are some suggested recommendations:

Target young people early 

This involves using effective and timely "public messaging". Recent messages from the Irish government have been critical of young people who were not complying with social distancing recommendations.

Powerful language and images  

Use age-appropriate language and powerful (but not sensationalist) images, in targeted and concise messages, blogs, websites, videos, adverts etc. A German software engineer has developed a website containing a simple but powerful message and advice which may be particularly appealing to young people.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, McDonald's to close Irish restaurants due to fears over the spread of coronavirus

Role models

Harness the power of role models to drive home the social distancing and other messages. Music stars Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga and Arianna Grande, actors Will Smith and Tom Hanks and MMA fighter Conor McGregor have used social media to post motivational messages, urging their mainly younger fans to follow appropriate coronavirus guidance. Some singers such as JoJo and Dua Lipa have also incorporated coronavirus warnings and recommendations into their major hits

Better use of social media 

Use social media platforms creatively to alert, engage and inform young people and to meet them on their turf. Collaborate with young people to seek their views on what works/does not work. At the beginning of the outbreak in Greece, the Greek Ministry of Citizen Protection circulated a simple coronavirus alert text message to all mobile phone owners throughout the country. This may be a particularly effective way of communicating with harder to-reach young people. 

Focused messages

Consider using separate, focused messages and images for individual measures, including well-publicised web-based information. A recent tweet by the Irish medical virologist, Dr Cillian De Gascun, contained a powerful infographic on the how and why of social distancing. Animated videos can also be very effective

More high quality research is needed on the complexities of risk communication around infectious disease outbreaks. Specifically, we need to look at how best to deliver public health information in appropriate, effective and timely ways to age groups in the context of this (and possibly future) pandemics, as well as methods to improve and maintain compliance. 

As we strive to be good and responsible citizens at this critical time, it is incumbent upon all of us – young and old – to act in ways that protect ourselves in order to protect others. In the words of Charles Darwin, "it's not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change."  Most of all, please stay at home to save lives 

Professor Sinéad McGilloway is Founder Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at the Department of Psychology and Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University Maria Gialama is a practising psychologist and PhD student  at the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at the Department of Psychology and Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ