Opinion: history shows that young people demonstrate active empathy in a crisis and the current situation is no different

By Pat Dolan, NUI Galway; Mark Brennan, Penn State University and Dana Winters, Saint Vincent College

Recent reports of some youth purposely coughing into the faces of others is upsetting and disturbing, but certainly does not represent young people as a whole and should not cloud our judgement of them in relation to COVID-19. Just like adults who are deeply worried about what lies ahead, youth are anxious and concerned for their grandparents, aunts, uncles, elderly close neighbours, as well as friends with underlying health conditions, which makes them more vulnerable. Just as the virus knows no border, being concerned about it has no age range.

History shows that young people demonstrate active empathy in a crisis. For example, research by these authors and others including Prof Jean Rhodes  found that young people helped survivors and were first responders in many cases during Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and the Pakistan floods in 2010. In Ireland, youth attending the Foroige Neighbourhood Youth Project in Carrick-on-Suir Co. Tipperary led by Aishling Duffy saved older local people from devastating floods. For their heroism, they were later locally known as "angels in wellies".

How do we know young people in Ireland care and have empathy? Research funded by the Irish Research Council and completed at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway in 2019, with the support of the centre's patron, actor Cillian Murphy, established that Irish youth are strongly empathetic towards others and have robust social values. A key issue for them in relation to the coronavirus may be their not being sure of how to demonstrate their empathy. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke show, Pat Dolan from NUI Galway and actor Cillian Murphy discuss the importance of empathy for young people

Empathy is vital to our co-existence. This is not a new message and is something that the late great humanitarian Fred Rogers instilled as key to childhood education through his long running TV programme Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood. The show is featured in A Beautiful Day In the Neighbourhood, a recent movie with Tom Hanks, who is currently a victim of the virus, as Rogers. Activating our empathy to one another is particularly relevant in the context of the current crisis as all of us struggle with wanting to help others, but the only way we know how do so is by staying away from others.  

For young people, responding to something as surreal as COVID-19 may still seem somewhat unreal. Furthermore, it is easier to ask young people to do something for others by actively caring through visible acts of kindness (to known others) than to ask them not to do certain things as invisible kindness (for the unknown).  

While there are literally hundreds of examples and projects of activated empathy by youth throughout Ireland, these two stalwart organisations in Irish society, the GAA and Foroige, are leading the way in relation to a collective COVID-19 youth response even as we write. Within the GAA, the most common response has been for club members, including many young leaders, to make themselves available to the most vulnerable in their communities. This has included simple but essential daily tasks, of doing shopping, making visits to chemists, carrying out free repair work on homes, the provision of transport to primary care centres and the feeding of farm animals.  

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cian McCormack meets some young people engaging in acts of kindness as part of the Foróige project to make communities better places for citizens

Across the four provinces, from the Melvin Gaels GAA club in Leitrim, to Dunderry GAA in Meath, from the Buncrana club in Donegal, to Miltown St. Joseph's GAA in Clare, community and youth empathy has come to the fore in these challenging times. At present, there are hundreds of such examples on social media, with young members helping to drive this solidarity and decrease the fear and isolation we all feel.

It is also worth noting that senior players are also playing their part. For example Dublin five-in-a-row winner Jack McCaffrey also stepped up the plate in a professional capacity with a message asking that everyone to observe the HSE’s guidelines and protocols to minimise the impact of COVID-19.

Likewise in Foroige, many youth club members and participants on projects and programmes are volunteering in similar ways in their local communities by checking in on older neighbours (from a safe distance) or getting shopping in for those who are isolating themselves. Importantly, Foroige youth are keen to support peers who are isolating at home and may be vulnerable with mental health challenges. Using social media as a friendship and kindness tool, they are co-supporting and mentoring others.

They themselves have come up with unique online examples of enlisting support. The Foroige Home Challenge encourages youth working from their within own home to write 10 things they are grateful for, a simple but really innovative initiative. Similarly, they are posting educational supports for primary and secondary schools students which make fun learning and coat it in a request to keep in touch through virtual camaraderie that includes virtual waving to one another on line. Foroige youth are also writing letters to older people in nursing homes, which staff can read to them as messages of comfort and solidarity. 

And it's not just the GAA and Foroige: many other sporting organisations, community groups, and youth work groups are similarly demonstrating social good. Let's not judge the positive and caring actions of many young people, let us by the stupidity and misbehaviour of the few. We must always remember and exhibit Fred Rogers’ "three ways of ultimate success" in any endeavour: "the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind."

Prof Pat Dolan is UNESCO Chair in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement at NUI GalwayProf Mark Brennan is UNESCO Chair in Community, Leadership, and Youth Development at Penn State UniversityProf Dana Winters is Director of Child and Family Studies at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College

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