Editor’s Note: Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Covid-19 numbers are bad and getting worse. At the time of writing, there have been over 20.5 million cases and nearly 750,000 deaths worldwide. In the United States alone there are over 5 million cases, and the pandemic has now claimed more lives than those lost in the nearly two decades of the Vietnam War.
Yet I continue to see headlines like “Young Americans Partying Hard and Spreading Covid-19 Quickly,” “Parents cooperating with health officials after New Jersey teen party leads to Covid-19 cluster” and “300 teens exposed to COVID-19 at big party near Austin.”
As I am writing this, there are throngs of people at my apartment building’s pool – no masks and no physical distancing.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’m a 20-something myself, and during the early days of the pandemic I wrote an open letter to my generation explaining why they should be staying away from crowded beaches and staying home. I cited reliable facts and figures about the pandemic and, pointing to Italy, warned of the consequences of not taking it seriously.
After it was picked up by CNN, my letter reached a national audience. In the face of conflicting public health advice, I hoped that highlighting the data itself would change hearts and minds.
Five months later, it is clear that neither my piece nor the many Covid-19 public health dashboards have persuaded many of my peers. I’m struggling to understand why.
This is not just wounded pride. Young people between 20 and 40 are a significant portion of the growing number of cases, and many more may be contagious even if they don’t show any symptoms. If we want to stop the virus and re-open our schools, shops and restaurants, we need to get young people on board with masks and social distancing.
Why aren’t facts enough to do this? I don’t have definitive answers. But with five months to ponder it, I have some ideas.
First, public health campaigns that promote total elimination of risk don’t work well – especially for young people. Think about abstinence-only sex education.
It’s been proven to be ineffective. But it’s also associated with worse outcomes because it deprives kids of opportunities to understand how to reduce risks if they do choose to have sex. Similarly, simply bombarding young people with #StayHome memes likely won’t eliminate risky behavior.
In fact, a 30-year-old man who thought Covid-19 was a hoax recently died after attending a “Covid party” in Texas. Clearly, some young people are not getting good information on mitigating risk.
We’re actually in a worse position than those teaching abstinence-only sex education, because unlike the risk of STDs or teen pregnancy, the risk of Covid-19 was unknown just a few months ago.
The pandemic has progressed with speed and – given the mixed messaging from public officials – chaos. It’s no surprise that when we tell young people they can either stay at home or risk serious danger by leaving the house, they choose to leave the house.
Secondly, peer pressure during quarantine is enormous. I feel it daily. How can so many people be posting about their trip to the lake, dinners at fancy restaurants and “darties” – daytime parties – while I sit at home?
Lastly, young people have always had a strong sense of invincibility. Gary L. Wenk, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Ohio State University, reports that feelings of immortality hinge on the fact that their frontal lobes are not fully developed, or myelinated. This process is completed between the ages of 25 and 30.
People see more of their mortality as they age – young people simply aren’t primed for death. And during a pandemic, that’s a problem.
So how can we apply these ideas to change behavior?
One idea is to focus on a harm reduction model, which has successfully reduced teen pregnancies and substance abuse. Rather than an abstinence-only approach to the pandemic – never leave the house, always wear a mask, stay 6 feet away from others – we can recognize that some people, especially younger ones, are going to take risks whether we like it or not.
Instead of telling them to “STAY HOME FOREVER,” we can help young people understand what activities are safer – biking with a few friends, hiking, getting take-out food – versus what are more dangerous: house parties with lots of people and swimming in crowded public pools.
We can also try to turn peer pressure into a force for good. Studies show that peer influence can be a powerful tool in decreasing risky behavior among youth. For example, students with friends who use substances are more likely to increase their use. Conversely, after they participated in a peer-led substance abuse program, they reduced their use.
Instead of shaming young people for following the crowd, we can encourage them to create an environment in which putting themselves at risk of Covid-19 is against the norm. Some are already doing this. Just look at these TikToks of family quarantine hijinks – including both young and old alike – and Instagram posts of #quarantinecooking homemade meals (yum).
Lastly, research on invincibility shows that we can make the risks of Covid-19 real by sharing fewer statistics and long-term consequences and showing more immediate, personal stories.
We can start with the last words the 30-year-old man who attended the “Covid party” reportedly told his nurse: “I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”
The last five months notwithstanding, I continue to believe that the more people understand about Covid-19, the more lives will be saved. And I continue to hope that through reaching young people (who are often trendsetters), we will be able to also influence the wider population and not just flatten the curve but crush it.