Teens and social distancing

Could teenagers' mental wellbeing impact how well they adhere to social distancing guidelines?
26 May 2020

Interview with 

Liat Levita, Sheffield University




The social isolation of lockdown can feel tough at times. And adhering to the guidelines is important in order to protect ourselves and society. So how well are we sticking to these measures? Sheffield and Ulster University have recently announced a survey of just over 2000 teenagers, asking them exactly this, along with questions about their wellbeing and resilience, their support networks and how much they understood why the measures were implemented. Katie Haylor spoke to author Liat Levita about the preliminary findings...

Liat - About 40 to 50% of the people that filled in our surveys felt more anxious and worried since the lockdown. And we also found a really interesting association between how people feel and how they actually engage and are able to follow these guidelines. The more anxious people were, actually the better they were in material to the social distancing guidelines. And the more depressed they felt, the less compliant they were. Where it goes into clinical levels of anxiety and depression, that's something else, but I'm talking about the normal range of anxiety and depression and changes in mood that we all feel.

All these behaviours that we now need to engage with are actually often quite new to us and they require effort. So if you're in a low mood, it's very unlikely that you will be motivated to actually perform them. With anxiety, remember the main point of anxiety is to protect us from harm, so it's actually a motivating force to do something that can prevent a negative outcome.

What we found with young males is that they didn't think it was worthwhile to the same extent as other respondents in our survey to actually follow the guidelines. So if you don't really feel that there's a point for you to do something, you're not going to do it. And that's exactly what we saw. Male individuals, especially older young adults, age 19 to 24, were the least likely to adhere and comply with the lockdown and social distancing guidelines.

Katie - Before we split the gender, how are teens doing in general, according to your survey, in terms of following the social distancing guidelines?

Liat - I would say that about 40% are actually doing really well. The younger you are, the better you are, so you should absolutely be applauding and patting yourself on the back. But that means that 60% are not doing such a great job overall. Something as simple as washing your hands every time you come home from the outside, 60% of our respondents didn't actually do that every time. And likewise other types of behaviours in terms of keeping a distance, washing their hands more regularly than often, again, similar types of numbers were not actually following the guidelines in a consistent fashion.

Katie - Why is that?

Liat - It requires effort and thought. All of us as a society are now having to adapt. Young people actually are thinking and processing information in a different way and that could affect the degree by which they're able to engage with this and maybe the speed where some of these behaviours are becoming habitual. And we also need to think about the environment you find yourself in.

Katie - And why the gender difference?

Liat - Many studies have shown that males tend to take more risks than females. And remember I'm talking about averages here and of course there are huge individual differences within that. But overall males tend to take more risks and are highly influenced by their peers in terms of the type of risk taking behaviours that they do. So their risk taking behavior during the time of the pandemic and the fact that they're engaging in more risk type behaviour in terms of exposing themselves to the virus and exposing others, makes sense. They are not really thinking about the consequences as much as females their own age. And there's also another interesting difference in terms of developmental trajectories between males and females.

Katie - I guess peer pressure must play quite a significant role in this?

Liat - Yeah, it's huge. We asked participants "of the five people your age that you know really well, how many of them are actually following the guidelines?" The male, young people that we surveyed were the ones that actually reported less number of people that they know well are actually following the guidelines compared to females. "Your friends kind of called you up and said, we're meeting in the park. What are you going to do? Are you going to go, are you going to go and sit two meters away from them? Are you going to actually tell them? Sorry, I'm following the guidelines. Can we just talk on the phone?" And again, many more young male participants actually said, "you know, we're going to go to the park". So if they are not thinking it's a worthwhile endeavour as I mentioned, they're not going to follow the guidelines. And it's interesting that there's a gender divide in how the original message has been perceived by young people. So we need to change the message. And we also need to change the messengers.

Peer influence, both positive and negative during the teen years and young adulthood is huge. So if we want people to adhere and comply to the social distancing guidelines, and also what happens in the next few months in terms of things that are changing very quickly and will require us to adapt, we need those 40% that are actually doing really well in terms of getting the message to be able to transmit that to others.

Katie - How diverse was the sample of teenagers that you spoke to? Becuase, I’m just wondering if the people who are more likely to take part in a scientific study might be a bit more likely to engage with the science behind these lockdown guidelines.

Liat - Definitely, I completely agree with you. So people taking this survey obviously had access to a computer and time to do this. There is a bias there. And what I’’m hoping to do in future studies is to make sure that the sample is more representative.

However, the strength of the study and the results are such that I’m not as worried by that as I can control that in my analyses. What is coming through really consistently, even if the sample is not as representative as it could be, I am still seeing 60% of these individuals, that might actually be more privileged than young people in society as a whole, are not following the guidelines.

Katie - Longer term, I'm curious to know what you think about whether the isolation of lockdown is likely to change the way we behave socially. Do you think we might be maybe a little bit fearful of interacting with others post lockdown? Do you think it might change the way we behave?

Liat - I'm really interested in this and I'm glad you kind of brought it up because in this grant application I'm putting together, I'm very much going to look at that. So what happens when things change? How are we going to interact with others? Is our feeling of personal space changed forever? Are we going to be a bit more distant with each other? I think just intuitively, initially yes, but very quickly that will erode. I think, again, it's about habits and how you used we are to being close to other people and we see cultural differences. So where I come from, we stand very close to each other and be very affectionate and physical. When I came to the UK actually was really interesting, being close to someone else was actually uncomfortable for them and you quickly get that! So you would move away a little bit until you actually figured out, "Oh, this is the correct social distance for social interaction". And you see this variation in terms of culture and countries and that's really interesting. So, I'm really hoping that we can run some studies that look at this and see how long those types of changes actually last. My prediction, they won't last very long, unless this pandemic kind of carries on for a few years. If there is no vaccine, etc, and we need to keep the social distancing for a very prolonged period of time.

*Please note these are early days in the research - it hasn’t yet been published or gone through peer review.


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