How to talk to teens and young adults about wearing masks

Young people are the least likely to wear masks and follow other COVID-19 safety protocols, according to a new federal survey. Here's what parents can do.
Talk to your teens about how their exposure to the virus might affect those around them.
Talk to your teens about how their exposure to the virus might affect those around them.Getty Images

The number of adults in the U.S. who regularly wear face masks has risen since last spring — from 78% in April to 89% in June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently released the results of a national survey on COVID-19 mitigation behaviors by age group that involved more than 2,000 people over 18 years old. The survey revealed that younger adults (18 to 29 years old) were the least likely to wear masks — and the least likely to take other COVID-19 safety measures.

Living with a pandemic is especially hard on teens and college-aged kids — and a set of rules about covering their faces, staying six feet away from each other at all times and pressure to keep washing and sanitizing their hands doesn’t help. At this life stage, young people want to gather and socialize, and all too often it’s tempting to throw caution to the wind. But that doesn't mean we should give up on trying to get through to the teens and young adults in our lives.

Here's what mental health experts say about why many younger people aren't adhering to pandemic safety rules and how to talk to them about wearing masks and other ways to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., psychologist and executive director of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at UCLA, told TODAY there’s a reason the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine now defines adolescence as the onset of puberty to mid-twenties. “Teens and college-aged kids live in the moment and are still developing self-regulation skills,” Uhls explained. “Their brains are still developing and their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps them think ahead, is not fully developed. They respond to risk and reward differently than adults and children, making them more likely to believe the risks don't apply to them.”

“While it is true that children and adolescents are at lower risk of complication from COVID-19, they can still develop severe disease, and most importantly, spread the virus to those who are at high risk of complications,” said Dr. Andrew Janowski, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children's Hospital.

5 ways to talk to teens and college kids about coronavirus risks

Uhls and Janowski shared five tactics to talk to teens and young adults about COVID-19 in a way that might prompt them to take the risks more seriously.

1. Find out where they’re coming from

Before you broach the subject of coronavirus risks, find out where your teen or young adult’s head is at. “It is important to let adolescents know that their voice is being heard, especially since so many aspects of this pandemic are outside their control,” Janowski said. “It’s also helpful to assess their perception of how others are dealing with the pandemic, including friends, classmates, other family members, and what they are seeing on social media.”

This information will give you some insight into where your young adult gets their information and what they value — do this before addressing their behaviors.

2. Reference news stories in a matter-of-fact way

Teens and young adults get a lot of their information on social media — and a small percentage of it is accurate. If you’re concerned about social distancing, wearing masks or parties, a conversation about a current news story can prove a good jumping off point, Uhls advised. Just don’t use it as a scare tactic. “Don't overdo the fear or they will discount your caution, but be matter of fact and honest,” Uhls said.

3. Encourage them to consider how their actions might impact others

Janowski says adults should talk their teens through how exposure to the virus might affect those around them. “Many adolescents have friends and family members who have problems with their immune systems, so this can be an opportunity to introduce the idea that wearing masks are important to protect other significant people in their lives,” he said. “Wearing masks helps prevent the spread of the virus to others.”

4. Model the behavior you want to see

“Children often mirror the practices of their parents. If parents are actively trying to wear masks and maintain social distancing, their children have similar practices,” said Janowski. “Adolescents need role models.”

It is important to let adolescents know that their voice is being heard, especially since so many aspects of this pandemic is outside their control.

Andrew Janowski, MD, pediatric infectious disease expert

Janowski also thinks community leaders and social media influencers should extol the virtue of mask wearing.

5. Don’t give up

In conveying the importance of COVID safety to your teen or young adult, it’s important to stay the course — especially as school begins. “This will be the new normal for the next several months and it will take an adjustment before wearing masks become just another part of the day,” Janowski said. “Ultimately, some adolescents will refuse wearing masks as a form of defiance. Continue to engage them and try to understand why they have developed this opinion about masking.”

Janowski said more needs to be done to encourage mask wearing across the generations. “Many stores previously took up the adage of ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service’ back in the 1960s and 1970s,” Janowski explained. “In today’s world, as proposed by others, perhaps we should revise it to form the new normal of: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Mask, No Service.”