Why aren't some teens and college kids taking coronavirus seriously?

Young adults respond to risk and reward differently — here's how to talk to your teen about the importance of social distancing and wearing a mask.
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

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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Life under lockdown is especially hard on teens and college-aged kids. The end of summer and back to school is traditionally party season — and it can easily tempt some of them to throw caution to the wind, gather and get reckless. Last week, University of Norte Dame suspended in-person classes in favor of virtual learning due to coronavirus outbreaks on campus. According to the school, many of the students were seniors living off-campus who contracted the disease at parties or gatherings where masks weren’t worn or social distancing guidelines weren't followed.

Yalda T. Uhls, PhD, 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 college-aged kids 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 is 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, like the Alabama party story mentioned earlier. 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 also 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.”