Understanding the youth mentality about COVID-19 – Focus on social norms, not fear

In a few short weeks, Australians’ response to COVID-19 has ramped up significantly. We have moved from messages that told the community to continue life as normal to declaring states of emergency, closing borders, travel bans and lockdowns.

These measures were introduced after too many people failed to alter their behaviour despite the deadly consequences of COVID-19 unfolding overseas.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated he doubted that the "younger community" would follow the health advice around social distancing. Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brendan Murphy also commented that younger people tend to think they are immune to the effects of this virus.

In contrast, an Essential Report survey shows that people aged 18-34 have done more to change their behaviour than those in the 35-54 cohort.

 What are young people saying?

CHF spoke to our Youth Health Forum members to understand what young people are thinking about COVID-19

A very common sentiment was that the early messaging gave young people a false sense of security and it was only once they realised their role as a carrier (even with no symptoms) that many started to pay attention to the health advice.

“At the start, I genuinely thought it was basically the flu, people were overreacting, and that as long as I didn’t cough on my grandparents I’d be fine… now that the messaging has changed and I can see what’s happening I’m taking it more seriously”.

“There was not enough public health information around about how young people can be asymptomatic or it might feel like a mild cold. Learning that changed my mind a lot, that I may be a carrier and have no idea.”

What caused young people to shift their thinking?

Some have felt anxiety since first hearing about the virus in January; that for them or loved ones in a high-risk category following health advice has never been an option. Others only realised the extent of the crisis when events were cancelled, they were told to work from home or lost their jobs.  

Certain groups like culturally and linguistically diverse cohorts, people identifying with a disability or populations in rural and remote areas will require additional support for messages to be understood.

“It seems that the biggest eye-opener for people is when the virus makes a personal impact. This year I moved to a rural town and it seems that a lot of the locals really started to take notice in the past few days (the local butcher was just diagnosed which a lot of the town has been talking about)- before this, there seems to be the idea that being small and rural meant the town was in some ways 'safe' and that the virus was more of an international and a metropolitan issue.”

“Ultimately, working with some young people and people with disability required a one-on-one discussion about why their actions are important. Many don't comprehend the seriousness of the risk, so we have to reinforce those messages.”

“No one reliable (whoever that someone is) really explained the details of social distancing to me. I think a big assumption is that everyone watches the government announcements, but I also know a lot of people taking a break from social media because of the overwhelming COVID-19 content. I would have listened more if it was said with more concrete, stronger language and if it went out through emergency contact channels (like a natural disaster like a storm or fire?)”

Importantly, what people see happening around them becomes a key motivator of behavioural change. People will follow social norms such as working from home or cancelling plans with friends if this is what everyone else is doing. Terms like ‘social distancing’ need to be very clearly explained otherwise people will follow what they see others doing.

We also asked young people, why they thought some people were still not changing their behaviour

People are being asked to cut social interaction, but humans have social and mental health needs, and there is no certainty about how long they will be isolated from friends and family. 

“I think in the face of the fear of not being able to meet their needs and the uncertainty around how or how long this will play out, some people are coping by deciding either that it's not really that bad, or that their immediate needs are the priority for them.”

Some think that the communications need to be much blunter, including showing more of the grim reality in countries such as Italy and China.

“It appears to me that the sheer reality is not understood. The messaging isn’t clear enough that failing to properly self-isolate will result in deaths - a bleak fact of life at this point in time. Our strongest tools are social distancing and self-isolation; if we neglect them, we will suffer the dire consequences.”

Clearly a lack of certainty about what will happen in Australia and in people’s individual lives is a factor in whether or not they will take action. This may explain why so many people ignored the call to practice social distancing over the weekend. There is no clear sense of when life will return to normal.  

Some tips for communication based on what we’ve heard:

  • Advice that changes often is hard to follow and less likely to see changes in behaviour as there is a lag time while people adjust their mindset.
  • Showing people the impact that their behaviour has on others through images and infographics will have better results than simply telling people what to do.
  • There is a huge amount of uncertainty around job and housing security so providing support and clear information is critical. 


About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Leanne was Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia from 2014 until August 2022