It's not about you

1 personality trait explains why only some young people uphold social distancing

"It is likely becoming much more difficult to adhere to public health recommendations."

Originally Published: 

The United States never completed its first wave of Covid-19: Across the country, cases are spiking, with only two states reporting a decline.

These coronavirus cases differ from infections seen this spring in one crucial way: Younger people are increasingly accounting for more Covid-19 cases. In Arizona, for example, 50 percent of cases are attributed to people between the ages of 20 and 44. In Florida, the median age of people infected with Covid-19 has dropped from 65 to 35-years old.

A new study helps explain why not all young people adhere to Covid-19 mitigation strategies, like social distancing. It was published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Spikes in younger coronavirus cases have been attributed to younger people flaunting social distancing. In mid-June Texas governor Greg Abbot chastised people in their twenties in an interview on local TV:

"What we’re seeing there is that people of that age group, they’re not following these appropriate best health and safety practices,” Abbot told KLBK TV.

Abbot might be correct: This study evaluated 770 teenagers who live across the US, between the ages of 13 and 18, and found that 68.6 percent didn't engage in "pure social distancing" in March. "Pure social distancing" means not seeing anyone outside of one's household.

This suggests that there is some truth to the idea that younger people aren't as monastic about social distancing — though the full story is more complicated than it appears.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas have spiked in recent weeks after being one of the first states to begin reopening.

Sergio Flores/ Getty Images

Benjamin Oosterhoff is the lead author of that study and an assistant professor at Montana State University. He tells Inverse that the urge to flout social distancing policies is ultimately an individual battle between self-interest (which is linked to less social distancing) and feelings of social responsibility (which is linked to more prudent behavior).

"So far, the best evidence that we have is that young people appear to be less concerned with the implications of Covid-19 for their own health and more concerned with the implications of Covid-19 for the health of their loved ones," he tells Inverse.

However, what drives people to cave to self-interest in the first place isn't always due to one's personhood – it can come from watching states open up too soon or lack of clear guidance.

The decision to not social distance –  The survey reveals that there was a moderate correlation between self-interest and an unwillingness to social distance. It was also moderately linked to hoarding behavior.

This data was collected in early March, just as coronavirus cases began to spike. The teens were surveyed about their social distancing, disinfecting, and hoarding behavior the week after the US declared a national emergency.

Now cases are rising once again, but Oosterhoff says that the atmosphere has changed. If self-interest drove an unwillingness to social distance back in March, things have only gotten harder as states have reopened.

"Social interactions are incredibly rewarding for youth, and as more people start to resume their social lives, it is likely becoming much more difficult to adhere to public health recommendations," Oosterhoff says.

But it's not just about seeing friends return to life as normal. In his previous work — a survey of 683 adolescents published in May — Oosterhoff found that teenagers are more likely to comply with social distancing in the face of parental rules or governmental sanctions. That counters somewhat to Florida Government Ron DeSantis' assertion that younger people are "going to do what they're going to do."

"We can't ignore partisanship behind attitudes about Covid-19," says Oosterhoff. "Youth are more likely to comply due to government mandates, which is consistent with several decades of adolescent research suggesting that policy – not education – is needed to improve adolescent health."

The decision to social distance – On the flip side, the study found that 31.4 percent of teens were practicing "pure social distancing." There was a moderate correlation between practicing social distancing and perceiving Covid-19 risk to be higher.

Oosterhoff's earlier work has shown that values like social responsibility drive higher participation in social distancing. In this survey, higher "social responsibility" values were also correlated with less hoarding and more disinfecting behavior. The pattern showing that social responsibility drove good coronavirus-prevention habits was statistically more powerful that the data suggesting that selfishness drove the bad habits.

"Many young people recognize this and are prioritizing the health of others in ways that require very real self-control and sacrifice."

Oosterhoff's study doesn't dive too deeply into how teens think about social responsibility in the context of social distancing. But he suggests that their concern for others is what drives them to resist the rewards of going out.

"Covid-19 is a social issue that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable," he says. "Many young people recognize this and are prioritizing the health of others in ways that require very real self-control and sacrifice."

Despite the fact that young people are testing positive for coronavirus, there are plenty of people who have their priorities straight too, he says. Finding out what drives people to do the right thing, could prove even more important than highlighting why they do the opposite.

"We can learn a lot from these youth if we ask the right questions," Oosterhoff says.

Partial Abstract:
Importance: As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreads across the world, it is critical to understand the psychological factors associated with pandemic-related behaviors. This perspecitve may be especially important to study among adolescents, who are less likely to experience severe symptoms but contribute to the spread of the virus.
Objective: To examine psychological factors associated with adolescents’ behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Main Outcomes and Measures: Outcomes included COVID-19 news monitoring, social distancing, disinfecting, and hoarding behaviors during the 7 days after the United States declared a national emergency. The psychological factors were attitudes about COVID-19 severity, social responsibility values, social trust, and self-interest. The a priori hypotheses were that greater attitudes about the severity of COVID-19, greater social responsibility, and greater social trust would be associated with greater news monitoring, social distancing, and disinfecting, whereas greater self-interest would be associated with more hoarding.
Conclusions and Relevance: The results of this survey study suggest that emphasizing the severity of COVID-19 and the social implications of pandemic-related behaviors may be important for teens, particularly for those who are not following preventive health behaviors or who are engaging in hoarding.

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