Social media influencers could encourage adolescents to follow social distancing guidelines, say researchers

Girl  texting on smartphone_Credit: Jasmin Sessler from Pixabay

Public health bodies should consider incentivising social media influencers to encourage adolescents to follow social distancing guidelines, say researchers. Many adolescents are choosing to ignore the guidelines set out by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic, and peer-to-peer campaigns are likely to be more successful in changing attitudes.

“For many people, adolescence - between the ages of 10 and 24 - is when you want to be making more social connections, not losing them. It’s also a time of increased risk-taking and sensitivity to peer influence,” said Jack Andrews at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and first author of the paper. “For some adolescents it’s a challenge to stick to social distancing rules, particularly if their friends aren’t following the rules.” 

Breaking social distancing rules is a risk-taking behaviour, putting at risk the health of the rule-breaker and of others - in many places with legal or financial consequences. But adolescents are particularly sensitive to the negative effects of social exclusion, and may prefer to risk breaking the rules rather than lose their friends, say the researchers of the paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Campaigns led by adults that try to influence adolescent behaviour often have mixed success. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the widespread implementation of social distancing measures, led by governments, which are likely to be in place in some form for the foreseeable future. But media reports of large student gatherings in the US in March demonstrated the challenge of stopping young people from meeting their friends face-to-face. 

Social distancing guidance could be more effective if adolescents are allowed to develop and deliver their own campaigns, focused on changing peer attitudes around the importance of social distancing. With the current restrictions on face-to-face interventions, social media is expected to be particularly effective in promoting social distancing behaviours amongst adolescents. 

“Adolescents look to their peers to understand social norms, and align their behaviour with the group they want to belong to. The speed and extent of peer influence online is likely to amplified, because social media has such a wide and immediate reach,” said Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, who led the report. 

Previous studies have shown that adolescents are more likely to take certain risks, such as experimenting with drugs or posting sexual content online, when peers are present or doing the same things. Adolescents are also more likely to get involved in beneficial activities, such as volunteering in the community, if they know others who are doing them.

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Image Credit: Jasmin Sessler from Pixabay

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


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