Lukas J. Wolf, Colin Foad, Marina Iosifyan, Geoffrey Haddock, and Gregory R. Maio, from the Child Salience Effects on Pro-Social Behaviour Project
The closing of 2020 has presented humanity with an extraordinary challenge. The rapid spread of Covid-19 and the governmental measures to tackle it have severely impacted people’s lives all around the world. As of mid-December 2020, 66% of UK citizens indicate that they follow the guidelines to avoid crowded public places and 77% wear a face mask in public. Yet, despite the majority following the guidelines, autumn and winter have seen a second wave of infections, and many news sites have highlighted the greater prevalence of Covid-19 among younger age groups. Rather than explaining this higher rate of infections among young people with governmental policies that have kept schools and universities open, or showing understanding for young people’s higher social needs and the implications of lockdown for their mental health, government sources and the media have often placed the blame on young people and suggested overly harsh measures such as locking down students in university halls over the Christmas period.
In research we conducted in mid-October 2020, we asked 514 UK citizens about their views of such governmental measures. We found surprisingly strong support for measures such as “cancelling all university social events and gatherings”, with 76% of respondents supporting the measure, of which 41% strongly supported it, and only 17% opposing it. Only approximately half of all respondents opposed a strict measure of “keeping students from returning home during term time”, and 22% supported students staying in university halls over Christmas. Moreover, only 18% indicated that young people feel a moral obligation to contain the spread of the virus, whereas this percentage rose to 61% for older people. Conversely, while 63% held young people responsible for the rise in Covid-19 infections, only 12% did for older people.
How can we explain these harsh perceptions and treatments of young people in times of crisis? Our study also included a measure of respondents’ attitudes towards teenagers and young people, which we developed in the lead-up to this study. Specifically, this measure assesses the extent to which participants are open towards interacting with young people (e.g., “I try to engage with teenagers”), have negative beliefs towards them (e.g., “Teenagers show a lack of respect”), and associate them with positive emotions (e.g., “Teenagers make me feel hopeful”).
Our findings showed that participants who have more negative beliefs towards young people are more likely to hold them responsible for the rise in infections and perceive them to feel less morally obligated to contain the spread of the virus. Participants who express more positive emotions towards young people perceive them to feel more morally obligated and are less supportive of harsh governmental lockdown measures. Interestingly, all links remained significant when participants’ own age was taken into account.
If support for governmental measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 were to depend chiefly on perceptions of their effectiveness, feasibility, and fairness for all citizens, people’s attitudes or prejudice towards young people should not play a role. Yet, our findings indicate that these attitudes are relevant. People are supportive of locking away students without regard for their needs and mental health not only in connection to defeating the pandemic, but also in connection to less positive views of teenagers. It is clear that this view of teenagers and young people as an age category has its own role to play, which is woefully understudied and poorly understood. We hope 2021 brings about new opportunities to study these attitudes further and to shed more light on their role in the treatment of teenagers and young people more broadly.
Picture credit: Samantha Gades