Young people and easing the restrictions: give them one finger and they take the whole hand?

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“If we want young people to respond better to the easing of the restrictions, we need to not just tell them to take more responsibility but also give them that responsibility.”

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Last weekend, a Dutch newspaper published a letter from 94 year old Jan urging young people to adhere to the COVID-19 measures with the prospect of getting their lives back once a vaccine is on the market. Jan was young during World War II and criticised young people’s attitudes towards the COVID-19 measures. After all, he lost most of his youth because of the hardship he had to endure during the war while young people ‘only need to hang in there for just one more year’.

Young people responded en masse acknowledging that indeed their situation does not even come close to what Jan and many others of his generation had to endure and that they appreciate his point of view. But they also said that we should not forget that they have lost a lot too. They were looking forward to closing a long period at school by passing their exams, and then celebrating by attending their famous prom and all other celebrations that come with reaching this milestone in their lives. This summer would have been one of spending time with old friends before embarking on new adventures such as new jobs, work placements and university. This has all been taken away from them. Everything changed from one day to another: school, social life, sports, work and even family life with increased worries for each other’s health and the risk of contracting COVID-19. Even the little bit of routine they hoped to have in terms of their work in severely affected branches such as the food, retail, and entertainment industry, have been taken away from them as many have lost their jobs. 

And things are not looking to improve for them any time soon: finding summer jobs is hard if not almost impossible, restrictions are imposed to how and where to meet with friends, the introduction weeks at universities are online and physically distanced this year, and most universities are preparing online delivery for parts of their teaching. This is all done for the importance of public health but nevertheless, it will not give the young people the experiences they have looked forward to for a long time. It reduces their chances of meeting many new people, joining clubs and societies, and building new friendships for life; points of security, stability and support as these young people tackle large milestones in their development towards adult life.

After missing out on so many important milestones, young people now want to get out and feel a bit of normality again. They want to let their hair down before a possible second wave hits us. Young people do understand; they can reason about risk at a similar level as adults but they may make a different choice at the end of it. To give an example, if you ask the average adult if they would like to take part in a lottery, many will decline stating that ‘it is too high a risk; it costs me money while the chance of winning is too small’. Young people, on the other hand, are much better at dealing with the uncertainty of the situation and may agree to take part in the lottery as ‘there is a chance of success’ thereby focussing more on the anticipated win than the looming negative consequences. This pandemic brings similar challenges for them and after a period of being very much restricted, they can now start doing certain things again and grab the opportunity with both hands. Where adults, and perhaps in particular those who are classed as vulnerable, are still hesitant and look at the reports of packed beaches with fright, for young people it is a chance to get a feel for some form of normality again.

A lot has been said about young people over the past months and often in belittling ways. Excesses are inexcusable but to be fair, people in all age groups seem to have struggled more recently with adhering to the rules and keeping distance. There is little perspective and it is not clear when normal life will return. Let us approach this situation from the young people’s perspective. Instead of, like in the example of the lottery, focussing on all things negative, let us focus on what we do have and the things we can and should do. What are the alternatives and how can we make things feasible in both the short and long run? We all agree that we do not want the ‘new normal’ to become our permanent new normal and that restricting freedom is likely to negatively impact one’s mental health in the long run. So it is crucial to consider how we can reach young people. If we want young people to respond better to the easing of the restrictions, we need to not just tell them to take more responsibility but also give them that responsibility. We should listen to what motivates them, scares them and drives them. We should talk to them, not talk about them. Actively involving young people in discussing what could and should be done to protect us from the dreaded second wave may give insight and understanding into novel ways to ensure compliance with the current guidelines. After all, we all want a safe and healthy environment for ourselves, the ones we love, and all those around us.

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