Why do young people take more risks against social distancing?

The 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

“Social distancing is the responsibility of all ages and we all need to find our way in this situation to create a ‘new normal’.”

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Young people partying in hotel rooms, on beaches or at home; gathering in large groups without keeping two metres apart. We have all read these stories and seen images on the news and social media while we are trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’ of social distancing. Many people have been appalled by this lack of obedience to the social distancing rules, the risk of spreading the virus and making the vulnerable more vulnerable. These young people, however, do not see wrong in their behaviour, stating that they are fit and strong and that if they get the virus they will only have mild symptoms of flu and will recover without the need of any medical interference. There are even records of young people telling police that they do not see any reason to change their behaviour as “only old people die from the Coronavirus”. While some of this may be true, numbers are rising and there are now several cases of young people dying of the virus and more people passing away by cause of the virus without underlying illnesses.

So why do these young people take such risks? Do they not realise the seriousness of the situation? Compared to other age groups, we see a general increase in risk-taking in young people. This increased risk-taking behaviour is popularly thought to be associated with the rapid development of the brain’s reward system and a more steadily development of the brain’s regulatory control system. An imbalance in the developmental rates of these two systems may present itself in an increased sensitivity to reward combined with a still immature ability to control one’s behaviour, and may result in increased risk-taking behaviour. 

Adolescence and young adulthood constitute a developmental period in life during which social interaction plays a very important role. Young people spend a substantial amount of time with their friends and identify themselves with each other’s behaviour. Consequently, their risk-taking behaviour is far more likely to take place in groups. Risk-taking behaviour becomes more frequent and riskier when with peers. Young people may engage in risk-taking behaviour to meet expectations of peers, to achieve and maintain status, or to be accepted by and belong to a group. These so called social rewards may become even more important in periods of uncertainty and distress. One’s ability to resist these influences continues to develop into young adulthood, suggesting that even though young people may understand the riskiness of their behaviour, their ongoing development may make them more prone to taking risks. In addition, young people are strongly focussed on the anticipation of beneficial outcomes (the pleasure of meeting up with friends) rather than associated costs (the risk of contracting the virus), and cope well with the unpredictability of a situation (I may or may not catch the virus). 

So why do not all young people take these, in our eyes, excessive risks? Risk-taking behaviour is a common occurrence in healthy individuals, however, excessive risk-taking is linked to vulnerabilities in brain functioning and development, individual differences, and tentative differences between genders. Young men tend to perceive behaviour as less risky, are more impulsive than females, and are more focussed on the potential favourable outcome of a risky decision, while females are more risk averse and tend to be more sensitive to punishment and uncertainty. Importantly, it is the interaction between these trait and state variables that determines whether this vulnerability is translated into actual risk-taking behaviour.

Understandably, young people may find social distancing boring or frustrating. They may have low mood, feel worried, and miss being outside with their friends. Because of their reliance on and need for interaction with peers, they may feel these effects stronger than other age groups. Face-to-face contact with friends needs to be significantly limited to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and the above may be an explanation but certainly not an excuse for some of the observed risk-taking behaviours in young people. Keeping in touch using remote technology such as social media, online chats (gaming) and video calling may be the next best thing for offering young people the connectedness they long for. Instead of reducing screen time, telling them to get off their phones and be social to family members, we may take a different approach and temporarily relax these rules a bit. Social distancing is the responsibility of all ages and we all need to find our way in this situation to create a ‘new normal’. Helping each other to meet needs where possible will strengthen bonds and reduce escalations. After all, we are in this together.

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