The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a complex time of exploration, identity formation, and burgeoning autonomy. Young adulthood, defined here as ages 18–25 years, is always a challenging time – a time that has been made exponentially more difficult by the pandemic, which has undermined social connectivity, precluded typical rites of passage such as proms and graduations, disrupted all traditional plans for college and future employment, and created widespread economic insecurity. Many young adults fear, or have experienced, COVID-related illness and death among important adults in their lives. Furthermore, our national reckoning with deeply rooted racial and economic inequities has drawn into sharp relief deep societal divides, calling into question the basic stability of our sociopolitical infrastructure. This is a dizzying backdrop for young Americans as they transition through young adulthood.
Unfortunately, discourse about the response of young adults to the pandemic has not acknowledged this chaotic milieu. Instead of validating their loss of security and supporting them through an exceptionally difficult transition, young people are being shamed for failing to follow infection control rules. It is important to acknowledge that most young adults do report CDC-recommended COVID-19 mitigation behaviors. It is however also true that the proportions of young adults who report mitigation behaviors are lower than older adults and that this is most notable for behaviors that are linked to social distancing [
COVID-19 mitigation behaviors by age group — United States, April–June 2020.
]. With COVID-19 infections rapidly rising in people younger than 30 years of age [
- Salvatore P.
- Sula E.
- Coyle J.
- et al.
Recent increase in COVID-19 cases reported among adults aged 18-22 years—United States, May 31–September 5, 2020.
], it is reasonable to wonder why will not they just behave?
Examination of the young adult experience of the pandemic has been focused on college campuses. As of November 19, 2020, more than 321,000 cases have been documented at more than 1700 U.S. colleges [
Tracking the Coronavirus at U.S. Colleges and universities.
]. Infections that originated on campuses have been linked to local spread [
- Richmond C.S.
- Sabin A.P.
- Jobe D.A.
- et al.
SARS-CoV-2 sequencing reveals rapid transmission from college student clusters resulting in morbidity and deaths in vulnerable populations.
]. These risks raise the stakes for college administrators who are making difficult choices about how to best serve their students while safeguarding their local communities [
- Walke H.T.
- Honein M.A.
- Redfield R.R.
Preventing and responding to COVID-19 on college campuses.
The high COVID-19 rates among young adults underscore the urgent need to find better ways to win their hearts and minds. Shaming young adults into compliance will simply not be effective. Instead, we offer recommendations to engage young adults in not only adopting public health guidelines but also leading the way in fighting the pandemic.
Invite Young Adults to Lead the Conversation About Their Own Health and Behaviors During the Pandemic
Behavioral research shows that young adults are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior (e.g., social distancing, masking) when their motivation comes from within [
- Hardy S.A.
- Dollahite D.C.
- Johnson N.
- Christensen J.B.
Adolescent motivations to engage in pro-social behaviors and abstain from health-risk behaviors: A self-determination theory approach.
]. They are also developmentally at an age in which the beliefs and behaviors of their peers greatly influence their own decisions to engage in risky behaviors. This psychosocial context suggests that we should encourage young adults to create peer-to-peer prosocial messaging and challenge them to hold each other accountable. Boston University's F∗ck It Won't Cut It campaign is a prime example of how young adults can be critical allies and effective enforcers within their peer groups by leveraging their technological fluency, social networks, and creativity.
Focus on Generosity, Unity, and Integrity, Rather Than on Fear or Blame
Motivational strategies that cite social responsibility may be more effective than focusing on health risks to young people themselves. Young adults were more likely to reference prosocial motivations (e.g., not wanting others to get sick) rather than personal motivations (e.g., not wanting to personally get sick) as the reason for social distancing [
- Oosterhoff B.
- Palmer C.A.
- Wilson J.
- Shook N.
Adolescents' motivations to engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic: Associations with Mental and social health.
]. Shared agreements, such as compacts, signed by students, staff, and faculty alike emphasize how the actions of each individual benefit a community. Student ambassador programs are an example of peer-to-peer enforcement. Finally, young adults have pushed back against broader sequelae of the pandemic by serving their communities through programs that provide food, or financial assistance. These generous acts of service fall along an outwardly facing continuum of behaviors that also includes mask wearing and physical distancing. Helping young adults see the common threads between these behaviors may help them sustain safety measures over time.
Provide Specific Guidance on How Young Adults can Socialize More Safely
Deep and genuine connection is essential for the social and emotional well-being of young adults. Expecting young people to avoid social interaction, particularly when they have been invited back to college campuses, is not realistic. Instead, guidance should explicitly state how important it is to stay connected and provide risk reduction strategies on how to do so thoughtfully. Examples from universities include a How To Guide on socializing (e.g., quantifying risk, harm reduction strategies), an approved activities list (e.g., park picnics, virtual yoga), or advice on dating safely (e.g., asking about exposures). Alongside concrete guidance that recognize socialization as an essential activity, communities, universities, and health professionals need to convey high expectations for young adults, which increases their self-esteem, motivation, and ultimately, success.
Place Equity at the Center of the Conversation
Young adults care about the inequities that COVID-19 has exacerbated. In a poll conducted before the election, 18- to 29-year-old young adults listed the environment, racism, and health care as their top three priorities for voting [
Poll: young people believe they can lead change in unprecedented election cycle.
]. Connecting the dots between individual behavior and collective consequences among people of color who are disproportionately infected with COVID-19 can help to win the hearts of minds of young adults. We need to help young adults realize that in communities where people are more likely to be uninsured, live in congregate housing, or lack the occupational luxury of working from home, the ripple effects of their behavioral nonadherence are particularly severe. Centering the calls for young adult leadership in the pandemic around equity will draw in additional groups of activated young adults and help generate creative solutions to an only worsening issue.
In summary, it is clear that the pandemic will not be controlled before the 2021 spring semester. Instead, the pandemic has accelerated in the winter season of gathering. It is time to acknowledge the losses that young adults are facing, to validate the uncertainty they are feeling, and to offer them the chance to channel their energy into creative and collaborative solutions. Young adults did not cause this pandemic, but winning their hearts and minds is crucial to overcoming it.
Conflicts of interest: The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.
Dr. Ford is JAH Editor-in-Chief, but was not involved in review or decisions about this manuscript.
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