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How to Promote Adolescent Social Distancing

Girl in a checkered shirt sitting on a couch looking at a laptop
Public health experts have identified social distancing as one of the best ways to curtail the spread of COVID-19, but try telling that to a teenager who needs time with friends.

When the pandemic hit, University of Pittsburgh developmental psychologist Ming-Te Wang wanted to understand how to persuade teens to distance in a manner that both respected their dignity and met their need for independence.

“Interacting with friends and risk-taking behaviors are two major components of adolescent development,” said Wang, a professor of education and psychology and senior scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC). “Social distancing challenges adolescents’ developmental need for interacting with same-aged peers. These relationships are so important, we were concerned that adolescents may engage in risky behaviors like sneaking out of the house to see friends to get around social distancing mandates.”

Takeaways from the study

Safely Social: Promoting and Sustaining Adolescent Engagement in Social Distancing during the COVID-19 Pandemic” was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Its key findings were as follows: 

» The primary motivating factor behind adolescents’ social distancing was the desire to protect others.

» Teens who could connect with friends via technology were more likely to sustain daily engagement in social distancing.

» Teaching teens about preventive health behaviors for mitigating COVID-19 transmission makes them more likely to engage in daily social distancing.

» Those hoping to encourage social distancing should consider appealing to adolescents’ developmental needs, such as autonomy and connection.

Based on a sample of more than 440 adolescents aged 13-18 years, Wang, School of Education doctoral candidates Christina Scanlon and Meng Hua, and LRDC postdoctoral fellow Juan Del Toro used focus groups and daily diaries to collect more than 6,200 assessments from participants in 38 states.

The primary motivating factor behind teens’ social distancing, they found, was the desire to protect others. Engaging in caring behavior toward others—especially during times of crisis or mass trauma—can be both rewarding and stress reducing. This altruism in times of trauma also has been associated with increased resilience and improved mental health.

“By emphasizing that social distancing is a good way to keep yourself and others safe during the pandemic, we activate developmental processes related to adolescents’ need to pro-socially interact with peers,” said Wang.

“We also thought it critical to understand what can promote social distancing over time,” Wang added. Though they could not have known we would still be socially distancing more than a year later, the team members also wanted to know what would encourage teens to continue practicing these pro-social behaviors.

Teens who were more likely to keep up with social distancing fell into three categories: those who learned about preventive health behaviors for mitigating COVID-19, those who received peer support and those who remained virtually connected with friends.

“It became clear,” said coauthor Scanlon, “that adolescents who understood the purpose of social distancing and who found socially distanced ways to interact with peers were more likely to keep up their social distancing behaviors over time.”

According to Wang, “Teens who understand the importance of and rationale behind social distancing are empowered to make informed decisions about social distancing, which also allows them to exercise their independence in a manner that paints them as pro-social and competent.”

“Adolescents need the time and space to connect with their peers, and virtual spaces have allowed them to do so while remaining physically distanced,” said Scanlon. “Teens’ tenacity to connect with friends despite physical distancing is a testament to their resilience.”

But, the study’s authors noted, virtually connecting with peers relies on the availability of technology, which may pose a problem for teens from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or those in remote areas with no access to reliable internet connections. Teens from low-income families may also rely on resources such as public transportation, making social distancing more challenging.

“We must work together to address systemic inequities that have left some youths particularly vulnerable to the physical, emotional and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wang.

The team also identified what didn’t motivate teens: Descriptive information about infection and mortality statistics were not linked to social distancing.

Wang and Scanlon said that public health administrators and the media may be able to promote social distancing behaviors among adolescents by providing targeted practical information about the coronavirus, how to engage in appropriate social distancing and how social distancing prevents contagion and protects others.

“By providing teens with practical information, we promote autonomy and utility value, and by emphasizing the pro-social nature of social distancing, we encourage a sense of connectedness to others,” said Wang. “When we work with, rather than against, adolescents’ developmental needs for autonomy and relatedness, we can find developmentally appropriate ways for youths to remain safely social throughout the pandemic.”