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Young people’s experiences of COVID-19 messaging at the start of the UK lockdown: lessons for positive engagement and information sharing

Abstract

Background

To reduce COVID-19 infection rates during the initial stages of the pandemic, the UK Government mandated a strict period of restriction on freedom of movement or ‘lockdown’. For young people, closure of schools and higher education institutions and social distancing rules may have been particularly challenging, coming at a critical time in their lives for social and emotional development. This study explored young people’s experiences of the UK Government’s initial response to the pandemic and related government messaging.

Methods

This qualitative study combines data from research groups at the University of Southampton, University of Edinburgh and University College London. Thirty-six online focus group discussions (FGDs) were conducted with 150 young people (Southampton: n = 69; FGD = 7; Edinburgh: n = 41; FGD = 5; UCL: n = 40; FGD = 24). Thematic analysis was conducted to explore how young people viewed the government’s response and messaging and to develop recommendations for how to best involve young people in addressing similar crises in the future.

Results

The abrupt onset of lockdown left young people shocked, confused and feeling ignored by government and media messaging. Despite this, they were motivated to adhere to government advice by the hope that life might soon return to normal. They felt a responsibility to help with the pandemic response, and wanted to be productive with their time, but saw few opportunities to volunteer.

Conclusions

Young people want to be listened to and feel they have a part to play in responding to a national crisis such as the COVID-19 epidemic. To reduce the likelihood of disenfranchising the next generation, Government and the media should focus on developing messaging that reflects young people’s values and concerns and to provide opportunities for young people to become involved in responses to future crises.

Peer Review reports

Background

In March 2020, the UK Government and devolved administrations introduced a first round of lockdown restrictions in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Public venues were closed. All unnecessary travel was prohibited. People could only leave their homes to shop for necessities, exercise once daily, to meet any medical need or to provide care or help to a vulnerable person. Initially, rules in Scotland and England were the same, co-ordinated under a UK four nations approach. The messaging was: “Stay at home, protect the NHS,Footnote 1save lives”.

During this time, schools, colleges, and universities were closed and young people faced a protracted period of isolation, the impacts of which are not yet fully understood. For many, national exams were cancelled, causing anxiety about uncertain futures [1]. This disruption was experienced by a population who are in the midst of a critical period of development, involving major biological, psychological, social, and institutional transitions [2]. Increased need to be with peers, heightened sensitivity to social evaluation and influence and being inclined to take risks [3,4,5] together suggest that it might have been particularly difficult for young people to follow COVID-19 guidance that involved physical isolation and social distancing [6].

Being in a critical period for development means that experiencing trauma during adolescence may have specific and long-lasting consequences for young people [5]. The pandemic and the associated disruption to their normal lives may represent such trauma [7]. Disruption to education is likely to have consequences for young people’s economic opportunity in the medium term, and their employment, human rights, social capital and economic productivity in the longer term [8]. Further impacts of the pandemic response may well be seen on their health and potentially on the health of their future children, particularly through the changes it may have led to in their eating, sleeping and physical activity habits and the way those habits are carried into adult life [9, 10].

Some research suggests that young people may however demonstrate resilience in the face of the pandemic compared to other age groups. Recently published research shows that parents report smaller declines in the psychological wellbeing of adolescents, compared to children under 11 [11]. These differences may be elucidated by a recent study with younger children (7–11) which highlighted that these pre-adolescent children expressed sadness and fear of their family and friends being at risk of dying from COVID-19 [12]. In contrast, young people 12–17 years have reported that the greatest impacts of the pandemic have been disruption to their learning because of school closures and limited face-to-face interaction with their social networks [13]. Understanding young people’s psychological and behavioural responses to control measures and messaging is crucial to mitigating the effects of the pandemic [11].

The challenges imposed by the pandemic present an issue for all young people but will affect different groups of young people in different ways. The disparate impacts that the COVID-19 crisis has had on ethnic minority communities in the UK and across other high-income countries is already being seen [14,15,16]. The vulnerability of members of ethnic minority communities is not inherent; it is a product of structures and is reinforced through marginalisation from health, economic and additional social safety nets that should protect them [17]. Young people from ethnic minority communities are not just dealing with challenges that the pandemic represents for those at their stage of life, but are also managing the threat to their communities, given their increased vulnerability to infection and severe illness.

Researchers and public health authorities in the UK have not engaged directly with young people through the pandemic to understand their perspectives on the Government’s response or related messaging; a striking decision given debates that position young people as driving-up community infection rates [18]. This paper offers unique insights from young people on how they perceived government decisions and messaging at the start of the March 2020 lockdown, how they responded, and what they thought would make messaging more effective in reaching other young people.

Methods

Aim

This research aimed to answer the following questions:

  • How did young people respond to UK government messaging early in the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • How does this response inform the messaging aimed at young people during the rest of the pandemic and in future crises?

Design

This exploratory qualitative study combined data from three larger studies, conducted independently but with similar methods and research aims, by the University of Southampton, and University College London (UCL), England and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Data collection was through online focus groups, transcripts of which were analysed using Thematic Analysis [19]. Ethical approval for these studies was received from the University of Southampton Faculty of Medicine Ethics Committee [Ethics Number: 56068], UCL Ethics Committee [Project ID 16,127/003] and the University of Edinburgh School of Health in Social Science Research Ethics Committee [Reference: STAFF182]. All aspects of all studies were performed in accordance with the relevant guidelines and regulations (e.g. Declaration of Helsinki). The reporting of these studies follows the consolidated criteria for reporting qualitative research (COREQ) [20]. Consultations were undertaken with 23 young people aged 12 to 16 in Southampton on March 30th 2020 to plan the design and conduct of this study. These consultations provided information about the key social media platforms that could be used to engage with young people in this study. As a result, groups of young people were communicated with using Snapchat and Discord to organise focus groups and for additional data collection later undertaken by Southampton researchers (see below). Focus groups were hosted on Zoom. These early consultations provided insights for the development of topic guides and clarified the acceptable length and frequency of focus group discussions with young people. Following these consultations, the Southampton team went on to undertake six additional waves of data collection using these platforms over the course of the first 12 months of the pandemic.

Study participants and setting

In the Southampton and Edinburgh studies, a convenience sample of participants was recruited using a snowballing technique initiated through the research teams’ professional and personal connections to young people and young people’s groups. Project managers from the UCL study purposively sampled participants from racially minoritized groups from a youth engagement network within the study’s partner organisation, Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network. An online form was used to share information sheets and consent/assent forms with parents and adolescents who expressed interest in taking part. Informed consent was obtained from parents/guardians for participants under 16 years of age, as well as from the participants themselves. Consent was received directly from participants aged 16 years or older.

The Southampton sample included participants living in or near the English cities of Southampton, Winchester, Manchester, Brighton and Birmingham. The UCL sample included participants from areas in Greater London. The Edinburgh sample included participants from Edinburgh and the Lothians, Glasgow and Fife but included two participants from cities in England (c.f. map in Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Geographical locations of participants

Procedure

The online focus group discussions (FGDs) reported in this paper were conducted between 6th April and 27th April 2020 by the Southampton and Edinburgh teams and between 7th July and 15th October 2020 by the UCL team. Additional focus groups have been conducted since by the Southampton team, and these findings will be reported elsewhere. FGDs were conducted using Zoom video conferencing software and were audio-recorded. Technical issues meant that one FGD was conducted using the chat function in Zoom. A copy of the chat transcript was saved and included in the analysis with transcripts from the audio-recorded focus groups. FGDs were led by a facilitator and an observer was present at each meeting. The Southampton FGDs were led by STS (post-doctoral research fellow), SCS (senior research assistant and PhD student), MB (senior research assistant), and PHJ (post-doctoral research fellow). The Edinburgh FGDs were facilitated by RJ (Professor), DS (post-doctoral research fellow), KM (research assistant and PhD student), AB (research assistant and PhD student), JM (research assistant), and TH (research assistant). All had previous experience of conducting qualitative FGDs. The UCL team conducted repeated FGDs with eight groups of 4–6 young people. Each group met three times resulting in 24 FGDs overall. FGDs were facilitated by RB (lecturer in Global Health), NK (research assistant), TM and ASG (partner organisation project managers), with the assistance of peer facilitators, who were members of the Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network.

FGDs lasted an hour and were facilitated using a semi-structured topic guide which asked about i) how the participants were spending their time, ii) changes to the participants’ lives since lockdown started, iii) participants’ views of the pandemic and the restrictions, including messaging about both and iv) ways in which young people might be involved in the response to COVID-19 (Table 1). The Southampton, Edinburgh, and UCL teams began their collaboration after the start of the projects; there are therefore some differences between the topic guides.

Table 1 Topic guides for focus group discussions held by Southampton, Edinburgh and UCL teams

Analysis

Interview recordings were transcribed verbatim and thematic analysis was conducted following established methods [19]. Data was organised and managed for the Southampton team using NVivo software and Microsoft Word for the Edinburgh and UCL research teams. Coding of the Southampton and Edinburgh data was conducted by six researchers in each site (Southampton: STS, SCS, MB, SJ, DL and LB; Edinburgh: RJ, DS, KM, AB, JM and TH). The UCL data was coded by four researchers (RB, NK, MG and TM).

Data from the Southampton and Edinburgh research sites were coded deductively by the respective teams using an initial coding frame, developed by the Edinburgh team based on their topic guide. After the initial deductive coding process, the Southampton and Edinburgh teams used inductive coding to create new codes which described underlying meaning in the data. During the analysis process, these two research teams met online fortnightly to discuss similarities and differences between the two sets of data and respective coding, and the way in which the findings answered the research questions. The teams agreed on the key themes and sub-themes representing codes from each dataset and selected illustrative quotes to represent the meaning of each theme and sub-theme.

The UCL team coded their transcripts inductively and created codes that represented the underlying meaning in the data. The overlaps in and differences between the Southampton, Edinburgh and UCL data were then discussed by the research teams. The UCL findings were at this stage merged with the Southampton and Edinburgh findings to produce one collective set of insights.

Role of the funding sources

The funders were not involved in the study design, data collection, analysis or interpretation, writing of the report or the decision to submit the paper for publication.

Results

Participant characteristics

In total, 150 adolescents participated in 36 FGDs across the three studies (Southampton: n = 69 (FGD = 7), Edinburgh: n = 41 (FGD = 5), UCL: n = 40 (FGD = 24)). Table 2 outlines participant characteristics. Participants ranged from 11 to 25 years old (Southampton: 13–18 years, Edinburgh: 11–25 years, UCL: 16–25 years). Combining the studies, 61% of participants were young women (Southampton: 43.5% young women, Edinburgh: 73.2% young women, UCL: 80.0% young women). Ethnicity was missing for many of those in the Edinburgh sample, but based on observation of the focus groups was believed to be similar to the ethnicity profile of the Southampton sample with most participants being White British (61%), whilst the UCL sample was primarily Black African/Black Caribbean (87.5%).

Table 2 Participant characteristics

Findings

Seven themes were identified to describe the data. These are summarised below. Illustrative quotes are presented for each theme in Table 3. Data was analysed at FGD level, so no personal characteristics can be attributed to individual quotes. Pseudonyms are used throughout to protect the identity of the young people.

Table 3 Main themes, corresponding subthemes with illustrative quotes from each research team

Theme 1: clearer and more consistent messaging was needed

Young people described doing their best to comply with government guidance on social distancing. During the early stages of the pandemic in April 2020, they felt that the overall messaging on social distancing was clear but that messaging about the indirect impacts of the virus on their lives, such as on their education and exams, was not clear. Young people wanted messaging that would make adhering to guidance actionable and straightforward.

“Just having it real short. Snappy slogans are easy to remember. Having it that way, you know, if you see it all the time you will end up just doing it automatically.” (11–13-year-old, Edinburgh)

Young people were not naïve and understood that there was uncertainty at every level of society, and that this made it difficult for the government to give clear answers and guidance on how people should respond to the situation. Young people from London, who were interviewed between July and October 2020, also felt, however, that the government's messaging lacked clarity and left young people feeling confused and fearful. They also felt that the language used for delivering messages was difficult to understand and could be improved.

“Everyone has no idea what's going on. People are scared. People are dying. So the higher places like government, people aren’t sure as well. It makes it worse for everyone else.” (16–17-year-old, London)

“I think when Boris [referring to Boris Johnson, English Prime Minister during the pandemic] does his announcements…he should get someone else to go over what he's about to say… When he first says something, I don't get it… I check online, and I see how other people analyse what [the government] said.” (18–20-year-old, London)

Participants felt that both government messaging to schools, and the communication from schools to students about issues such as exam plans was poorly managed. Many young people were left feeling anxious and stressed about their exams and the impact of decisions made on their grades and their futures.

“The government weren’t really sure themselves what was gonna happen. What grades and stuff would be based on was quite a big question and to like not come out with that alongside the cancelling of the exams…just left loads of people with unanswered questions.” (17–18-year-old, Brighton)

“I kind of want to know what they're thinking of, to help us with a future because of what has happened. Now a lot has changed, especially with the exams, and how we're going to be graded and everything.” (16–17-year-old, London)

University students also felt that there was a lack of clear guidance from universities in spring 2020 pertaining to assessments and felt that the language of travel-related government messaging was ambiguous.

“They said there can only be essential travel. And then I wasn't sure… if I wanted to fly home… if that would be included…And then you got a letter from our university saying that going home was not essential travel. But then flights were still going” (19–25-year-old, Edinburgh)

Theme 2: positive messaging and messages with positive language were preferred

Young people felt overwhelmed with constant streams of negative messaging and news focusing on daily death statistics and predictions of the terrible impact of the coronavirus on people, communities, and society. Young people wanted to see more positive messaging from government and other sources, including ideas for activities they could do during lockdown, rather than what often felt like an exhaustive list of things they could not do.

“There has been so much focus on the bad things that are happening… but they haven’t really brought up what you could do with your time… it’s been a lot of ‘no, you can’t do this, no, don’t do that’ and maybe they need to look into what you can do instead.” (15–16-year-old, Southampton)

Some young people responded to the distressing news coverage and media messaging by avoiding COVID-related media content altogether. This was a strategy adopted more commonly by young people from the London group who were interviewed later in the year, several months into the pandemic and prior to the second lock down in the UK.

“I don't have a TV. And I think that was such a benefit because I don't watch the news. So, I just felt less sort of anxious about what was going on. I wasn't seeing the death toll… it wasn't being constantly pushed in my face.” (21–25-year-old, London)

“It reaches a point where you are like “no I don’t want to even look at that anymore” because you know that is going to be quite negative… on the news the other day there was a really nice story reporting on people in a community doing something and we all wanted to watch it.” (16–18-year-old, Edinburgh)

Young people felt that the news and media coverage made them fearful, anxious and powerless in the face of the consequences of the pandemic and that life felt out of their control.

Theme 3: messaging should be aimed at young people and be visible on every available platform

Many young people felt they were not being prioritised in political decision making, and although they recognised that the COVID response was primarily designed to protect older and more vulnerable populations, they felt overlooked. In contrast to the younger groups for whom this was not really a point of discussion, the 16–18- and 19–25-year age groups felt particularly that their needs had not been addressed by Government information and that much of this information was not relevant to them. Despite the lack of adolescent-focused messaging, young people felt that they were reasonably well-informed about the situation, particularly in comparison with older people in the population, and disputed media claims that they were not engaging adequately or accessing information about COVID-19.

[Government officials] weren’t even referring to us when they were saying ‘young people’ on the TV. They were referring to, like, people aged like 20 to 40ish. And they kind of excluded us in their, like, plans and explanations. There hasn't really been much room to explain anything for us.” (16–17-year-old, London)

Young people in the study suggested that the most effective way to communicate with them was through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok or Snapchat. In contrast to those who felt that young people were being overlooked, some felt that these platforms had actually been used effectively for communication of Government messaging to their age group.

“There’s actually been a lot on social media… they [the UK government] are targeting quite a lot at our age on Twitter, on Instagram… on pretty much everything. You see adverts for it all the time… spreading the message saying, “stay at home”. I mean they’ve been utilising hashtags as well, so like “protect the NHS”. (17–18-year-old, Southampton)

Young people predominantly accessed news via their mobile phones rather than from television or radio, although some younger adolescents reported watching news with their parents for the first time during the pandemic. Young people also suggested communicating COVID related messages through physical on-street advertising, and local organisations such as schools, youth clubs, and sports clubs.

Young people from the UCL study, who were members of black and other minority ethnic (BAME) communities, expressed their concern about the quality of government messaging and how a lack of clarity could elevate the already heightened risk of the virus to members within their communities.

“Just state what we need to do… They were talking about how BAME individuals are more susceptible to catching the virus or, like, there's a high death rate for BAME individuals… You know? Speak to BAME people! ‘Oh, whoa, this is a bit more dangerous for us’, which would, again, inspire us to obey the rules more often.” (16–17-year-old, London)

Young people asked to be able to help shape the messaging for their age groups, but also for their cultural, ethnic and local communities. They also highlighted the need for tailored messaging, and for involvement of people who are being most impacted by the consequences of the pandemic.

Theme 4: the government is an official source of information, but trust has been lost

In the early days of lockdown, trust in information sources and decision-making by governments was a key factor in the way young people responded to the crisis. Mainstream news providers, such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and Sky News, were trusted sources, while young people believed that tabloid newspapers were over-dramatising the crisis.

“They kind of all repeat each other. Like I’ve got BBC News and Sky News and Sun App on my phone… and they’ve all said the same things, but the Sun’s added in some dramatic words.” (14–16-year-old, Edinburgh)

“And the government isn't, or hasn't been, certain on how things [i.e. the COVID-19 virus] are being transferred, or how to regulate it. And I just feel like things have been taken a bit out of proportion.” (18–20-year-old, London)

Whilst younger adolescents were understandably less politically aware, older adolescents described a loss of trust in government decision-making through the early stages of the pandemic, primarily related to the belief that the March 2020 lockdown started too late. This led, in some cases, to some participants taking action independently of the Government advice.

“I didn't really trust [the UK Government] from the beginning just because I felt like things should have been done and they weren't being done. So I was self-isolating even before the lockdown.” (19–25-year-old, Edinburgh)

English participants also felt that death rates in England were unnecessarily high. They compared the situation in England to what they had seen and heard about other countries and felt that the UK government had fallen short. They felt that if the government had taken stronger action sooner by bringing in preventative measures and facilitated better capacity for testing, these losses could have been avoided.

“It’s kind of, like, an unnecessary loss of lives. Like we shouldn’t have lost 20,000 people… Because we’re not, like, an unsanitary country. We have the facilities to sort of stop things like this happening, but if you [i.e. the government] act too late, it’s going to have detrimental effects.” (15–16-year-old, Birmingham)

As described in Theme 3, a lack of inclusion of the views of young black people and their communities was blamed for the issuing of ‘blanket’ messaging, wherein non-specific sweeping statements about risks associated with COVID and the response that was required exacerbated a lack of trust already present amongst ethnic minority groups.

Theme 5: non-compliance was viewed as being unfair and selfish

There was a perception amongst young people at the start of the pandemic that it was actually older rather than younger people who were not following lockdown rules, despite the widely propagated view that it was the UK’s youth who were not complying. Some young people were concerned that their grandparents not taking the restrictions seriously. They also noted that some social media influencers set bad examples by violating rules and advertising their non-compliance.

“And it’s just annoying, because if we’re young and we can do it, why can’t people that are older than us not follow the instructions.” (14–16-year-old, Edinburgh)

“The park was pretty packed. You just see like the police just not even caring, like nonsense. Like no one's taking it seriously. It's like people not taking it seriously influence other people not to take it seriously.” (16–17-year-old, London)

Young people did also say that some of their peers were not complying with the rules and expressed anger and frustration about this. They felt it was unfair and selfish.

“When you go out for walks you see people meeting friends, like it’s so obvious. Like our age, a bit younger, you see them and there’s people on Snapchat with friends and it’s just, it’s so bad.” (17–18-year-old, Southampton)

On the other hand, young people also expressed compassion towards others who they thought might be in worse situations than themselves during the lockdown. They referred to their peers who might be living with abuse or in other challenging family situations and recognised that young people in those situations would be suffering disproportionately and would therefore be less able to comply with the restrictions on their movements.

“Maybe they haven’t got the parental support and family support behind them. They’re the kids who are vulnerable to all these things. And they’ll just be saying “Whatever. I’m going out. I’m not staying home with my abusive dad.” I definitely think poorer communities probably will have it worse.” (17–18-year-old, Southampton)

Young people felt that shock tactics and tailored messages highlighting the severity of the risk were needed to achieve behaviour change amongst those who were not complying. This view was at odds, however, with young people’s rejection of negative and overly ‘dramatic’ media coverage.

Theme 6: a sense of responsibility to protect others drives compliance

During these early stages of lockdown, young people showed an understanding of the importance of adhering to the government restrictions and many felt a sense of responsibility to protect others from the virus.

“It’s not about us getting it, it’s about spreading it on to people who are more vulnerable and not crowding up the NHS.” (11–13-year-old, Edinburgh)

Some were initially reluctant to cancel plans but did so after encouragement from parents and peers. Young people recognised that parental and peer attitudes towards the pandemic strongly influenced how likely they were to adhere to the restrictions.

“I think that a lot of opinions that we have [are] actually not really the teen opinion. I think it comes a lot from your parents because your parents’ attitude… so if maybe your parents are taking it more seriously, then it can encourage your children to take it more seriously.” (15–16-year-old, Manchester)

Many young people interviewed in early 2020 described the prospect of getting back to normal quickly as a key motivation for adhering to the government guidelines.

“We all have an incentive because the more people stay at home…the sooner we can tackle this and the quicker we’ll be done with lockdown and we can get back to our own lives.” (17–18-year-old, Southampton)

By autumn, mask wearing was the new social norm in the UK. Young people from London emphasised the need to be considerate and protect other people during this period.

“The new social norm has been putting your mask on and going outside and always wearing anti-bac and stuff like that. And before I didn't really care, but obviously, hanging around others, you have to be conscious and considerate. So now, of course, I do wear my mask. And I think about how it could affect others, as well as myself.” (18–20-year-old, London)

Young people emphasised that acting responsibly was not only about the big gestures, it was about doing the right thing when needed.

“You don’t need to parade around doing up superman or whatever. You just need to pay attention and just open your eyes and think. If there’s a situation where you could help, are you going to go ‘Ah I’m too shy’ or ‘What if they tell me to get out of their face?’ or something. Just uh be a bit more aware and look to see if there’s any way you can help.” (18–20-year-old, London)

For many young people, being responsible meant accepting that they would not be able to carry-out the plans they had to enjoy themselves over the summer; this included music festivals and particularly the Notting Hill Carnival for the young people in London. While they were sad and disappointed about this, they understood the rationale and accepted it.

Theme 7: young people want to do more to help others

In keeping with the sense of social responsibility described in Theme 5, young people believed they had a role to play in educating older people, such as parents and grandparents, about safety and the potential impact of COVID-19.

[Young people] could also spread awareness about social distancing. Because like everyone can get [COVID]. Considering a lot of teenagers have become a lot more bound to technology, they could spread the message like make a viral video, so that old people will see.” (12–13-year-old, Southampton)

Young people were frustrated about being excluded from what they saw as a national effort and had suggestions about what they could do to help.

“I think it would be good if there were more opportunities available for people under the age of 18 especially. Because I have looked into getting jobs, volunteering for the Red Cross, and other things but you have to be 18 to do all of them. So I feel like I am stuck in a stage where I can’t really do anything. But I am young and fit, so I wish I was able to go out and do something.” (16–18-year-old, Edinburgh)

Adolescents in this study suggested that they could help vulnerable people by, for example, doing their grocery shopping, dog walking or volunteering in other capacities. Whilst some younger participants felt aggrieved that most volunteer roles were only for those aged 18 years and above, those aged over 18 years said that there were few opportunities for them as well. Some suggested that these were missed opportunities for voluntary organisations and for the Government to make use of young people’s energy and potential.

Discussion

This qualitative study explored the impact on the lives of young people living in England and Scotland of messaging issued to support the UK Government’s initial response to COVID-19 and the restrictions on freedom of movement. Views from English and Scottish young people were similar. Unsurprisingly perhaps, younger adolescents were less politically aware than their older peers and were consequently less critical of the UK government response to the pandemic, including the COVID-related messaging. Over 18-year-olds from Edinburgh described experiences related to being at university and attempting to volunteer during the pandemic. Young people from London shared their experiences of being from ethnic minority communities who faced greater vulnerability to the impact of COVID-19. The findings from all the focus group discussions are presented below as they answer each research question.

How did young people respond to UK government messaging early in the COVID-19 pandemic?

Young people felt strongly that important decisions about schools, exams and their social lives were made without any reference to them and their needs. They felt they had no control over decisions that were being made by government which fundamentally affected their lives whilst at the same time, being told that they were actually at lower risk of severe health consequences from the virus. For BAME communities the government messaging was even more confusing, in that whilst they were told their risk was higher, no guidance was given as to how members of these communities should respond to this information, how they could protect themselves and others in their communities, or what, if any, support was available to them. Young people suggested these factors led to many people feeling a sense of confusion or even helplessness which undermined their motivation to adhere to social distancing guidance.

Some previous research has suggested that adolescents are among the least adherent to public health guidelines [21]. This narrative was reflected in media coverage of the pandemic, which portrayed young people as rule breakers [18]. This is in contrast to the experience and opinions of adolescents who took part in focus groups in this study who reported complying with COVID-19 guidelines and expressed frustration about the behaviour of those who were not compliant. This was particularly directed at adults who they felt should have been setting a good example. Since these focus groups were conducted, a rapid qualitative interview study conducted with 21 UK young people early in the pandemic has been published. This group of young people also described working hard to comply with government public health guidelines and frustration with the public view that they were recklessly flouting the lockdown rules when the reality they experienced was that it was older generations who were doing this [18].

There was a disconnect between what messaging they thought would work for them or people like them (positive and encouraging), and what would work for “others” such as those openly flouting the rules (shock tactics). It is also possible that the young people who chose to participate in the focus groups were more likely to be compliant, or that participants may have overemphasised their compliance because that is what was socially desirable in the context of the focus group.

As a group also considered less at risk of being adversely affected by COVID-19, and with a lot of time and energy to expend, young people felt they had a lot to offer in terms of helping their communities. Young people were told that those aged under 18 years were unable to volunteer, but even those of age felt there were few opportunities to do this. In the months following the beginning of the first lockdown, volunteering rates among 16–24 year olds rose to 40% [22]. Even though formal opportunities seemed to be limited, young people expressed a strong sense of social responsibility and felt they could help in other small ways. Young people in this study suggested that older family members did not seem to recognise the severity of the situation and therefore they thought that young people could help by role-modelling safe behaviours and sharing what they knew about the purpose of social distancing. Previous research has shown that young people who are motivated to be healthy can positively influence the health behaviours of other family members through modelling and education [23]. It was evident from this study reported in this paper that young people wanted to feel confident that their efforts to comply with the guidelines were worthwhile and would help ensure a return to normal life. The ability to contribute and volunteer are indicators of young people's status as citizens and are known to affect how young people feel about themselves and their value in society [24]. Providing opportunities for young people to contribute in this way would have allowed young people to feel like valued members of society.

Some of the older participants described having low or diminished trust in government decision making. They did not believe that the social distancing measures set by the UK Government were sufficient nor introduced early enough. A recent Swiss study found that low trust in the government was a factor associated with non-compliance with COVID-19-related public health messages among young people [25]. The researchers argue that adopting behavioural changes may be perceived as burdensome if people do not trust in the authorities. Additionally, the pervasive nature of institutionalised racism and marginalisation undermines trust in government institutions and messaging for many ethnic minority communities [17, 26]. Building trust in the government may support young people’s compliance with prevention measures. The following sections outline potential ways in which young people could be meaningfully engaged with and their trust in government decision making and messaging enhanced.

How does this response inform the messaging aimed at young people during the rest of the pandemic and in future crises?

Young people in this study called for the use of tailored, straightforward and simple messaging in public health campaigns. This is in line with previous research highlighting the appeal of such strategies [27]. Recommendations specify that, to be effective, messaging strategies should be positively framed and should emphasise the importance of adhering to guidelines in order to protect others [28]. Other research suggests, however, that positively framed health messages may be no more persuasive than the negative ones that young people rejected [29]. A shift of focus away from what they should not do, towards productive activities that they could do was suggested by young people as a strategy for improving their wellbeing, sense of control over their lives and morale. Young people suggested a dual strategy recognising that not all young people are the same nor equally compliant; they recommended highlighting of risk and the severity of consequences for those who were non-compliant and providing encouraging messages for those who were. The effectiveness of this dual strategy remains to be established.

There was significant negative media attention focused on young people and their compliance with lockdown rules during the early part of the pandemic. This may have been counter-productive for young people since evidence suggests that people are more likely to cooperate when they believe others are also cooperating [30]. Government leaders and the media should focus on reinforcing the message that adhering to guidance and restrictions is the right thing to do and that most people are trying to do so [28]. Rather than presenting a negative portrayal of young people and chastising them, it may be more constructive to instead include them in generating the solution, including publicising examples of the many contributions they are making to the crisis. There have been multiple calls for the engagement of strategic community actors in planning public health responses during COVID-19 drawing on lessons from previous pandemics [25, 31, 32]. Such strategies should also seek to engage young people as experts in their own right.

Recommendations for meaningful engagement with and effective messaging to young people in future emergencies based on the findings of this study are offered in Table 4.

Table 4 Recommendations for effective and inclusive messaging for young people

Strengths and limitations

This study reports findings from an analysis of a unique, large combined qualitative dataset generated through conversations with diverse young people across the UK held at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the group represented diverse ages and ethnicities, and despite focused efforts, there were few young people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds in this study. This may be partly due to the snowballing recruitment strategy used, although the direct benefit of this recruitment strategy is that there was pre-existing good rapport within groups of participants which created a relaxed environment for honest and open discussion, and which facilitated the generation of rich and nuanced data. As the three research teams established their collaboration once data had already been collected, the Southampton, Edinburgh and UCL research aims and topic guides differed from one another in some ways. Additionally, based on Southampton and Edinburgh and the subsequent UCL data collection timeline, the salience of discussion topics changed between data collection periods. Any impact of this on the analysis was mitigated by the development of a co-created coding framework between Southampton and Edinburgh, and regular meetings between the three research teams to develop a unified approach to the reporting of findings.

Conclusions

In the early phase of the pandemic, young people felt largely ignored by government messaging about issues that they felt directly affected them and their communities. Negative media portrayals of young people seemed at odds with the experiences that young people themselves were reporting. Young people caught up in the pandemic face a unique set of issues, the consequences of which are likely to affect their future lives and careers. Young people participating in this study felt none of these issues were being acknowledged or addressed. Despite being cut off from their social networks and mostly confined to their homes, young people still wanted to be able to help others and contribute to a societal effort. Young people are our future. If we want compliance and responsible behaviour from them, it behoves those in power to recognise, respect and enable young people to contribute to combating the crisis. Better engagement of young people from the outset may improve outcomes for the whole population whilst also limiting long-term negative effects on young people themselves. Governments would benefit from valuing the input of young people and harness the energy, dynamism, creativity, and commitment they bring.

Availability of data and materials

Anonymised participant data in the form of transcript text coded under each main theme and subthemes are shared after de-identification with researchers who provide a methodologically sound proposal. Proposals should be directed to ss3@mrc.soton.ac.uk; to gain access, data requestors will need to sign a data access agreement.

Notes

  1. National Health Service (UK).

Abbreviations

NHS:

National Health Service (UK)

UCL:

University College London

FGD:

Focus group discussion

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Acknowledgements

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Funding

This research and the authors of this paper are supported by the following funding sources: Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS) University of Southampton; the Rapid Response Impact Grant, and COVID-19 Call, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (Knowledge Exchange & Impact Grant), University of Edinburgh; and the Institute of Global Health Summer Studentship, University College London. LB is supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the funders. STS, MEB, SCS, MB, KWT, DL, LB and SJ are also supported by the following funding sources: UK National Institute for Health Research Programme Grants for Applied Research (RP-PG-0216–20004); UK Medical Research Council (MC_UU_12011/4); National Institute for Health Research Southampton Biomedical Research Centre; Wessex Heartbeat and Public Health England. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the National Health Service, the National Institute for Health Research, the UK Department of Health and Social Care.

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All authors have made substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work. All authors have contributed to drafting the work and/or revising it critically for important intellectual content. All authors have given final approval of the version to be published. All authors agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. Sofia T. Strömmer (STS): Conceptualisation, methodology, investigation, formal analysis, supervision, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Divya Sivaramakrishnan (DS): Conceptualisation, investigation, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Sarah C. Shaw (SCS): methodology, investigation, project administration, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Kathleen Morrison (KM): investigation, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Millie Barrett (MB): methodology, investigation, project administration, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Jillian Manner (JM): investigation, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Sarah Jenner (SJ): investigation, project administration, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Tom Hughes (TH): investigation, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Polly Hardy-Johnson (PHJ): methodology, investigation, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Marike Andreas (MA): investigation, formal analysis, writing – original draft, and writing – review & editing. Donna Lovelock (DL): formal analysis, writing – review & editing. Sorna Paramananthan (SP): investigation, formal analysis, writing – review & editing. Lisa Bagust (LB): formal analysis, writing – review & editing. Audrey Buelo (AB): investigation, formal analysis, writing – review & editing. Kathryn Woods-Townsend (KWT): Conceptualisation, methodology, investigation, Writing—Review & Editing, Resources. Rochelle Ann Burgess (RAB): conceptualisation, methodology, supervision, investigation, formal analysis, writing—review & editing. Nancy Kanu (NK): methodology, investigation, project administration, formal analysis, writing—review & editing. Malik Gul (MG): conceptualisation, formal analysis, writing—review & editing. Tanya Matthews (TM): investigation, project administration, formal analysis, writing—review & editing. Amina Smith-Gul (ASG): investigation, formal analysis, writing—review & editing. Mary E. Barker (MEB): Conceptualisation, methodology, investigation, Writing—Review & Editing, Resources, supervision, Funding Acquisition. Ruth Jepson (RJ): Conceptualisation, methodology, Writing—Review & Editing, Resources, supervision, Funding Acquisition. Data verification: Southampton data has been verified by STS, SCS, PHJ, SJ, MB, DL, and LB. Edinburgh data has been verified by DS, KM, JM, TH, MA, SP and AB. University College London data has been verified by RB, NK, MG, TM.

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Ethical approval for these studies was received from the University of Southampton Faculty of Medicine Ethics Committee [Ethics Number: 56068], UCL Ethics Committee [Project ID 16127/003] and the University of Edinburgh School of Health in Social Science Research Ethics Committee [Reference: STAFF182]. Informed consent to participate was obtained from parents/guardians for participants under 16 years of age, as well as assent from the participants themselves. Consent was received directly from participants aged 16 years or older. All methods were performed in accordance with the relevant guidelines and regulations (e.g. Declaration of Helsinki).

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Strömmer, S.T., Sivaramakrishnan, D., Shaw, S.C. et al. Young people’s experiences of COVID-19 messaging at the start of the UK lockdown: lessons for positive engagement and information sharing. BMC Public Health 22, 352 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-022-12755-3

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Keywords

  • Young people
  • Government messaging
  • Pandemic
  • COVID-19
  • Qualitative
  • Adolescence