Teens have shown selflessness during pandemic, Montreal researchers say

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Even though they have been hit hard by a disease that often cost them their jobs in addition to keeping them away from their friends, teens have shown great altruism since the start of the pandemic by caring more for others than themselves, a new study carried out at Sainte-Justine University Hospital Centre shows.

They were also significantly less likely than one might have thought (or feared) to turn to social media for information about COVID-19.

"Adolescents and young adults of all ages felt that COVID was not necessarily something risky or dangerous for them,'' said one of the study's authors, Dr. Prévost Jantchou. "Conversely, they felt it was much more dangerous for those close to them, whether it was family or friends. It was pretty consistent across age categories, but also across genders."

Adolescents and young adults felt that those around them were more vulnerable to the coronavirus, he said, and the feeling of having to act to protect society was really fundamental for them.

More than 3,000 young people responded to the questionnaire posted online in the spring by researchers, who admit to being surprised by the quantity of responses obtained. Participants were on average 18 years old, and 75 per cent of them were girls.

This feeling of having to act to flatten the curve and protect those around them greatly motivated young people to respect the instructions during confinement, said Jantchou.

"Social responsibility really emerges as a defining element," he said.

From a public health perspective, this factor could have important implications when the time comes to formulate new messages to mobilize young people in the face of the pandemic, the authors of the study believe.

"The altruistic desire to protect others who are more vulnerable and to help control the transmission of the disease is a sufficient motivator to drive the adoption of preventive behaviours despite the perceived negative impact," the study showed.

Social media literacy

Young people who said they were well informed about the pandemic reported greater use of reliable sources, such as government press conferences, and less use of social media.

When they wanted to learn about the pandemic, young people said they didn't turn to Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok Facebook or Twitter.

For example, just under 1,000 participants said they would "never" consult Facebook on the subject, compared to 323 who admitted they "always" consulted it.

Only 500 young people said they were actively seeking information about the coronavirus on social media.

"It's interesting in the context of the wave of 'fake news' that has swept through social media and has worried us, since young people use it a lot. But it looks like this was not where they were going after all to seek their information," said Jantchou.

Young people said, though, that they have grown tired of government press conferences, when they get the impression that the topics that are talked about are not really addressed to them.

Losing their jobs and not being able to see their friends, young people have apparently been able to take control of matters, said Jantchou.

"They have strategies in place to support the lockdown," he said. "Many tried to create routine in their day to stay organized, as if it were a regular school day. Boredom seemed to be a major factor."

Finally, 11 per cent of survey participants suffered from a chronic disease, such as diabetes or an inflammatory disorder. These young people perceived the coronavirus as being a little more dangerous for themselves than for those around them.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020.

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