In summary

With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, how do we find a way to persuade teenagers to take greater care in their social actions, for their safety as well as our own?

By Jessica Londeree Saleska, Special to CalMatters

As the rest of us hunker down in place or, donning our masks and gloves, venture tentatively outdoors, there is a subset of individuals particularly maladapted to this coronavirus pandemic lifestyle.

No doubt you’ve seen some of them mingling in public spaces, socializing in large groups — laughing, talking, kissing. You may even be one of the 42 million unfortunate adults to have one in your home during this era of COVID-19.

What is it about teenagers?

As an epidemiologist and behavioral researcher in Los Angeles, I develop strategies to promote healthier decisions among adolescents, particularly for the prevention of HIV. Through this work, I often draw from research in neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics to better understand why humans in general, and adolescents in particular, make decisions that are not in their best interest. 

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Of no surprise to parents and educators anywhere, teenagers are particularly susceptible to errors in judgement that lead to risk-taking. Recent studies of the adolescent brain provide evidence that the unique development of neural networks during adolescence can make these individuals hypersensitive to immediate rewards and less equipped to regulate their impulses. It also suggests that adolescents may be less able to resist social pressure, especially when they are aroused or excited.

This predisposition toward impulsivity could explain in part why individuals in this age group drive recklessly with friends, participate in binge drinking, or even gather in groups amid a worldwide pandemic. Behaviors which seem to reflect a decayed moral sensibility perhaps have more to do with the state of their brains than the state of their souls.

Teenage risk-taking could also be linked to the unique ways in which younger individuals evaluate new information. Humans undergo a process of belief updating, in which we adjust our prior beliefs based on new facts. A person’s naïve belief that the earth is flat, for instance, might be updated upon learning that one can circumnavigate the world. 

The extent to which new information can shift beliefs can depend on whether it is good or bad; we are, in general, more apt to incorporate good news into our beliefs and discount the bad. And, while all are susceptible to this bias, adolescents are particularly inclined to demonstrations of irrational optimism.

So, in the not-so-hypothetical event of a pandemic, adolescents may be more likely to discount news about the severity of the novel coronavirus, focusing instead on the fact that they are unlikely to die from COVID-19.

Adolescents are not to be released from all personal responsibility. While their brains are still developing, they nonetheless have brains. Still, their susceptibility to social pressure and tendency toward optimism could inform how we, as public health practitioners, family members, friends and the general public, can encourage safer behaviors.  

First, we must acknowledge that communicating the threat of disease may have limited impact. Reality is a bitter pill to swallow right now, and one that teenagers are likely to spit out. Second, we should find ways to make social distancing immediately rewarding.

Research suggests that social approval and acceptance are massively gratifying and strong motivators for behavior change, and so young people may be more inclined to engage in social distancing if they are publicly lauded as paragons on social media. Along these lines, as teenagers are particularly apt to respond to social pressure, we should seek to communicate information about social norms (i.e., informal standards of behavior). If teenagers learn that majority of their peers engage in social distancing, they are likely to follow suit.

In this crucial moment in history, the welfare of our society depends on mutual collaboration from every member. Our actions, and their consequences, are not our own. And yet we often cannot force people to behave the way we want, especially teenagers. We must find better ways to persuade these individuals to take greater care, for their safety as well as our own.

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Jessica Londeree Saleska is a post-doctoral fellow at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, jsaleska@mednet.ucla.edu. Her current research centers on the use of behavioral economic principles to encourage health behaviors to prevent HIV transmission.

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