Have young people stopped following Covid-19 advice on travel and parties?

Three-quarters of new cases are among under-45s. Complacency seems to be creeping in

"It is hard to put your life on hold, especially when your adult life is potentially just before you," the World Health Organisation's Dr Mike Ryan said in a video appeal to young people to "really commit themselves to getting rid of this disease".

“It’s your future,” he says. “You decide how it will be, not old fogies like me.”

The appeal came amid fears the message on social distancing may no longer be getting through to young people. Images posted on social media in recent weeks of up to 50 young people pouring out of a house party in Waterford city, and more recently of large gatherings in Kilkee, Co Clare and Santry, Co Dublin, caused widespread alarm. They were isolated episodes, but were they symptomatic of a creeping complacency among that age group?

Seventy-three per cent of cases in the past two weeks were among the under 45s, NPHET pointed out earlier this week, suggesting that younger people would need to be directly targeted in public health messaging.


Meanwhile, some Irish Instagram influencers have come under fire online after posting images of their holidays in Ibiza, although they said they intended to quarantine on their return.

So have young people stopped following public health advice? Are the messages about essential travel and social distancing no longer getting through?

Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said this week that "the vast majority of young people in Ireland have followed public health advice and have made very significant sacrifices... People of all ages will occasionally slip up as they learn to live safely with this virus."

Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book 15 Minute Parenting: The Teenage Years, argues that “it’s easy to turn on teenagers and young adults. But I think we have to be a little more empathic. Of course, there were the gatherings in Kilkee, and the house parties that we’ve all seen videos of. But you’re going to always have exceptions to the rule. That’s true of older adults who are having house parties during lockdown too.”

Most affected

It’s “too easy to generalise” about young people, who in general have been very compliant, despite being the demographic most affected in terms of the psychological strain of lockdown.

This is borne out by findings from the ESRI's Behavioural Research Unit. It found that compliance is lower among the under-40s, the age cohort that has taken "by far the biggest wellbeing hit of anybody who hasn't directly suffered from the disease," says Prof Pete Lunn, director of the unit.

“There is a kind of model that somehow younger people are a threat to how we handle this pandemic, because their behaviour is feckless. In fact, the data we’ve got suggests substantially other causes at work… The people who are lonely during the crisis are young people,” says Lunn.

He points to CSO data which shows that four out of 10 younger adults who never felt lonely prior to lockdown now report feeling lonely. “For younger adults, the impact was greatest. They feel miserable, they feel lonely. And everything that is happening now in terms of compliance needs to be put in that context.”

Non-compliance is at its highest among young adult males under the age of 30. However, “overwhelmingly, it remains the case that the majority are compliant”. Despite the commentary, Lunn says that ESRI data shows young people are actually better at assessing public health risks than older people.

So how should parents approach the issue with a young adult who plans a post-Leaving Cert holiday, a break away with their friends to a non-green list country, or even is just planning to throw a house party?

“One thing you shouldn’t do is blame,” says Lunn. “Young people know they’ve taken a bigger hit. If you treat people unfairly and don’t recognise an injustice where there is one, it can backfire.”

A more effective approach for all age groups is to “communicate the idea that if everybody behaves according to a certain set of principles, we will all be better off”.

Appealing to their sense of responsibility and empathy can be effective too. “Young people are far more motivated by the possibility that they might give this disease to an older person, or to lots of other people, than they are concerned about getting sick themselves.”

Ability to cope

He adds they are more likely to worry about their ability to cope with lockdown – either because of the practicalities of their living situation, or because of the mental health strain.

Irish Times parenting expert Prof John Sharry also pushes back against what he sees as "a tendency to overblame young people. I know as many young people who are fastidiously avoiding others or are worrying about their older relatives, as are breaking the rules."

Parents should avoid blame and take an empathetic approach in any discussion about parties or holidays, he agrees. “There is a lot of research to show that young people are still quite influenced by their parents, depending on the quality of the relationship. If you think they’re putting themselves and others at risk, you can use that influence to express that. But don’t play that card too often – save it for things you really care about.”

It’s also worth noting that “if they’re financially dependent on you, you don’t have to support them doing things you don’t agree with” such as taking holidays abroad, he says.

With younger teenagers, says Fortune, it can be helpful to offer them a safer alternative – a barbecue with four or five friends in the garden instead of a house party indoors.

“In the case of the Leaving Cert holiday, I do think that parents need to step in and actually draw the line and say, ‘Look, you can’t for lots of reasons. And I will empathise and accept how hard that is and how frustrated you are’” but you still can’t go, she says. “The 14-day isolation period isn’t a kind of magic eraser. It doesn’t mean you haven’t infected people along your way.”

But, she adds, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that “connecting with their peers is what young people are wired to do, and it’s in the interest of their mental health to be able to do it. I think a little bit more acceptance and empathy about what they’ve been through would go a long way.”