Cambridge scientists say this is the key to getting teens to social distance

Sponsored posts from social media “influencers” advertising various products, from CBD to diet plans, have become the new normal on platforms like Instagram. Are posts advocating for social distancing next? It’s an odd idea at first, but one that may prove incredibly effective according to a new study from Cambridge University

The team at Cambridge says that both public health organizations and governments should seriously consider paying social media influencers to promote the idea that social distancing is necessary, the right choice, and perhaps even cool. 

The era of six feet separation crept up on all of us; if you asked pretty much anyone about “social distancing” back in February, you would have been greeted by countless confused faces. Today social distancing is now our new normal, and while it certainly isn’t ideal, it’s saving lives. It hasn’t been an easy transition for everyone, though, as many have decided to ignore social distancing recommendations.

Adolescents and teens have been among the most frequent offenders when it comes to ignoring social distancing, and with summer about to be in full swing, that trend probably isn’t going to stop anytime soon. 

Let’s face it, we’ve all had a tough time over the past few months due to the coronavirus, but for teens who were supposed to be enjoying their high school proms and graduations and experiencing college life for the first time this fall, COVID-19 has robbed them of some of life’s biggest moments. So, it’s very understandable why teens and adolescents are ignoring these guidelines in greater numbers than other age groups, but at the end of the day, they’re putting themselves and everyone around them at risk. 

Hearing about social distancing from the news, or mom and dad isn’t going to make much of an impression on your average American adolescent, but a post from their favorite social media personality may make all the difference.

“For many people, adolescence – between the ages of 10 and 24 – is when you want to be making more social connections, not losing them. It’s also a time of increased risk-taking and sensitivity to peer influence,” says first study author Jack Andrews at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, in a university release. “For some adolescents, it’s a challenge to stick to social distancing rules, particularly if their friends aren’t following the rules.”

There’s also the importance of socializing during adolescence. We all remember how our social lives meant everything during our teenage years, and the study’s authors theorize that many teens would rather take on the risks associated with breaking social distancing rules than miss out on a party or lose a friend. 

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s a tale as old as time. Adults tell adolescents to act one way, and they go right ahead and do the opposite. Teenage rebellion is so common that most kids are viewed as peculiar if they don’t break the rules now and again. We’re not talking about skipping class one afternoon though; this is much more serious.

Teens and young adults are much more receptive to recommendations and cues from their peers, which is why the study’s authors believe social media represents an effective way to sway teens toward responsible decisions. Additionally, with everyone spending more time inside these days, that means adolescents are on social media more often. 

“Adolescents look to their peers to understand social norms and align their behavior with the group they want to belong to. The speed and extent of peer influence online are likely to be amplified, because social media has such a wide and immediate reach,” says study leader Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, who led the report.

This is where influencers come into play. These super popular accounts, usually featuring tens of thousands (if not more) of followers, essentially make a living advertising products and services with their posts. These accounts are undeniably influential on young people browsing social media, and they could conceivably use their clout to help promote social distancing. Ideally, some of these influencers would do this for free, but we all know the way of the world.

“The advantage of social media influencers is that the motivation for social distancing comes naturally from the young people themselves. Influencers could post videos or photos online, for example, showing how they are following social distancing rules by staying at home, and add tags to increase their visibility through sharing and Likes. Many YouTubers are already doing this. It’s really just presenting public health advice in a more accessible way that adolescents are more likely to listen to,” Professor Blakemore explains.

Summer is a great season at any age, but it’s particularly special during adolescence. We all have fond memories from the summer days and nights of our youth. It absolutely isn’t fair that teens and adolescents are being asked to give up an entire summer of good times and social events, but this is the unfortunate reality we’ve all been dealt in 2020. If paid social distancing ads by influencers can help encourage adolescents to stay safe, they’re worth it. 

It feels like a lifetime away today, but there will come a time in the not so distant future when social distancing will be in our rearview mirror.

The full study can be found here, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.