issues and experts

COVID-19 messaging towards youth leaves room for improvement: SFU/UBC study

October 08, 2021

A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE from researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) has found that young adults feel highly responsible for protecting themselves and others against the spread of COVID-19, but face confusion when trying to comply with public health orders due to inconsistent messaging and ineffective outreach strategies. 

The qualitative study, co-led by SFU Faculty of Health Sciences professor Scott Lear and UBC Okanagan Psychology professor, Lesley Lutes, used focus groups to examine the attitudes and perceptions of 50 young adults in British Columbia between the ages of 18 and 40. 

The study found many in this age cohort are employed as essential workers. As a result, participants were acutely aware of their roles in protecting themselves and their communities during the pandemic. Overall, this age group is known to face a higher risk of depression and anxiety compared to other age groups, especially when they take on multiple social roles such as caregivers and parents.

Participants also found public health messaging to be confusing and often negative, especially when media reports covering the rise of COVID-19 cases focused on ‘blaming and shaming’ rather than contextualizing this group’s exposure risks. 

They also noted public health information outreach methods for their group were ineffective and did not enable two-way communication, thus missing an opportunity for this group to engage directly with institutions to ask questions and/or relay their concerns. 

The researchers recommend tailoring public health messages to consider the context and lived experiences of young adults, and suggest keeping messages positive to increase their effectiveness.

They also emphasize strengthening social platforms that facilitate interaction to better enable their compliance with public health orders—and allow this group to voice their concerns and feel heard.


Scott Lear, Professor, SFU Faculty of Health Sciences
”Contrary to popular belief, young adults do care and perceive a high level of concern and stress regarding the pandemic to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. According to other research, young adults have experienced greater declines in their mental health compared to other ages, and this also needs to be recognized.” 

Lesley Lutes, Professor, UBC Psychology
“Our findings suggest messages that reach young adults should 1) be positively framed, 2) reflect the lived experiences of this demographic, and 3) be delivered on an accessible platform. Respectfully, we urge stakeholders including government officials and media outlets to report and create messaging that answers young adults’ concerns. Tailored messaging is needed, desperately.” 


SCOTT LEAR, professor, health sciences & Pfizer/Heart & Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research              


MELISSA SHAW, SFU  Communications & Marketing 
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