‘Stop blaming young people for Covid spread,’ says University of Derby professor

Dr Frances Maratos organised a letter to the government urging against scapegoating young people

As Covid-19 clusters on UK university campuses hit the headlines, a University of Derby professor has warned against apportioning blame to young people for the spread of the virus.

Dr Frances Maratos, associate professor and reader in emotion science at the University of Derby, recently helped organise a recent letter to health secretary Matt Hancock from the think tank Compassion in Politics.

Signed by 50 leading UK psychologists, many of them drawn from across 14 UK universities, the letter warned against using ‘blame and fear’ messages for the recent spike in Covid-19 cases, and was reported in the Daily Mail.

It argued that “shaming and blaming the young, while asking them to make sacrifices (essentially curtailing their social development and relationship formations) could also result in the exact opposite of the behaviours desired by the government… The government needs to show a much greater empathic awareness for young people who are being robbed of the opportunities and joys of their youth”.

The letter advised the government to ensure messaging over Covid-19 was “communicated by individuals that the target audience identifies with. Hearing fear-based messages from older, authoritarian figures is likely to reduce engagement. We should also avoid making assumptions about certain population groups. The evidence is that the majority of young people actually comply. In addition, we should explore the contributions young people, can and are making to control the virus, empowering rather than shaming them.”

Dr Frances Maratos, University of Derby


Now, in a follow-up blog post on the university’s website, Dr Maratos has explained in greater depth why blaming young people could be counterproductive in combatting a second wave.

“This type of ‘them and us’ messaging is divisive,” Dr Maratos wrote.

“For example, a young person is diagnosed with Covid-19 and we then automatically assume it must be because they have not been following government guidelines. However, could it also be that the young are more likely to test positive, not because of factors associated with socialising, but also because younger individuals, as compared to older individuals, are more reliant on public transport? Or, because they are three times more likely to be employed in the hospitality and recreation sectors, which the public have been encouraged to re-engage with over the summer?

“Do we really want to alienate our youth, be less empathetic and shame and blame them? Or do we want to empower them and make them part of the solution?

“We know from studies of the aftermath of previous epidemics that fear messaging isn’t an optimal solution for behaviour change, especially when considering its long-term effects.”

Dr Maratos has researched psychological, neurological, cognitive and physiological correlates of emotional well-being for more than 15 years, and is currently part of a US National Institute of Health research project into the psychology of young people.

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