“It’s My Party...” Young People and Effective Public Health Messaging

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 21 October 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus; Health and Safety; Pastoral Care

The BBC have reported that The Principal of St Ronan’s College in Co Armagh, Ms Fiona Kane has written to parents to make them aware of a number of planned parties, including indoor house parties and other social gatherings potentially involving a number of their sixth form pupils.

She wrote to the effect that while pupils have a right to life outside school and that some of the restrictions were difficult for young people and everyone else, their health and safety and that of the entire college community is of paramount importance. She appealed to parents and carers of Year 13 and Year 14 students, to support the school in keeping everyone safe and well, emphasising that they do not want to have any outbreak of the Coronavirus in the college which has 1500 pupils.

This example and the current virus transmission picture make it a priority that we all, including schools, work on the reduction of the incidence of social mixing and St Ronan’s College deserves great praise for grasping this nettle.

This dilemma for the school is set against the backdrop of today’s socialising norms for young people and indeed the prevalence of alcohol use in society generally.  After years of turning a blind eye to the problems around this issue, the wider public have suddenly become aware of them in the current context of controlling the pandemic. This new alarm has been fuelled by media reports of students partying in The Holylands area on Queen’s University Fresher’s Week and of house parties mainly involving young people in various settings being stopped by the PSNI.

Concerns about young people partying and excessive alcohol use crop up every year. For the universities it is typically at festivals like St Patrick’s day and for school leaders when the school formal season comes around and the reality of pupils using alcohol at a school related event must be faced.  Adding in the current realities of the pandemic however now takes these issues to a whole new level.

On September 9th The Belfast Telegraph ran with the headline; “House parties blamed as lockdowns looming to stem rise in Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland.”  The story stated that

 particular concern has been expressed about parts of Belfast, and the impact of house parties as students return to university.  Meanwhile the BBC reported that the police have said that over the "last short number of weeks" they had issued 450 fines for people breaching regulations on house parties and a further 104 prohibition notices for the same offence.

So why is this problem still happening in spite of social distancing regulations and associated warnings?

The Office for National Statistics has done extensive research on the impact of lockdowns on the different age groups and found that in terms of the relationships being affected, 60% of young people aged 16 to 29 years were much more likely than 30 to 59-year-olds to report being most worried about their relationships with friends.  Friends includes girlfriends and boyfriends, with whom young people are less likely to live, so may have been unable to see during lockdown.

This data reminds us that while older age groups have their own worries at this time, young people, in addition to concerns about careers and future prospects are very worried about their personal relationships - which unlike older age groups they cannot effectively pursue without being in social situations which inevitably involves alcohol.  This to some extent explains the imperative which drives them towards risky behaviours pandemic-wise.

This problem in no way excuses or justifies compromising public health but it should help inform our approach to dealing with the problem. Getting health messages across to this age group has always been a challenge whether it is about the dangers of smoking or the potential harm caused by excessive alcohol use.  Looking back to the campaign against smoking, the effective measures were to restrict access to cigarettes by teenagers, ban advertising and sponsorship of events by tobacco companies and prohibit smoking in public spaces.  Together with effective health education by schools, these measures have reduced smoking among young people.  So, can we apply this approach to changing behaviours in the current pandemic and also address inappropriate alcohol use among our younger age groups which is fuelling the problem?

The British Science Association (BSA) has released survey results revealing almost nine in ten teenagers do not think scientists or politicians are talking to them when discussing COVID-19.  The BSA warns that the ongoing lockdown in the UK could have serious ramifications if young people feel left out or frustrated by the government’s failure to engage them in its guidance. The polling also shows that 41% of teens rate problems with their social life as one of their top three concerns.

 Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the BSA suggests that;

 “There are too many people and communities not being successfully reached by current COVID-19 messaging, and young people are one of these groups. The impact of this public health crisis on young people – their education, future plans and employment prospects – is huge, but is not something which has been given sufficient air-time in the public discussions or Government press conferences.”

 She emphasises that other countries’ senior politicians have ensured young people are directly engaged, so they can understand the pandemic. Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern both held press conferences specially for them and these are examples of very effective pandemic management.

Once again, we are back to considering tried and tested solutions for modifying young people’s behaviour using classroom programmes as we did with Aids several decades ago.  If ever there was a moment to again stress the importance of the pastoral curriculum it is now.  As has been mentioned many times in this column, the squeezing out of pastoral care time in the school day has come at a significant cost to society. We have the skilled teachers who can do this, so let us direct the required funding to schools to get the appropriate health messages relating to the Covid-19 threat to our young people.

This article is correct at 04/11/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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