Factors influencing adherence to COVID-19 protective measures among young people


How to engage young people to voluntarily comply with Corona protection measures in times of re-opening? This study provides clarification with appropriate messages for the target group.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

In a sequential multi-method study, communication scientists from the Universities of Vienna, Erfurt and Munich investigated which factors encourage adolescents and young adults in Germany to voluntarily adhere to corona protection measures. In late 2020, 88 participants aged 14-29 shared their attitudes and feelings on various corona measures (wearing masks; social distancing; etc.) in a semi-standardized digital questionnaire. Based on the findings, approximately 1,000 individuals (also aged 14-29) were asked via an online survey about specific factors influencing and conditions for their compliance. "The results provide momentum for the design of future campaign messages focusing on adolescents and young adults", says study co-author Anne Reinhardt.

Due to the high vaccination quota and the decreased hospitalization rate, there are hardly any COVID-19 restrictions today; to continue to counteract the spread of the virus, health campaigns appeal to citizens to voluntarily adhere to measures, which include wearing masks or social distancing. Studies show that among other adolescents and young adults tend not to adhere to these recommendations. On the one hand, because they have a lower risk of suffering a severe course, on the other hand, they do not want to reduce contact with their social environment for their psychological well-being. Nevertheless, voluntary adherence to protective measures – so-called compliance – is essential for the development of the pandemic.

"Adolescents and young adults are an important target group in Corona communications, as reflected in numerous health campaigns"

communication scientist Anne Reinhardt explains. "Communicative measures in this context, however, rather often rely on generic messages that emphasize the general protection of the population. However, health campaigns achieve their greatest potential when they focus on the needs and characteristics of the respective target group instead of following a simple one-size-fits-all approach", she continues. In a multi-method study, Anne Reinhardt from the University of Vienna and her colleagues from the Universities of Erfurt and Munich investigated factors which have a favorable or inhibiting effect on the corona protection behavior of young people.

In a semi-structured preliminary study in early December 2020, 88 participants shared their attitudes toward various Corona measures. Some felt like being "locked up at home", while others appreciated having more time to themselves. Still, they recognized the need for the measures to protect themselves and others. Uniform and strict governmental regulations, frequent reminders, the availability of home office as well as digital offers facilitated in their opinion their compliance, while a stressful living situation (such as home office alongside childcare) made it difficult to behave in compliance with the regulations. The results of the first survey set the groundwork for a second online survey at the end of December 2020 with almost 1,000 participants, which specifically examined the influence of the identified factors on compliance.

What factors play a role in willingness to voluntarily comply with corona protection measures?

"We were able to show that knowledge and instrumental attitudes are the biggest behavioral levers", says Reinhardt. The more adolescents and young adults knew about the pandemic and the related protective measures, the more severe they considered the health consequences of infection, and the more positively they rated the importance of the protective measures, and "the more they wanted to follow the behavioral recommendations in the future. We found it particularly interesting that, although the protection of vulnerable groups was rated as important, this point did not significantly shape attitudes. For young people, protecting their own health by complying with the measures and acting as role models for others seems to be of far greater importance", Reinhardt elaborates.

Recommendations for communicators: Target group-friendly tips for the development of health campaigns

The study authors emphasize the importance of theory- and evidence-based foundations in the development of communication strategies. They say it is essential to consider thoughts, feelings, and characteristics of the addressed target group in order to promote the desired behavior. On the one hand, they recommend campaign messages that draw attention to the risk of infection (e.g., fear appeals, long COVID consequences). At the same time, however, it should always be communicated that protection against these consequences can be increased by simple behaviors that can be implemented. In addition, messages that address the aspect of social self-presentation seem promising, i.e., that adolescents and young adults can be a role model for others and that they can show their environment that they take the pandemic seriously. All in all, the authors recommend combining factual information to increase knowledge with risk messages, positive recommendations for action and social appeals in order to increase risk perception and, in parallel, to strengthen the target group's self-efficacy.

Publication details

Reinhardt, A., Weber, W., & Rossmann, C. (2022). Drivers of young adults' voluntary compliance with COVID-19 protective measures: Results from a multi-method study. BMC Public Health, 22, 2401. doi:10.1186/s12889-022-14752-y

Anne Reinhardt is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna.