Young adults and risk-taking – Expert Q&A

The recently announced community cases of COVID-19 includes a young adult who visited several places while potentially infectious.

Yesterday, the Manukau Institute of Technology – where the person attended classes – asked the public for kindness in response to the news.

The SMC asked experts to comment on how age may play a part in decision-making amidst a rapidly changing pandemic.

Dr Kirsty Ross, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, Massey University, comments:

Where do New Zealanders stand now in relation to the latest outbreak?

“The recent change in levels for Auckland and the rest of Aotearoa has led to renewed distress and frustration for New Zealanders. I want to acknowledge the very real cost to people right now, in terms of livelihoods and financial costs, but also many other losses that come with level changes and lockdown. These losses include much anticipated weddings, school camps, concerts and other happy events; being able to farewell loved ones fully with tangi and funerals open to all, much needed holidays, important professional events like courses and education training, and the list goes on.

“These losses can make things feel harder, more tiring and more stressful right now. The first anniversary of our first case of Covid was pause for thought and reflecting on how far we have come, but also what a marathon we have been on. A marathon where the finish line seemed to be crossed, and we felt we had won when we had such a normal summer and last year finally felt like it was behind us. Being pulled back into the race when we were fully rested rather than warmed up is hard.

“It is easier to maintain our attention and care when we are in a crisis situation, but it is much harder to return to being on high alert and step up when we had been able to relax for so long. Covid burnout is very understandable – quite frankly, we are sick of it, and we don’t want to do this anymore. When we hear that people’s choices and mistakes have contributed to this new episode, the frustration and anger around this is understandable. While the virus has always been the enemy, feeling that someone in our team dropped the ball means that there is now someone to direct our sense of loss and annoyance at.

“But, it is worthwhile also considering that one of the people being criticised is a young adult, in a developmental stage where their brains are not necessarily fully developed, they don’t have the same life experience as older adults, and they are not necessarily listening to older adults, as their peers and friends are the most important influence in their lives.”

 What does the current science tell us about adolescents and young adults engaging in risky behaviours?

“Our frontal lobes are the part of the brain that helps us think ahead, work through problems and potential solutions, figure out which is the best solution, and then follow that through – rather than making choices based on our emotions, and what we would like to do. The frontal lobe helps us to make wise choices, where we are able to think about what we want to do, but also what we should do, hopefully some to a solution where both wants and needs can be met. That part of our brain doesn’t fully develop until our mid-20s. And we see that with other behaviours that can have an impact on health: substance use, driving behaviours, risk taking.

“We also learn by either being told something repeatedly or learning by making mistakes – good old trial and error. When our children were young, we all remember having to say the same thing over and over to them, until they realised that the rule was the rule, and it became a habit. When you are a young adult, you don’t have your parents there to repeatedly tell you the rules, and your friends are not going to want to be your mother or father!

“The other way we learn is through natural consequences: trying something and seeing what happens. As a parent, we try to teach our children values which help to guide them in making good choices when they are no longer under our watchful eye. But they will make mistakes; we just hope that mistakes are relatively small and harmless. And they might make choices around one value that conflicts with another. So, supporting a friend and staying connected to them, supporting family financially by working, even trying to care for your health by going to a gym (which might also be a way to manage stress) all might come into conflict with a bigger goal of doing our bit for the team of five million. Caring for people in your immediate circle and family often seems more important than the bigger picture.”

 What role do peers have to play in how adolescents and young adults make decisions?

“There is a saying ‘you become like the five people you spend the most time with’. As a young adult, your peers are really important for help shaping your choices and behaviour. As young adults are trying to be independent and do the ‘adulting’ stuff, they often turn to friends for advice, rather than parents or older adults. So, they seek advice from young people who are also trying to figure stuff out themselves! Young people actually have a great deal of knowledge and wisdom, but the benefit of experience from older adults (who have already made lots of mistakes and so see problems and solutions that a young person may not predict with their developing brain) is lost if young people just talk among themselves.”

 What role does health literacy play in this context?

“The messaging about Covid is clear to many people, but not necessarily to others. New variants have meant new symptoms to watch out for. If you are keeping watch for a tiger, but a snake shows up, you might not spot it quickly enough, as your attention is focused on something else. Supporting health literacy for young people is really important, but let’s not forget that there are adults here who have also made mistakes.

“Across the age range, clear messages that update people on new information, that make people feel they know what to do and when to do it, is important. The Government has overall had excellent communication, but the voices of young people saying the messages are not clear, are not feeling relevant and are too long needs to be considered.”

No conflict of interest.