By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service
A study by two Montana State University psychology professors published in a Journal of the American Medical Association publication found that teenagers’ attachment to their communities as well as their beliefs about the coronavirus are key factors in predicting how adolescents respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a study of 770 U.S. teens queried during the early weeks of the pandemic, Benjamin Oosterhoff and Cara Palmer, professors in the Department of Psychology in the MSU College of Letters and Science, found that adolescents’ beliefs about the severity of COVID-19 and the extent to which they value helping others is connected with how they are responding to the pandemic. The more attached adolescents are to their communities — through feelings of social responsibility and trust in others – -the more they respond with healthy behaviors, such as social distancing and disinfecting. The researchers said these findings have implications for how parents, teachers and policy makers may improve behavioral health practices among young people and suggest that cultivating stronger social responsibility and social trust might play a key factor in curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Oosterhoff and Palmer’s findings were published in the June 29 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, a rapid publication of a study that analyzed data gathered in March.
The psychologists said findings from their article, titled “Attitudes and Psychological Factors Associated with News Monitoring, Social Distancing, Disinfecting and Hoarding Behaviors Among U.S. Adolescents During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic,” may be helpful in finding effective interventions to improve how teenagers adhere to public health guidance.
“The bigger picture here is the importance that community attachments play in the way (adolescents) respond to large scale negative events,” Oosterhoff said. “If we want to prepare for this and respond in better way — if we want fewer people to die — we need to start taking community attachments more seriously all of the time and cultivate social trust and responsibility (in teen populations).”
While science and research are often slow processes, several factors allowed the two psychologists to rapidly launch and complete their research, then publish it in the prestigious JAMA journal.
“We were able to get the study up and running right away and launched it one week after COVID was declared a national emergency. Warning signs of the severity of the virus were present weeks before the declaration, which provided added time to prepare,” Oosterhoff said. “It was a perfect storm of our past experiences and thinking, as well as new methods we had developed in our lab, that allowed us to turn it around so quickly.”
It helped that Oosterhoff and Palmer are married, so they were able to collaborate 10-12 hours a day during the quarantine to observe, plan and launch the study. They have worked together on other similar projects, including a study that they conducted when they were working in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017.
“We both had previous studies about how a terrible event can impact teens and how that carries with them in their life,” Oosterhoff said. “We felt like something similar was happening again with COVID.”
Coincidentally, for the past year Oosterhoff and Palmer had worked to develop research tools that use social media to collect data from their target population. The couple previously found success buying relatively low-cost ads seeking participants on Instagram. Oosterhoff said that technique proved effective for their COVID survey, especially since schools were closing and eliminating a common route of interviewing students in a classroom.
For two days starting March 20, the researchers surveyed 770 adolescents March 20-22, ages 13-18, from every state in the country. They later surveyed the same group weekly for seven weeks, resulting in additional data, and the researchers plan to continue with follow-ups.
“One thing we need to do as scientists was stay on it and put our findings in a broader context, even beyond what it means to respond to COVID-19,” he said. “In the process we learned valuable information about how to respond to disaster like this again.”
Oosterhoff said after they had preliminary results, he and Palmer reached out to JAMA Pediatrics to see if they would consider COVID-19 research. The editors responded within 30 minutes that they were interested and expedited peer review for the research, given the fast progression of the pandemic.
“Many journals were providing (an) expedited review for COVID research at the time. JAMA had not announced anything yet, so we thought we would ask,” Oosterhoff said.
Oosterhoff credited the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity based at MSU with support and guidance.
“I was excited by their project idea and let them re-allocate funds from their CAIRHE-supported project, which allowed them to quickly pivot their work and get the survey out early,” said Alex Adams, director of CAIRHE.
And while the publication of their work in a major journal was rewarding, Oosterhoff and Palmer’s most significant collaboration came just a week after publication. That was when their first child, a daughter, was born.
Oosterhoff said he and Palmer plan to continue their research as the pandemic continues. For instance, he speculates that adolescents, who generally are socially active, will find it harder to engage in healthy practices such as social distancing as the pandemic becomes more drawn out. And he would like to test his theory that youth who are committed to giving back and volunteering, those who have a strong commitments to their communities, will be the ones to continue to take the pandemic seriously and behave in constructive ways, such as socially distancing and wearing masks.
“There’s a lot more to study, but this is a good start that we hope to build upon,” he said.