Whose Job Is It To Educate Young People About the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Is it the media, the government or parents' job to educate young people about the COVID-19 pandemic?

By: Emily Frost

A life-threatening global pandemic is a tough enough idea for most adults to wrap their heads around. For children, the looming spectre of potential illness that has upended their family’s lives and closed schools indefinitely is even more confusing.

Some world leaders are tackling the issue head-on. Canada’s Justin Trudeau and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern held live press conferences, opening the floor to children to answer  questions like ‘Do you think we will go back to school before the summer?’ or ‘Who will take care of us if our parents get Covid-19?’ Health officials in Vietnam and Thailand have teamed up with creatives to make viral TikToks to demonstrate optimal handwashing techniques, designed to reach children directly.

However, while the BBC has expanded children’s programming, and added a “Coronavirus” section on its Newsround website, for the most part both the government and mainstream media outlets appear to be putting the onus on parents to inform and educate their children, washing their hands (so to speak) of their responsibility to reach out to children in a language that they will understand.

“I saw that a clap for kids was being organised to congratulate them on handling everything well,” said Maisie Frost, a mother who has had to adapt to homeschooling since the lockdown was enforced.

“But if it hasn’t been communicated effectively by the government why they’re staying at home, how are they supposed to understand why they’re being applauded?”

In the absence of programming that addresses children—or world leaders that include children’s concerns in their broadcasts—it is up to parents to explain the new realities of daily life to their children. Where do they even begin?

“The most important thing is to understand the different age groups,” University of London College Hospital Paediatric and Adolescent Psychology Professor Deborah Christie told Media Diversity Institute, explaining that there is a huge difference between the brain development of a child who is between the ages of four and seven, and an older child who may be beginning to hit puberty and be more advanced in their development

“A younger child can understand a cough or a runny nose, but they might be confused about how a cold is different to a virus,” she continues, pointing to a few helpful resources.

“Meanwhile, an older child has a better understanding of the future,” she continues. “They might worry about mom and dad, and understand that some people, but not all people are going to die.”

But  the most important thing that parents can do is recognise that this situation is not normal, and facilitate healthy conversations with their children about the feelings that they are experiencing.

“We are not seeing a mental health pandemic,” Christie continues. “What we are seeing is normal people reacting to a normal situation. It is okay to be worried, and to be stressed. It is important to normalize these emotions.”

It isn’t just explaining the virus. Many parents are also struggling with how to continue their children’s education—a practical concern on top of emotionally difficult circumstances. While older students are occupied with pre-existing GCSE and A Level exam resources, the parents of younger children are having to draw from a variety of sources to continue their children’s education in lockdown.

“In the first week, I pretty much made it all up,” admits Frost. “I looked at the government’s website to find the KS1 syllabus, made a list of what it covered, and set about finding YouTube videos, interactive coding games, and even old computer games I had when I was young.”

Although the BBC’s viewing schedule, live events like PE with celebrity trainer Joe Wicks, and multiple online learning hubs like Twinkl and Activity Village provide excellent resources for parents to call upon, the information overload can be overwhelming, especially with fewer guidelines on how to structure a school day and allow for time to process the changes.

‘What I would find really helpful is an official rough outline of the optimal ‘school day,’ including when they [students] should take breaks and do more restful activities,” Frost continues.

But not all children are lucky enough to have parents at home to facilitate difficult conversations, or comb through resources, and devise a curriculum to continue their education. Families where the parents are key workers, single parents, or otherwise struggling to make ends meet during the crisis don’t have as much time—and even those who are lucky enough to work from home are juggling work and childcare duties. This is perhaps the biggest case for government-supported education resources and focused information hubs, something that is becoming increasingly vital with fears over disadvantaged young people being left behind in this pandemic.

Communicating with older children about the coronavirus is a different matter altogether – where are they gathering information about the ongoing situation? “I get a lot of my serious information about coronavirus from Snapchat,” says Laura Hoffman, a 17 year old student, ‘my friends and I send each other articles on there every day.’ Both Snapchat and Tik Tok have accessible sections dedicated to Covid-19 news articles, the majority of which come from mainstream media outlets, formatted specifically for the platform. Snapchat also recently launched a new ‘lens’ feature to educate and encourage its users on the topic of social distancing. But, as with all social media channels, fake news is rife.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to the source of the stories I receive,” Hoffman admits. “I just kind of assume that if it’s on Snapchat or Tik Tok, it’s probably true.”

And it’s not just ‘factual’ news about coronavirus that social media is providing young people with. From viral dance crazes to various iterations of the #coronaviruschallenge (which can range from the nobel i.e. handwashing techniques, to the deplorable i.e. licking toilets), social media active young people are engaging with the pandemic on many different levels. Interestingly, in contrast to the stream of articles advising parents on the best strategies for communicating with young children about coronavirus, young adults are being advised in multiple media outlets about how to educate their ‘boomer relatives’ on the pandemic’s severity. Kick-started by a Twitter thread from New Yorker staff writer Michael Schulman, publications including the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and the New Statesman have penned advice for young people on chastising older generations that won’t take the situation seriously.

Although the UK media and government have risen to the challenge of helping parents engage with young people on the subject of coronavirus, these tips have not resulted in an open channel of communication with young people themselves. While older kids are able to fill in the blanks by consuming and creating social media content, younger children have little in the way of media that is made with them in mind. And, as an unfortunate consequence, it is the less-privileged young people – those with limited access to such channels of information – who are being left in the dark.