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Experts say teens and younger adults can exhibit riskier behavior overall, but they’re more cautious when they know the risks. Getty Images
  • A new survey indicates that four out of five Generation Z members are taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and following safety guidelines.
  • Experts say it’s because teens and young adults tend to be more cautious if they’re aware of known risks of a particular situation.
  • They note that colleges have become centers for COVID-19 spread mainly due to dorms and dining halls, not necessarily parties.

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Teens and young adults are generally known for the tendency to engage in riskier behavior than older adults.

That might make them seem like the perfect group to defy the public health advice aimed at curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.

But a new Harris Poll suggests that’s not the case at all.

Despite images of rowdy college parties and the news of universities opening their doors to in-person classes only to shut down almost as quickly, Generation Z (Gen Z) overwhelmingly supports public health measures, such as mask mandates and physical distancing, to help curb the spread of the disease.

The recent survey polled 1,048 U.S. teens and adults ages 16 to 23.

About 83 percent of them said they were following recommended safety precautions.

Another 79 percent said they were strictly following mask-wearing guidelines.

And 80 percent said they wanted more people their age to follow those same recommendations.

That roughly tracks with the 85 percent of all adults who say they wear a mask inside stores or other businesses, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Jacob, a junior at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, agreed with the poll’s findings.

“I live with three other people, and we’re very careful to try and social distance. None of us are taking in-person classes or spending a whole lot of time outside of our house,” he told Healthline.

“The exception is that students still have jobs, so there’s always a risk there,” he adds. “The extent to which we have people over is pretty minimal. One to three people at a time, often from places where we know if they’ve been social distancing. Whenever any of us has to be in a crowd or something, we get tested as well.”

If the fact that Gen Z is taking COVID-19 at least as seriously as other generations is surprising, research into adolescent brains might explain why.

Teens’ brains weigh rewards and unknown consequences differently, valuing the potential rewards over the unknown effects of their actions, a 2012 study from the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut found.

But that’s only for unknown risks.

Once teens were fully briefed on the precise risks associated with a decision, they were equally as risk averse as older adults.

“The poll findings that Gen Z is taking COVID-19 seriously track with other polls and surveys that this generation is more cautious and well-informed than other cohorts,” Dan Sneider-Cotter, LCSW, EdD, a school social worker and therapist, told Healthline.

“We know from studies of brain development that the prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain where logical decision making occurs) does not fully connect to the rest of the brain until people are in their early 20s. But, in general, it tracks that the same generation that is cautious, anxious, depressed, and obsessed with reading sensationalized news on the internet and through social media is taking COVID-19 seriously and being shaped by this major disruption to daily life.”

“As a professor who has observed Gen Z, I find this group, for the most part, is more aware, has greater knowledge, and are serious about prevention of disease and living a healthy life,” Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, told Healthline.

That said, he cautioned that in capturing a broad swath of Gen Z from teens to young adults, the survey could be flawed.

“The population studied has clusters of different groups and subcultures with different behaviors,” Dr. Khubchandani explained. “For example, teenagers are different from young adults or college-aged individuals in their behaviors and the variety of influences on behaviors.”

But if Gen Z is so COVID-19 compliant, how did some colleges become superspreader petri dishes?

“The real issue is that the school brought a ton of students back into dorms,” Jacob suggested. “It’s easier to social distance in a house you rent off-campus when you have a car than it is when you’re packed in a building with 300 other students. One of the dorms went on lockdown yesterday because of five cases, and I doubt they were being abnormally reckless.”

Dining halls, where all first-year students have to eat, are another potential issue, he noted.

College is also a place where peer pressure, both positive and negative, can exert itself.

For instance, the Harris Poll found that 91 percent of Zoomers said they would be more likely to wear a mask at a social event if everyone else was masked up.

“I do believe that most young adults are behaving cautiously and that partiers are the exception, rather than the rule,” said Dr. Don L. Goldenberg, an emeritus professor of medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts.

“Unfortunately, even it is just 10 to 20 percent, that is more than enough to shut down colleges. At many colleges, students actively shame partiers, which often works better than rules from faculty.”

Jacob agreed.

“I think there’s a stigma around not doing these things (wearing a mask, social distancing, etc.),” he said. “And certainly among my peers, we always notice if someone isn’t wearing a mask or is in a large group.”