Young people neglected by media and politicians during lockdown

18 January 2021 4 min. read

Political, public and media discourses surrounding the pandemic have featured young people as 'victims' of educational upheaval or rule-breaking 'villains', according to a new study. The report suggests that the demographic is overlooked in decisions about how the pandemic is handled, and that public authorities need to improve young people's representation on participatory platforms to rectify this.

Generational frictions had already reached boiling point before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020. For decades, public policy has been pushed forward by politicians supported by older voters, despite being widely unpopular and even damaging to the welfare of younger demographics – most recently illustrated by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, or the referendum result which withdrew the United Kingdom from the European Union.

With the social security, healthcare and education systems which previous generations counted on having also been eroded for new generations by this process, good will for Generation X and Baby Boomers among Millennials and Gen Z was already in short supply.

Young people neglected by media and politicians during lockdown

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic looks set to have widened this schism further, however. A new study, which polled 70 young people from the UK, Italy, Singapore and Lebanon, found that many younger people feel decision-makers are failing to harness young people's potential to help shape pandemic response, while branding them as either poor unfortunates, or as threats to public health.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted with the independent research institute Ecorys, the study explores how young people experience the crisis and outlines how to promote their rights and wellbeing during and after the pandemic. The diverse participants, who contributed to the study between July and September 2020, included BAME, LGBTQ+ young people and teenagers with experience of care or mental health issues.

Professor Barry Percy-Smith, Director of the University of Huddersfield's Centre for Applied Childhood, Youth and Family Research, commented, "So often research messages are reported to adult decision makers in the hope they will listen and respond. But what happens when politicians don't listen to what young people are saying? In this report, with their insightful observations and commentaries, young people are telling us how politicians and public officials so often are failing to act in the best interests of children and young people. This really is the time for us to start taking young people seriously, listen to what they are telling us, value their contributions and support their involvement as a force for change.”

While there were differences between the seven countries, the young people shared a common frustration towards the media for dismissing younger people as irresponsible in contrast to examples of individuals embracing volunteering or greater family responsibility. The key concern registered was that political, public and media discourses feature young people as 'victims' of educational upheaval or rule-breaking 'villains'.

One anonymous participant complained about the “unfair stereotypes” which have circulated during the pandemic that suggest “young people feel like they’re invincible so they’re not socially distancing.” Another meanwhile lamented that there had been “no address to us,” before adding, “we can't ask questions. Where are we at all in this pandemic?"

Illustrating the causes behind this failure to engage young people, the report cited a lack of opportunity for young people to speak out about their experiences in strategies decided by local schools or services. For example, participants had to be over the age of 18 to ask a question in the televised Covid-19 briefings. There was also alarm at the fact that many respondents struggled with a lack of support services, with the need for a holistic strategy when managing global public health emergencies made clear.

Looking ahead, the report suggested that government and public authorities need to improve young people's representation on participatory platforms and review access to support. Furthermore, it challenges schools, youth organisations and service providers to review opportunities intended for engaging young people in decision-making.