Perspectives of US Youth During Initial Month of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Eric Waselewski, MD; Marika Waselewski, MPH; Chloe Harper; Sarah Dickey; Sue Anne Bell, PhD, FNP-BC; Tammy Chang, MD, MPH, MS


Ann Fam Med. 2021;19(2):141-147. 

In This Article


A total of 1,087 (88%) out of 1,174 MyVoice members participated in either the March 6, 2020 (90% response) or March 20, 2020 (87% response) survey. The average age of respondents was 18.9 (SD 2.8) years with 52% of respondents identifying as female, 56% as non-Hispanic White, and 36% with an education less than high school. Table 1 shows complete demographics for all respondents. After thematic analysis, 3 key themes emerged: (1) youth reported feeling knowledgeable about COVID-19 with the news as their primary source of information; (2) youth felt increasingly worried, mostly for their family or friends; (3) many youth shifted from doing nothing to prepare for COVID-19 to social distancing within the study period.

Most respondents to the survey sent March 6, 2020, reported knowledge regarding the COVID-19 pandemic (70%; Table 2). Of these individuals, many reported that "It's a viral outbreak…that consists of fever and shortness of breath or cough" (56%), "It's spread from surfaces, is highly contagious.…" (50%), "It's a coronavirus from Wuhan Province in China" (43%), and that it "…is much more dangerous for elderly and chronically ill" (23%). Some respondents noted additional details about COVID-19 including disease prevalence ("100 in the United States with 100,000 in the world") and fatality rates ("it has a death rate of about 2%"). Some expressed beliefs, however, that were not supported by evidence (8%) such as "I know it is a stronger strain of the common flu," "… said to be man-made," or "…it's only lethal to people with underlying conditions."

Information known by respondents was primarily cited as coming from news sources (46%) such as "CNN, ABC, NYT, FOX" or "from the radio news, NPR driving home." Other respondents noted learning their information "on YouTube," "from an account on Instagram," "from Twitter or Tiktok first," or other social media sites (17%). Friends and family (12%), government or academic sources (9%), and schools (8%) were also noted as sources of information.

On the week of March 6, 2020, most respondents (62%) reported being impacted by the pandemic, which increased substantially to nearly all participants (95%) being affected by the week of March 20, 2020. The primary types of impact also changed between surveys (Table 3). Initially, 28% of respondents noted doing "more handwashing" and being "…a little conscious about the spread of disease and how to remain healthy." At follow-up on March 20, 2020, most respondents cited logistical changes like "no job, no school" (64%), "by keeping me inside" (41%), or "everything I have to look forward to is cancelled" (12%).

Participants' level of worry was also assessed in both surveys; on March 6, 2020, over one-half (51%) expressed they were not worried. The remaining youth were split between somewhat worried (24%) and worried (25%). By the week of March 20, 2020, only one-quarter (24%) of participants indicated they were not worried and over one-half (51%) felt worry.

Of individuals who were worried or somewhat worried, the most common reason, at both survey time points, was fear for others (26% on March 6, 2020; 34% on March 20, 2020). Respondents noted being concerned "not for myself but for others" in general, as well as for specific individuals like "…my elderly loved ones" and "…my little one." A number (22%, 21%) also explicitly noted concern for susceptible populations, "…people who are immunocompromised." Other reported reasons for worry included concern about spreading the virus (21%, 19%), the deadly or dangerous nature of COVID-19 (11%, 15%), fear for their personal health (14%, 12%), and apprehension about poor management of COVID-19 "because the government doesn't seem to be handling it well" or "people aren't taking it as seriously as they should" (9%, 12%).

For participants who reported limited or no worry, the most commonly reported reason was because they were "…young and healthy" (28% on March 6, 18% on March 20). Others noted that engaging in prevention practices kept them from worrying (13%, 15%) like being "…careful about washing my hands" and "… because I don't leave the house." Belief of COVID-19 as a mild disease or "…just a slightly more serious flu" was also reported, though less commonly as the pandemic progressed (24%, 9%).

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic (March 6, 2020), respondents most commonly reported doing nothing to prepare (36%), "washing [their] hands more" (30%), "stocking up on food and sanitizer" (18%), or "washing hands like normal" (17%). At the follow-up on March 20, 2020, priorities had shifted. One-half of the respondents (50%) reported "…trying to practice social distancing" and 39% were buying "…enough groceries for us not to go out for 2 weeks." Increased or normal handwashing measures (18%, 7%) were less common at these points, and only 15% reported no preparation measures being taken.