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The psychology behind why some college students break Covid-19 rules

Pennsylvania State University begins its fall semester this week, welcoming tens of thousands of students back to campus for in-person classes. But Professor Sarah Townsend says administrators don't have a realistic plan for keeping students and staff healthy.

Posted: Aug 24, 2020 5:30 PM
Updated: Aug 24, 2020 5:30 PM

Going off to college is, for many young adults, their first real plunge into freedom and adulthood. It's where they're encouraged to take risks and find new connections in dining halls and laundry rooms.

But those collegiate rites of passage aren't possible if they're largely confined to an extra-long twin bed in a stuffy dorm room, peering out at the world through barred windows.

The fall 2020 semester looks a lot like that for some undergraduates who've returned to campus during the pandemic.

And as anticipated, some of those undergrads have already started to rebel.

Social students have packed fraternity houses and dorm hallways and snaked their way through bars -- all venues for coronavirus transmission. Schools including the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame have had to send students home for virtual classes after clusters of coronavirus cases cropped up just days into the semester.

It's easy to blame the clusters of cases solely on the students -- it plays perfectly into the stereotype of teenage recklessness and vanity.

But their risky decisions have more to do with their development and mental resilience than conscious rule-breaking, three developmental psychologists told CNN.

Meet the experts

CNN spoke with the following experts about the drivers behind these risky decisions:

  • Hannah Schacter, an assistant professor and developmental psychologist at Wayne State University
  • Ben Locke, the senior director for Counseling & Psychological Services at Pennsylvania State University
  • Mary Karapetian Alvord, director of the private practice Alvord, Baker & Associates who mostly counsels children, teens and young adults.

All three experts know college students well. Schacter teaches them; Locke counsels them on campus; Alvord is their psychologist back at home.

Collegiate life doesn't look at all like what it used to, but many of the exciting firsts college promises -- freedom, independence and friendships -- are still there, and they're still luring students to act in ways that can expose them or others to coronavirus, they said.

Teens are wired to take risks

There's some truth to the teenage stereotype of risk taking. Young adults are more prone to make in-the-moment decisions because they're wired that way.

During adolescence and into adulthood, the brain region most sensitive to social rewards -- the amygdala -- develops at a much faster rate than the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational, consequence-driven decision making.

That imbalance may drive them to make decisions others deem risky, like visiting friends or attending a party, Locke said.

"Their decision making ... is more about 'what's in the moment, what am I missing out on, what is the thing that would make me happiest in this moment?'" he said.

Teens are also particularly sensitive to the potential rewards of risky decisions at this stage in their life. It's not that they don't understand the negative consequences, but they struggle to regulate those impulses that lead them to take risks because the potential reward is too great, said Schacter, who leads a lab at Wayne State University on adolescent relationships.

"It's this combination of being restricted from social contact for a while at an age where spending time with peers is so essential to development, to making teenagers feel good, and so, there's some sort of calculation going on where the perceived benefit -- 'I get to spend time with friends' -- seems to be outweighing the potential costs," Schacter said.

When you plop students back on campus after a spring and summer spent cooped up in their childhood bedrooms, many of them will take those opportunities to connect with their friends and strangers. Their fear of the virus may be overtaken by their eagerness to connect, she said.

They depend on social connections to build their identities

The pandemic hasn't dulled young people's desire to belong.

"No one's going back to college because they want to sit in their dorm all weekend by themselves," Schacter said.

Peer approval is increasingly important throughout adolescence, and young adults depend on their social connections to build their identities. They still want to see their friends and meet new people, a hallmark of college that's become increasingly difficult when classes are conducted with students six feet apart -- or states apart, over Zoom.

So some will party.

"Peers are so essential that it's no coincidence that we're seeing these behaviors more and that they're particularly peer-oriented," Schacter said.

And there is a risk teenagers take quite seriously -- the risk of rejection. So if they see someone they respect or admire, or with some sort of perceived social power, ignoring social distancing guidelines or attending a party, they may hesitate to call that person out -- criticizing another student could mean their ostracization, Locke said.

Alvord studies resilience, or the ability to cope with crises. Social connections, she said, build resilience. Having strong bonds and strong friendships helps us get through difficult times -- including times like these.

For some students, isolation may feel scarier than the virus itself.

"The sense of belonging and peer acceptance, I think, outweighs judgment," Alvord said.

They are getting mixed messages from adults

Colleges can't seem to decide whether it's safe for students to return to campus. Many universities gave students mere days to move off-campus in March and resume classes virtually. Months later, they're canceling in-person classes after clusters of coronavirus cases appeared.

But because schools have reopened, students may assume that they'll be safe to resume life as they knew it, Alvord said.

They may also have internalized the general advice toward the beginning of the pandemic, Alvord said, which government officials have repeated in bids to reopen schools -- that children and teens are far less likely to get sick from coronavirus. (The risk of death is still relatively low, but some teenagers have died from Covid-19).

"The knowledge base has shifted, but I think it's sort of reinforced for a lot of them that they were not part of the high-risk group," Alvord said.

Reopening schools and bringing students back to campus open up opportunities for exposure they wouldn't have had at home. The very act of resuming in-person classes makes it more likely for some students to do risky things, Schacter said.

"We can't control much, but we can control what sort of opportunities students have to break these rules," she said. "Most college campuses are literally engineered to promote social interaction. Students coming back ... must navigate this in a way it wasn't built for."

Universities host students from across the US and the world. Every family, city, state and country is handling coronavirus in unique ways. Bring them all back to campus and there are bound to be disconnects in whether they obey social distancing and mask guidelines, Locke said.

"The polarization of mask wearing as a public health expectation is something that's embedded in the arrival of students," he said.

They're still processing the pandemic

Disappointment is inevitable in times like these. Dashed expectations coupled with the challenges brought on by the pandemic that affect students in different ways leave them to navigate the uncertain present on their own.

"This is incredibly hard," Locke said. "None of this is normal, none of this is baseline, all of this has elements that are disappointing in it."

Preliminary health data has already confirmed what Locke and other psychologists feared was true -- that young people have been overwhelmed by anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic. The National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau estimate that more than a third of Americans have experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety since spring.

Some students may seek out activities that restore a sense of normalcy, or they could seek out the experiences they longed for that the pandemic threatened to cancel.

"There's this desire to hold on to the way that it used to be, the way they wanted it to be," Locke said. "It's one of the hardest parts of the pandemic -- to reckon with a reality that none of us developed knowing about."

Young people whose experiences with coronavirus are more personal may be more willing to obey those safety guidelines. But many Americans, luckily, have been spared by the virus. It may still seem foreign or improbable to young people who haven't experienced the virus, which could it seem less serious, the psychologists said.

"People often talk about how adolescents feel invulnerable," said Locke. "And that may or may not be true. But that sense that your behavior impacts your entire community, or could cause your neighbor to die two months from now, is a really hard thing to take in."

Schools may be taking the wrong approach

All three psychologists said they believe the majority of students are taking the pandemic seriously and acting accordingly. Viral videos of maskless parties and packed bars account for hundreds out of the nearly 20 million college students in the US, they said.

The trouble with the Covid-19 pandemic, though, is that even a few students who break pandemic guidelines could set off a chain of infection that can -- and has -- canceled classes and activities, Schacter said.

Schools have struggled to figure out what methods work to convince students to stay safe. And it's not a problem unique to college students -- adults are ignoring the advice of public health officials, too.

It's already apparent, though, that schools telling students to abstain completely from social interaction or threatening them with suspension or worse doesn't work. It hasn't worked with other risky behaviors like drinking and driving or unprotected sex, either, Schacter said.

Alvord said universities need to share that responsibility of keeping those on campus safe with students. Shifting blame onto students could stir up rebellion.

At Penn State, Locke said he and his colleagues have tried to "shift [the students'] culture of thinking" to one of mutual benefit and sacrifice, one that requires everyone's buy-in to take care of each other.

Getting 100% of students to obey safety guidelines is one of the challenges of Covid-19 that feels unsolvable -- how can a school keep thousands of students in line when sports teams with fewer than 50 members aren't even immune

Regarding students with empathy, the psychologists said, and acknowledging the sacrifices they've already made could be a good, if imperfect, place to start.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 608519

Reported Deaths: 9693
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion840461335
Lake45349684
Allen32803548
Hamilton29394315
St. Joseph27380381
Elkhart24404345
Vanderburgh19411249
Tippecanoe17970138
Johnson15069295
Porter14783169
Hendricks14401248
Madison10965221
Vigo10726181
Clark10677144
Monroe9383110
Delaware9116134
LaPorte9065163
Howard8236144
Kosciusko806983
Warrick672999
Hancock6697104
Bartholomew6484100
Floyd6428110
Wayne6136162
Grant5991115
Dubois555579
Boone551168
Morgan541295
Henry507864
Marshall503984
Cass483263
Dearborn479845
Noble473059
Jackson425047
Shelby417581
Lawrence391079
Clinton373043
Gibson370359
Harrison348144
DeKalb347164
Montgomery345754
Knox335639
Miami321444
Steuben313745
Whitley307326
Wabash303251
Adams300936
Ripley298445
Putnam296850
Huntington291659
Jasper289034
White273243
Daviess270474
Jefferson263338
Decatur247683
Fayette247148
Greene239862
Posey239328
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Scott225339
Clay222532
Randolph213548
Jennings198936
Sullivan192333
Spencer191321
Washington186423
Fountain184027
Starke175443
Jay167623
Owen165737
Fulton164030
Orange159534
Carroll158015
Rush155118
Perry154229
Vermillion149134
Franklin148333
Tipton132332
Parke13078
Pike116926
Blackford111022
Pulaski97037
Newton90921
Brown88035
Benton86610
Crawford7999
Martin73713
Warren6817
Switzerland6615
Union6287
Ohio4907
Unassigned0376

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 859841

Reported Deaths: 10680
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin101171707
Cuyahoga855711125
Hamilton64017448
Montgomery43107418
Summit34836761
Lucas31350625
Butler30973232
Stark25786435
Warren19671140
Lorain19017223
Mahoning17321338
Lake16080154
Clermont15926111
Delaware1438878
Licking13204137
Trumbull12809316
Fairfield1279381
Greene12055137
Medina11591168
Clark10942265
Wood10348158
Allen9897126
Portage9296109
Miami916873
Richland9139118
Marion7459113
Tuscarawas7381182
Columbiana7327124
Pickaway726150
Wayne7034171
Muskingum703141
Erie6152129
Hancock552390
Ross548998
Scioto539164
Geauga508455
Darke470292
Ashtabula453073
Lawrence452654
Union451828
Sandusky436662
Mercer433589
Seneca430166
Huron428741
Auglaize422264
Shelby421222
Jefferson419269
Belmont416840
Washington388740
Athens38009
Putnam374975
Madison355129
Knox352622
Ashland344938
Fulton338443
Defiance330086
Crawford322374
Preble320637
Brown312921
Logan307332
Ottawa293943
Clinton290143
Williams278667
Highland275118
Jackson263845
Guernsey254125
Champaign252028
Fayette236530
Morrow23234
Perry231318
Holmes225474
Henry218749
Hardin213033
Coshocton205622
Van Wert202245
Gallia196726
Wyandot196051
Pike176217
Adams176115
Hocking172024
Carroll155616
Paulding144321
Noble120540
Meigs108624
Monroe100732
Harrison89121
Morgan83130
Vinton70213
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