Why social media is a 'missed opportunity' as coronavirus spreads among young people

WATCH: Public health will have role in monitoring how illness spreads in young Canadians, officials say

It was more than one month ago that Canada’s top doctor (somewhat jokingly) said she would be “game” to use TikTok to appeal to young people about the coronavirus.

At the time, Dr. Theresa Tam and Health Minister Patty Hajdu discussed a forthcoming campaign that would target youth, educating them about the pandemic and their role in it. But so far, experts say there is little to show for it.

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The “Healthy Canadians” YouTube page has two 16-second videos depicting the risks of going to a party, the corresponding Facebook page is spattered with infographics and links to federal press conferences, and the Instagram page uses word-focused graphics like “you are my bubble” and “scrub-a-dub-dub” to remind people of public health recommendations.

But are these reaching young people, who are now leading infection rates?

“I don’t think we’re doing a great job,” said Colin Furness, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“Parents with young kids are getting the message. Older folks are getting the message. So what do you say to someone in their 20s who’s probably not going to get all that sick, whose summer has been dented, whose dating life has been wrecked? It’s a hard sell… It’s a nut we haven’t cracked.”

Health tips at fingertips

Social media education and appeals are a “missed opportunity” to get that message across, said Shana MacDonald, a communications professor at the University of Waterloo.

“It’s the quickest and easiest way to disseminate the information because that’s where their attention is going,” she said. “We’re vying for their attention in a world where it’s constantly being distracted and taken in many different directions.”

During an Aug. 21 press conference, Hadju acknowledged that using digital tools to engage young people is a “complex area… because we know youth are usually on the cutting edge of cultural changes.”

She said young people are involved in the work the government is doing to attract their peers online and that focus groups have been held on a variety of different concepts.

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In a statement Wednesday, a spokesperson from Health Canada told Global News the agency is “finalizing creative concepts using visuals and media platforms that best resonate with youth.”

“This includes using testimonials of youth who have contracted COVID-19 and promoting the videos on popular platforms that have a high number of users in the targeted demographic, including Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest,” the statement read.

The spokesperson said the Health Canada hopes to have a strategic marketing campaign planned for later this fall.

But Furness worries a national campaign, at this stage in the pandemic, won’t be laser-focused enough.

“We have to be saying different things. The characteristics, the demographics, what young people are specifically getting up to… it all matters,” he said.

“Let’s talk about how you behave on the ferries in B.C., and let’s talk about bars in Montreal.”

All eyes on TikTok

Dr. Naheed Dosani can’t understand why social media hasn’t been a priority in messaging.

The palliative care physician and health justice activist saw potential in the digital world from the onset of the pandemic. He turned to TikTok — the fastest-growing social media app on the market.

Using quintessential TikTok trends music and trends, Dosani made a video reminding people to wash their hands, avoid touching their face and stay home if sick. The video was viewed more than 100,000 times.

@dr.naheedd

How to Prevent the spread of Coronavirus: A #Canadian update 🇨🇦. #COVID19 #canada #tiktokcanada #tiktokdoc #fyp #foryoupage

♬ original sound – _ritikaaaa – _ritikaaaa

“I’m able to reach a typically younger generation with short, concise messages that really hit,” he told Global News.

“We need to remember that the main way messages are being delivered is during afternoon press conferences. Most of the young people I know don’t watch the press conferences.”

His latest TikTok makes that exact point — that public health messaging should be on TikTok and Instagram during COVID-19.

“We need to modernize our approach to communication when we think about this demographic,” he said.

“These platforms work because you feel a connection… So long as that message is scientific, evidence-based and up to date, we have the opportunity to educate people on the virus and prevention strategies, but also nuanced aspects about what COVID-19 is doing to our society so that people feel a collective responsibility to care.”

@dr.naheeddMinimize the number of people you interact with. Wear a mask. Physically distance. Stay safe y’all! ❤️ ##publichealth ##edutok ##tiktokdoc ##fyp♬ New Soul (Remix) #2 – Various Artists

The content itself can be tricky. Dosani capitalizes on popular songs, text boxes, and some dry humour to get his point across.

That might be the magic touch, said MacDonald.

“If you look directly at what circulates on these platforms within a youth demographic, it is humour,” she said, adding that memes even have the ability to get complex types of information across.

“Certainly there are people in the government who are young enough to be able to produce content that won’t be rejected by a younger group.”

TikTok is also a low-cost option to spread the word, MacDonald added, which cash-strapped governments might be able to capitalize on more easily. She said the app itself has been “proactive” about coronavirus-related content, adding a banner to the bottom of videos about the virus that takes users to a page of videos from official sources like the World Health Organization, Oxfam and the World Economic Forum.

“This extends beyond the pandemic. It’s something we want to look at going forward,” she said.

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Consistent messaging

Youth messaging is “not just a Canadian problem,” said Furness, but “finger-wagging” from politicians and public health figures in response hasn’t helped.

He recognized that unmonitored parties and large indoor gatherings, often involving young people, have contributed to climbing cases, but choosing the shaming route won’t reach them.

“We’ve said explicitly that you can go to a bar with your friends and party with close contact and no masks. We’ve said that. But then we say, ‘But don’t do it in your living room,'” Furness said.

“It’s not a sustainable message, it’s not coherent. We need to find a way to make it clear.”

To resonate, the message needs to not only be consistent, but engaging, positive and “present on the platforms that people use and love,” said Dasani.

“Rather than reinventing the wheel, why not have clinicians, health workers who are on these platforms get the information out there to turn the tide of this pandemic among youth,” he said.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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