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Want students to socially distance? Scaring them isn’t enough.

Dive Brief: 

  • Surveyed college students were more likely to practice social distancing if they believed it would protect against the coronavirus and they were confident they could carry it out, according to a recent study led by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers. 
  • They surveyed 2,359 college students across seven countries  the U.S., China, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Romania and Kuwait  between March 31 and April 15 of last year. Their results were published in Global Health Promotion, a peer-reviewed journal. 
  • The study aimed to understand which communication strategies can convince students to prioritize the well-being of others, in this case by reducing their social interactions amid a pandemic. 

Dive Insight:

Although the survey focuses on the behavior of college students early on in the coronavirus health emergency, the findings could be helpful for colleges grappling with the ongoing pandemic and future crises. 

Jeanine Guidry, public relations professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the study’s lead author, underscored the importance of following public health recommendations to stem infectious diseases. “Knowing how we can best communicate those things with populations like the student population I think is just really important,” Guidry said. 

Although vaccines are widely available in the U.S., social distancing will likely remain a public health tool during this crisis and others. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that campuses promote social distancing if their population includes unvaccinated people. The practice may also help stem the transmission of other diseases, such as the flu. 

“Even when we’re quote-unquote done with COVID, I don’t think we’re going to be done with concepts like social distancing,” Guidry said. 

The paper found differences in social distancing behaviors across countries. This may have been due to the pandemic’s different severity across regions, the authors wrote. They also noted that the survey used a sampling technique that may have accounted for some of the differences. 

The study’s results suggest that public health campaigns about social distancing should include messages reinforcing that students have the ability to practice it and that it can save lives. 

This is in line with the theoretical framework known as the extended parallel process model, or EPPM, according to the paper. It suggests that for someone to adopt a health behavior such as social distancing, they must believe they are facing a strong threat and that they can take actions to successfully diminish that threat. 

“Just the presence of the threat is not sufficient,” Guidry said. In those cases, she added, people tend to think: “Well, if there’s nothing I can do, I’m just not going to think about that. I’m going to control my fear. That’s scary, and I’m just going to basically stick my head in the sand.”


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