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20 September 2020

Five months after the COVID-19 pandemic and responses began in Australia, the majority of our young people (aged 13 to 17) are doing better than they had expected they would be at this point, new national research by UNICEF Australia has found. However, there are a significant proportion continuing to experience adverse impacts in key aspects of their lives and wellbeing, while a small minority are struggling and may be at risk of slipping below the radar without special attention.

On one hand, the research indicates that young people now have the benefit of lived experience of the pandemic and responses, as well as access to a wealth of information about both, which they are discerning about engaging with. These are two things that appear to be assisting them to adapt and build aspects of resilience, regardless of whether they have largely remained in lockdown (Melbourne) or not.

For example, though young people generally consider themselves better able to cope (55% rate their ability to do so as ‘good’ in July-August compared to 45% in April), there has been no improvement for those in Melbourne (44%), who have mostly remained in lockdown. In consultations, many young people, including those in Melbourne, talked about taking practical actions to manage and adapt to their circumstances - an important element in fostering a sense of agency during challenging times.

 On the other hand, the many unknowns in relation to transmission of the virus and vaccine development are a concern for young people. The impacts (known and unknown) on their education loom large. Mental health and psychosocial support impacts continue to chart unevenly for many, though some young people are finding certain positive outcomes along the way. Young people are increasingly concerned that they are not viewed as equal stakeholders, have few real platforms to contribute to decision making, and are being negatively stereotyped. They are also worried about the inequitable impacts of the pandemic, recognising that it has exacerbated existing disparities and left some particularly vulnerable and excluded in this crisis.

“Many young people are learning to adapt and navigate life during this pandemic, but it has been an incredibly difficult time and their wellbeing remains under strain, particularly young people in Melbourne,” said UNICEF Australia Program and Advocacy Manager, Juliet Attenborough. “At the same time, young people are concerned that the pandemic is exacerbating many pre-existing inequalities. We need more focused attention and support for those vulnerable and isolated young people who have been hardest hit if we are to avoid the pandemic becoming a catalyst for life-long adversity and inequality.”

Transmission issues: As time has gone on and the gravity of the pandemic and the responses to it have unfolded (globally, nationally and in Victoria), concern about our health system being overwhelmed has dramatically fallen, as it has proven able to cope during this period (from 35% in April to 15% in August, both nationally and in Melbourne), and the proportion of young people surveyed who have friends and family who have contracted the virus appears to have remained low (April 4%, August 6%).

At the same time, concern about family and friends contracting COVID-19 has stayed strong (40% in April, 42% in August, 47% in Melbourne), while nationally, 36% want better information about the virus itself and whether it is changing, and 42% want to better understand progress with a vaccine and treatment. For just under one third of young people, worry about contracting the virus has been compounded by worry about members of the community not following response rules, such as social distancing recommendations (April 24%, August 29%, Melbourne 30%). Clear, accurate, child- and youth-friendly communications will help avoid unnecessary confusion and stress, particularly when the situation is changing rapidly.

Education:  Young people completing high school during this pandemic are very worried that the impacts of the pandemic and response on their education will in effect deliver them a ‘penalty’ when compared to those who have graduated before them and those who will come after the pandemic has subsided – though this has also tempered with time and experience. The majority continue to worry about it (April 67%, August 45%, Melbourne 50%), while a larger majority consider themselves to be behind compared to where they would have been now if the pandemic had not happened (August: national 55%, Melbourne 59%). UNICEF Australia is calling for strategies to re-engage students who have not returned to school or who are at risk of disengaging, and to ensure provide catch-up support to all students in need.”

Schools are providing most of the catch-up support to these students. Nationally and in Melbourne, 87% say they have been receiving some support from their school, with 21% in Melbourne and 24% nationally saying they have received a lot. A smaller, potentially vulnerable group report receiving no school support to catch up, and many young people talked about the need for awareness and action on this issue.

Mental health and psycho-social support:  Almost two thirds of young people are still not confident of where they would turn to for support outside the family (national 63%, Melbourne 67%), while a small but significant proportion have found the pandemic has made access to external support harder (national 16%, Melbourne 14%). While the proportion who report being isolated has halved, this grouping remains worryingly persistent at around a tenth of young people (April 24%, national 11%, Melbourne 12%). Many young people also talked about the need to destigmatise mental health so young people feel more comfortable asking for help and tailor the available support and services to better meet their needs.

Social connection: A large proportion of young people have remained worried about becoming isolated from their friends (April 57%, August 42%, Melbourne 47%) and in fact, have been (April 88%, August 63%, Melbourne 78%), though this has eased as the realities of the responses played out over passing months. There has also been a slight rise in those worrying about being separated from their family/ carers (April 18%, August 23%) despite many saying they are confident they can turn to their family/carers for support (April 62%, August 58%). Consultation sessions revealed response measures such as quarantines and border closures are often sitting in the background of these concerns.

Communication and participation:  While Australia’s young people are discerning about the information they engage with to inform them about the pandemic and response measures, they question the extent to which they are recognised as a meaningful cohort of stakeholders provided with a real opportunity to participate. From their point of view, their needs are being considered, but they are mostly being talked ‘about’ and no-one is talking ‘with’ them.

To help them stay informed, the vast majority trust their parents/guardians (national 96%, Melbourne 94%), Chief Medical Officers and health authorities (national 89%, Melbourne 90%), and their teachers/schools (national and Melbourne 88%). Yet around half still consider there is not enough effort being put into communicating with children and young people in a way that includes them (April 51%, August 46%, Melbourne 48%). More than double now consider there is no clear way for children and young people to feed into the discussion (April 26%, August 65%, Melbourne 68%). The proportion who think young people are unfairly stereotyped as disrespecting response rules has also risen dramatically (April 38%, August 67%, Melbourne 68%).

“Young people can offer unique, valuable insights into discussions about how Australia navigates this pandemic and recovers from it,” Ms Attenborough said. “The decisions made today will determine the future our young people will inherit - we owe it to them to give them a say in shaping that future.”