Opinion|Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy
Safety plans border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.
By Laurence Steinberg
Dr. Steinberg is a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.”
- June 15, 2020
Students on the campus of Columbia University in March.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
A number of American colleges and universities have decided to bring students back to campus this fall, believing they can diminish the risk of coronavirus transmission if everyone wears masks, uses hand sanitizer and social distances. Some schools also plan to reconfigure dorms to create family-sized clusters of uninfected students, who could socialize in relative safety, if only with their suite mates.
These plans are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.
My skepticism about the strategies under consideration is not based on videos of college students frolicking on Florida’s beaches when they were explicitly told to avoid large gatherings. Rather, it comes from more than 40 years teaching and researching young people.
Most types of risky behavior — reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking, to name just a few — peak during the late teens and early 20s. Moreover, interventions designed to diminish risk-taking in this age group, such as attempts to squelch binge drinking on campus, have an underwhelming track record. There is little reason to think that the approaches proposed to mitigate transmission of the coronavirus among college students will fare any better. A series of studies that compare the ways in which young people and adults think and make decisions about risk-taking confirms this.
The late-adolescent peak in risky behavior has been found pretty much around the world. Although risky behavior is more common in some countries than others, the heightened risk-taking characteristic of adolescents, relative to adults, is more or less universal. My colleagues and I recently completed a study of more than 5,000 people between the ages of 10 and 30 from 11 different countries (including both Western and non-Western ones). Respondents answered a series of questions about the extent to which they had engaged in various types of risk-taking. Consistent with large-scale epidemiological studies, we found a peak in risk-taking somewhere between age 20 and 24 in virtually every country.
Our team has also conducted experiments in which we test participants on various risk-taking tasks under controlled conditions, which allows us to rule out any age differences in real-world risk-taking that might be caused by environmental factors, such as opportunity or cultural norms. As in our survey studies, risk-taking peaked during adolescence. Other studies, using different samples, have reached similar conclusions.
We’ve also conducted a series of experiments designed to identify just what it is about college-age individuals that accounts for their relatively greater propensity to take risks. Three factors appear to be most important.
First, this is the age at which we are most sensitive and responsive to the potential rewards of a risky choice, relative to the potential costs. College-age people are just as good as their elders at perceiving these benefits and dangers, but compared with older people, those who are college-aged give more weight to the potential gains. They are especially drawn to short-term rewards.
Second, college-aged people have more trouble exercising self-control than do those in their late 20s and beyond, an age difference that is amplified when people are emotionally aroused. Under calm conditions, college-age individuals can control their impulses as well as their elders, but when they are emotionally aroused, they evince the poor self-control of teenagers.
Finally, college-age people show more activation of the brain’s reward regions and are more likely to take risks when they are with their peers than when they are alone. There are no such effects of peers among people who are past their mid-20s.
Not all adolescents are risk-takers, of course, and not all adults are risk-averse. But it’s hard to think of an age during which risky behavior is more common and harder to deter than between 18 and 24, and people in this age group make up about three-fourths of full-time American undergraduates.
And, in case it’s been a long time since you were in college, let me remind you that there is no shortage of rewarding temptations, emotional arousal or unsupervised peer groups on the typical college campus. It’s one of those perfect storms — people who are inclined to take risks in a setting that provides ample temptation to do so.
My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out. By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. They will ignore social distancing guidelines when they want to hug old friends they run into on the way to class. They will venture out of their “families” and begin partying in their hallways with classmates from other clusters, and soon after, with those who live on other floors, in other dorms, or off campus. They will get drunk and hang out and hook up with people they don’t know well. And infections on campus — not only among students, but among the adults who come into contact with them — will begin to increase.
At that point, college administrators will find themselves in a very dicey situation, with few good options.
I look forward to a time when we are able to return to campus and in-person teaching. But a thorough discussion of whether, when and how we reopen our colleges and universities must be informed by what developmental science has taught us about how adolescents and young adults think. As someone who is well-versed in this literature, I will ask to teach remotely for the time being.
Laurence Steinberg is a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.”
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