Two teenagers wearing face masks, one holding a cell phone

April 16, 2021

Fear isn’t enough to change youth behaviours during COVID-19, researcher says

New app will help youth align actions with their values to yield long-term change

Think back to the last time you made a significant change in your life — maybe you quit smoking, or trained for a marathon, or started a master’s degree. You had to make sacrifices along the way, but the end goal of a healthy body, crossing a finish line, or a degree made it all worth it.

But how do you stay motivated to make sacrifices if you don’t feel like there’s anything in it for you? That’s the question Dr. Tavis Campbell, PhD, is working to answer as we enter another spring of social distancing, cancelled events, and rising COVID-19 case numbers. Campbell has received a CIHR Operating Grant in COVID-19 Research Gaps and Priorities to create a mobile app that will help young adults identify what can motivate them to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“People know that it’s a good idea to physically distance and to do all the things that are asked of us, but it’s easier said than done,” says Campbell, professor in the Department of Psychology. “We have had our lives turned upside down, and for young people it’s meant giving up a lot of the things that they value.”

Fear is a weak motivator for young adults who are at low risk for severe outcomes of COVID-19, and simply educating them on the risks isn’t sufficient either, says Campbell. “If I said to a patient with depression, ‘depression is very bad for you, it causes all kinds of problems with your social and occupational functioning, so you should get out of bed and just stop being depressed,’ it would be ridiculous,” he says. “But that’s the approach that’s being taken with COVID-19 — it’s hard but you have to do it, so just do it.”

The app will guide young adults through a series of questions to help identify their motivations for behaviour change. “We’re going to help them identify the factors that resonate with them, and that they can tie their behaviour to. Living in a manner consistent with our values feels good, and we want to help them move in a direction that is best for them and best for society.” Campbell and a team of psychology graduate students, including Chelsea Moran, Tamara Williamson and Sydney Seidel, are working with data engineering firm Bitstrapped to build the app for a summer 2021 launch.

This approach, based in self-determination theory, incorporates key elements of successful health behaviour change for patients managing a chronic disease, like diabetes or hypertension. The motivation for people with chronic health conditions is impacted by three key factors: autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Autonomy is wanting to do something rather than having to; competency is feelings of self-efficacy and confidence; and connection or relatedness is feeling part of something that is bigger than oneself.

Campbell hopes that after using the app, young adults share their motivations and stories via social media, to encourage their peers to consider their actions more closely, too. “We’re going to foster a sense of community and make it easier for people to do the difficult things we’re asking of them,” he says. “The ambivalence is normal when it comes to health behaviour change, and we want to help them resolve this and do what they know is best for everyone.”

Tavis Campbell is also a clinical adjunct associate professor in the Department of Oncology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and a member of the CSM’s Libin Cardiovascular Institute.