Stories Through Research Spotlight: Going Viral – COVID-19 and Risk in Young Adult Health Behaviour Models

This guest blog post is part of our Stories Through Research Series: Learning from UofT Researchers on How Students are Impacted by COVID-19. Each post in this series highlights a UofT research project helping us understand student experiences and challenges in these unprecedented times. Each spotlight includes a blog post and scheduled zoom session for individuals from all areas of the University to come together as we listen, learn, and share important elements that must be engaged through conversation. Learn more at

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How are young adults experiencing fear and being brave as their worlds, online and offline, transform in the pandemic?

Project Team: Dr. Madeleine Mant (UTM), Dr. Alyson Holland (McMaster), and Dr. Andrew Prine (Groves Memorial Community Hospital)

To get in touch with and meet the team, come to our live zoom session next week, August 25th.

About the Project: 

Health behaviours and individuals’ perceptions of health risk are informed by a range of factors including personal and familial health histories, medically-specific risk factors, and media and social media inputs. Young adults have different illness experiences and understandings of disease risk than older individuals, and COVID-19 serves as an evolving and illustrative example of these differences.  

This ongoing investigation employs online surveys and interviews with multigendered, multiethnic University of Toronto students to assess the sources of information shaping young adults’ understandings of the potential health impacts of COVID-19, how this information is applied to their individualized understanding of health risks, and how these understandings impact their health-related behaviours. This research will be used to suggest effective mechanisms for tailoring the public health response to the needs of young adults in a multicultural environment. Understanding the interplay amongst disease knowledge, personal ideas about risk, and beliefs about COVID-19 will help to identify the factors that influence decisions about disease behaviour and the resulting consequences.  

This Research Asks:  

  1. Where are young adults getting information about COVID-19?
  2. Do they trust the information they’re finding?
  3. Do students feel they are at risk of catching COVID-19?
  4. How has social distancing affected their lives? How are students negotiating the ‘new normal’? 

Our Work So Far: 

Our team has completed two online surveys (March and June) and a total of 50 semi-structured interviews (April and July). The first survey opened on March 20, 2020, four days after the University of Toronto cancelled all in-person undergraduate classes, thus capturing, as far as we are aware, the earliest survey data in Canada concerning COVID-19.

Preliminary analysis from the March/April survey and interviews indicate that the domination of COVID-19-related news in the media combined with social distancing measures caused significant mental health concerns for young adults related to: fear of infection; effects of prolonged isolation; stigma related to race and health behaviours; and economic concerns over employment loss. Capturing these data in real time forms not only rich quantitative and qualitative datasets, but a time capsule of the early pandemic period. The June/July survey and interviews demonstrate that perceptions concerning risk have changed rapidly as students revealed their coping mechanisms and adaptations to the ‘new normal.’ 

The third portion of the survey will be available to University of Toronto undergraduate and graduate students in September. This serial dataset will provide a foundation from which to compare individuals’ perceptions of other diseases (e.g., SARS, H1N1, Zika) to COVID-19 and to monitor how young adults are perceiving, processing, and planning their lives during this pandemic. 

Supporting Our Communities:  

As this work continues there are many questions that we can ask ourselves to engage in this research and also consider how this virus might be perceived in our communities and beyond. Some important questions to consider might be:  

  • How are you getting your information about the pandemic?  
  • Are there sources you trust more than others?  
  • Have your thoughts about the virus changed over the past months?  
  • Have you changed?  
  • How has social distancing affected your relationships?  
  • Have your judgements of others evolved over the past months?  
  • How are you contextualizing this experience? 

We look forward to connecting in the online portion of this series to learn more about the project, to ask one another these questions, and to consider how through conversations we can continue to support and connect with students and young adults in these times.

Want to continue the conversation? Join us in the second half of this series in our Stories through Research Zoom Session on August 25th, 1-2pm EDT.

If you have any questions or would like to connect with Dr. Madeleine Mant, they can be reached at or via Twitter @maddymant. We encourage readers to register for the online zoom session (link above) to learn more!

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