Education, praise or admonishment
How do you get students back in line?
Praise the students who are doing a good job
Have young people take the lead in finding a solution
Jouke de Vries
Organise meetings for young people
Use a campaign to inform students
Don’t lecture students
The communication expert
‘Emphasise what’s in it for people if they obey the rules’
As Carel Jansen watched YouTube star Famke Louise struggle on the Jinek talk show, he was mainly impressed by intensive care doctor Diederik Gommers, who kept trying to look for the reasoning behind her actions. ‘It’s easy to just keep harping on about how dumb she is’, says the professor of health communication. ‘But it’s about the reasoning behind it. We keep telling young people to keep their distance from each other without ever acknowledging how much it sucks.’
We’d do better to engage them in conversation, he says, and figure out how we can help them. ‘Ultimately, this is about people whose needs are being disregarded.’
Jansen has watched many a thing go wrong in the corona debate over the past few weeks. On the one hand, it looks like people have completely forgotten what the actual problem is. It’s not about how serious the illness itself is. ‘We have to prevent the hospitals being overwhelmed and other people not receiving the healthcare they need.’ If there are no more resources to treat people’s cancer, broken bones, or heart disease, that affects everyone.
The other issue is the way the authorities have addressed students the past few weeks. Jansen can appreciate the personal letter that mayor Schuiling and the UG and Hanze presidents addressed to the students, but ‘it was a major guilt trip’, he says. ‘It also suggested that every single student ignored the rules, when there are so many who do take it seriously.’
Jansen argues the message should keep the concept of ‘gain framing’ in mind. It shouldn’t just focus on everything that’s going wrong, like it’s doing now. ‘Emphasise what’s in it for people if they do obey the rules. Focus on solidarity, for example. And how happy you are to see people who follow the rules.’
He realises that young people and students are having a particularly hard time. The pressure is high and society is demanding a lot of them. ‘But we’re going to have to keep asking.’
That’s why it’s even more important to stay positive and figure out what students need, since they’re at an age where things will impact the rest of their lives. ‘We can’t really offer them any compensation. But perhaps we can lighten their load, do something about the curriculum and the way we’ve been treating them.’
The social psychologist
‘The longer you block a need, the stronger it gets’
Over the past few months, Pontus Leander has been studying the psychological impact of the corona pandemic in the ambitious Psycorona project. One hundred researchers have been following over sixty thousand respondents from all over the globe. It has given him some interesting insights into how people respond to the pandemic, the restrictions, and the lockdown.
He has to be cautious; not everything has been peer-reviewed yet. Nevertheless, he has seen enough to have a general idea of what is happening. Two broad themes are emerging: communal values on the one hand, personal freedom and achievements on the other.
This dichotomy presents a challenge for Western societies that greatly value freedom and individual achievement. It’s even harder for young people because they hold those things in higher regard still. ‘During the first moment of lockdown, it was terrifying, exciting, and new’, Leander says. ‘It was unifying, and vigilance was high. But over time, when you or anyone close to you doesn’t get sick, that vigilance is costly.’
That constant vigilance has started to interfere with the very human need for contact, whether it be social, psychological, or relational. Any motivational psychologist will tell you: ‘The longer you withhold or block a need, the stronger it gets. It’s going to find a way out.’
When students see their peers try to reason themselves out of the problem, it’s easy for them to get ‘contaminated’. They mimic what they see – other people throwing parties, going out – and from there on it can easily escalate. ‘The problem is that human beings are not purely rational thinkers. We try to think through a problem with intuition or logic. But our underlying motivations are going to make us decide which conclusions are valid.’
Leander doesn’t blame young people for being what he calls ‘wonderfully human’. ‘Thank goodness I’m not young. My life is in order. I have a partner, a family, a home and a career, all the things we strive for so intensely in our youth. Simply blocking and prohibiting that, without creating alternative goals and needs, is a recipe for disaster from a motivational science point of view. You cannot just tell young people not to pursue things that are so intensely essential for them as human beings.’
During a pandemic, however, it does pose a problem. The bubble that vulnerable people need to live in to keep themselves safe can never be one hundred percent secure. Society hasn’t adapted yet in the ways that counts: infrastructure and organisation. What are we to do?
‘I’d like to see young people take the lead in terms of new approaches and social systems and strategies’, he says. ‘And to be supported by higher institutions, even if it costs a lot of money. We should support them in pursuing their wants and needs and goals in a way that allows them to participate in virus containment, while still addressing the needs that they have.’
Because at this point, the situation is completely off balance. ‘The message from institutions and governments, from older persons, is clear. You should engage in virus containment. But there’s a period at the end of that sentence. It’s not addressing the rest very well. We should look to our left and look to our right and figure out solutions that work for each and every developmental stage of life that we have.’
Jouke de Vries
The board president
‘Students are in the prime of their life. I trust them to handle this.’
Just to reiterate: a lot is actually going really well, says UG president Jouke de Vries. There are approximately 33,000 UG students and a similar number of Hanze students. ‘Keeping that in mind, it’s clear that the majority of students are doing a great job and taking responsibility. That includes the student associations who have been taking responsibility as well.’
Nevertheless, seeing what’s happening with house parties and people getting together on the Vindicat roof ‘does not please’ him. He calls students out for their actions. ‘But this is a complicated matter. Student associations aren’t governed by the university. We can do a lot as a board, but we’re not authorised to intervene.’
So there are letters, meetings with student representatives, and emails in which he points out that students have a responsibility to contain the spread of the coronavirus. De Vries always tries for a mix of empathy and strictness. ‘I think that’s completely justified. These things are happening behind closed doors and in student houses. But they’re clearly not used to getting letters that clearly tell them this behaviour is not okay. As a result, the government is imposing stricter and stricter rules.’
He understands that students are in a difficult position. ‘Everyone is, because we’re back at square one. But starting a career in an uncertain situation like this is very difficult. People are also beginning to lose perspective.’
Students are not the only ones. ‘If you compare them to other professional groups in the same age category, students are actually in a good position. They’re in the prime of their life and they should be able to handle things.’
In the meantime, the UG is trying to give the students as much as it can, since physical contact and meeting up with people is important to young people. ‘But that doesn’t change the fact that this pandemic is affecting all of us. You can change your behaviour, and the university should be allowed to comment on your behaviour. We’re all in this together.’
Together with the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, he’s working on creating spaces in the city centre where students and student associations can meet while still obeying RIVM guidelines. One of these spaces is the former public library in the Oude Boteringestraat. ‘Hanze board president Henk Pijlman and I have been talking about acquiring property in the city centre. We want to try and make students’ lives as pleasant as possible. But even we have our limits.’
The crisis is far from over, he says. ‘But I trust students to be resilient.’
‘We have medical students talk about the things they’ve seen’
As the chair of Contractus, the overarching organisation for the eight largest student associations in Groningen, Marco Noorman has been closely involved in the discussions with the city and the UG about the number of corona infections among students.
‘I don’t think I have a scientifically sound answer to the question why students have such a hard time socially distancing’, he says. ‘But your student days aren’t just about studying, they’re also about having a social life.’
Social distancing can be difficult if you live in a student house with five, six, or even twelve others. Even if you obey all the rules, it’ll still be different from a ‘normal’ household.
Noorman cites his own house as an example. He lives with five other guys. ‘Three of them have girlfriends who all live in different student houses. We recently had to go into quarantine, and the girlfriends were not welcome. That meant some of the guys didn’t see their girlfriend for two weeks. You can’t keep that up endlessly. At the same time, when all the girlfriends are over, there are people from four different houses inside. You can’t compare that situation to a normal household.’
But Noorman is clear on the subject of house parties: they are completely reckless right now. ‘But I think it’s a minority who are still throwing and going to parties.’ He acknowledges that it’s not an issue he can do much about as a council member. ‘These are things that happen in the privacy of people’s homes.’
Noorman thinks it’s a better idea to talk to students again and increase their awareness of the situation. ‘We’re currently working on a new campaign together with the city. We’re making a video explaining that even if you don’t get sick, you might still pass on the virus. We’re talking about the effects the virus has on education and how student life has been affected. We also have medical students talk about the things they’ve seen working in the hospitals.’
The video also clearly explains the basic rules, using understandable infographics that the GGD uses as well. ‘It gives people a clear overview of the things they can and cannot do. We hope to encourage the large group that already follows the rules to continue doing so and to make others take responsibility.’
The council member
‘Let students think about alternatives for a social life’
David-Jan Meijer, who represents De Vrije Student on the university council, wants to clarify something: the virus isn’t spreading among students specifically right now, but among young people between 18 and 24 years old. ‘Some of them are students, true, but people should stop blaming them for everything.’
He also says that always lecturing students is pointless. ‘How would you feel if a director told you to put your social life on hold and basically withdraw from society to sit all alone in your student room, while at the end of the day they go home to their nice house to spend a lovely evening with their family?’
‘Most students just see this as a pedantic sermon from grown men who’ve got everything figured out. Like a neighbour asking for some water to fill his pool while your kitchen is on fire.’
Meijer says students have a clear need for a social life but that they’ve been offered few to no alternatives to what they need. This is a societal issue, according to him. ‘They’re mainly taking things away from them and then asking them to do the morally just thing. But if students no longer feel the urgency even though they’re asked to forgo all these things, that doesn’t work.’
That urgency seemed to disappear when the measures were relaxed during the summer, says Meijer, and young people weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
What might work, says Meijer, who studies law and works in communication and marketing, is to involve students in finding a solution. ‘Help them think about alternatives for a social life. Perhaps on a large scale, through a campaign. Make it visible to students.’
Students need to be told through this campaign what corona means for them, says Meijer, perhaps by showing them the impact on various aspects of student life. ‘Tell them the story about the athlete who no longer has the energy to perform, or the student who can’t graduate. But right now, students are mainly being treated as part of the problem. It only reinforces the feeling of a divide between people, and that doesn’t help anyone.’