Why won’t college kids stop partying during a pandemic?

college party coronavirus pandemic
Photo via Tracy Hunter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

With the reopening of college campuses across the country, returning undergrads triggered a wave of headlines over partying in bars and off-campus student houses, despite the fact that COVID-19 is still a looming threat. College parties are still occurring, and there have been plenty of consequences. 

The University of North Georgia, in particular, saw hundreds of students pack into front yards and streets on the Saturday night before in-person classes were scheduled to start the following Monday for approximately 19,000 students. As footage from the spectacle began to surface on social media, there was nary a mask to be seen in the crowds of young people.

The college was quick to express disappointment with the incident.

“We are aware that a large outdoor party was held at a privately-owned, off-campus apartment complex located near our Dahlonega campus Saturday night,” a spokeswoman told the Gainesville Times. “We are disappointed that many of our students chose to ignore COVID-19 public health guidance by congregating in a large group without social distancing or face coverings.”

But that was just one example of reckless behavior. An Oklahoma State University sorority house confirmed 23 cases, while video footage from downtown Stillwater saw packed nightclubs and bars with long lines to get inside.

Two of Alabama’s biggest schools, Auburn University and the University of Alabama, saw similar behavior even as both schools tentatively decided to move forward with their fall football seasons. Potential outbreaks could change those plans.

Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill saw four separate outbreaks within one week of in-person classes starting, causing the school to quickly revert back to remote learning. Notre Dame also shut down in-person learning, the University of Connecticut evicted multiple students from their housing after they threw a crowded dorm room party, and Purdue suspended 36 students for attending their own shindig.

Unfortunately, these incidents were all too predictable. As it turns out, some college-aged students are just not mentally prepared to behave responsibly during a pandemic, akin to a feeling of invincibility. 

Katie Lear, a North Carolina-based therapist who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety and trauma, told Business Insider that though 18 is legally the age in which we become adults, the human brain doesn’t stop developing until your mid-20s.

During this period of development, the brain experiences restructuring in the frontal cortex, which controls judgment, problem-solving, impulse control, and emotional regulation. As a result, decision-making tends to happen in the amygdala, which is the “fight or flight” part of the brain. That might help explain why young people tend not to think about the long-term consequences of their decisions. 

A 2017 Max Planck Institute study found that adolescents display “distinctive tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty” when it comes to making risky decisions. “Youth is not marked by risk aversion, but rather by risk-taking,” added Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist who spent 20 years working at the University of California.

Socializing (and college parties) is ingrained in young adults

It should come as little surprise that socializing, for young people, is not just critical to forming their identity. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson described this as the “identity versus role confusion phase” of psychosocial development.

During this stage, which occurs between the ages of 12-18, adolescents “search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals.”

Christie Kederian, a marriage and family therapist and educational psychologist, told Business Insider that this is when adolescents and young adults experience egocentrism. Wearing a mask to protect others simply goes against their core emotional development.

Socializing also serves as a coping mechanism that adolescents and young adults rely on to attain a sense of normalcy—something we could all use during a pandemic—even if that coping mechanism further puts them at risk in an unfortunate catch-22 situation.

“Although many of them are well aware of the risks involved, they gather in large groups and engage in activities to distract themselves from feelings of helplessness and loneliness,” said Leela Magavi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. She added that feelings of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) can exacerbate these feelings, particularly when they see all their friends out having fun.

By their very nature, adolescents and young adults are simply not wired to behave responsibly during a crisis such as a pandemic. As such, colleges and universities should have perhaps prepared for this reality instead of dealing with the problem in hindsight. 

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Sources: Washington Post, Nature, Business Insider

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