Motivating Youth to Stay at Home and Practice Social Distancing

While older individuals are at a higher risk for developing complications from COVID-19, young people are also vulnerable to the illness and have a critical role in preventing the virus from spreading. But adapting to radically new behaviors like staying at home and social distancing can be difficult for Millennials and Generation Z, particularly during summer vacation or warmer months. And as many of us may understand from our own experiences as a teen or parent, for some youth, a sense of invincibility or attitude of “this won’t affect me” makes precautionary measures even more challenging to adopt.

City officials in San Francisco noticed young individuals congregating on beaches and in parks, despite mailers, signage, television announcements, and other communication efforts discouraging this behavior. The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM) asked IDEO to conduct a three-week design sprint to help them reach younger residents and inspire them to do their part to flatten the curve.

The IDEO team organized a panel of 10 young people ranging in age from 16 to 26 to learn from and test ideas. As the designers hypothesized, it quickly became clear that confusing medical terminology, monotone or long-winded commercials, dull posters, and shame tactics didn’t resonate with youth. After prototyping, testing, and iterating dozens of concepts with the panel and on TikTok—a popular social media platform among Generation Z and Millennials, especially now while stuck at home—the following communication principles emerged:

1. Aim for brevity and simplicity.
Young people want the information made clear and easily digestible. They gravitate towards video and audio, but stop listening after 60 seconds.

2. Encourage co-creation and collaboration.
Youth want to help in their own ways. Activities like “Write your own rule,” or “Hang this poster in your window,” allow them to uniquely and individually contribute to a collective effort.

3. Nod to the collective.
They leaned towards messaging that speaks to a greater connectivity and unity: the sum of us, not just some of us.

4. Integrate entertainment and playfulness.
An element of play helps messages stick. As many schools, parks, movie theaters, and restaurants remain closed, keeping people entertained at home is key.

The team also learned that their target audience appreciated an edgy, tongue-in-cheek tone, bold fonts, and vibrant color gradients—elements that cut through the noise of coronavirus information. With these principles in mind, the team developed a robust integrated marketing campaign including everything from social media posts and t-shirts to downloadable chalk stencils and radio DJ scripts, complete with hashtags like #dontbeacovidiot and captions reading, “Don’t touch your face—pretend your face is an ex you hate.”

In collaboration with SFDEM’s media partner, the team crafted a content strategy and launch plan, including mailing pamphlets and posters to every high schooler in the San Francisco public school system. This three-week effort demonstrates that even during a crisis, when the impulse is often to react immediately, it’s valuable to listen to people’s needs and preferences to drive meaningful change.

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