Before the pandemic, most of us probably hadn’t had many conversations about vaccines with anyone – not even strangers on the internet. But one year on, post-COVID, it’s become completely normal to upload pictures of ourselves, gleeful, after receiving our jabs. “Have you had yours?” we ask our mates, before cheering when they tell us they're about to have their second dose.
Of course, not everyone feels this way. Vaccine hesitancy is on the rise, particularly among young people. This might come as a surprise to those who associated such beliefs with QAnon boomers and Facebook mums, but according to a recent ONS survey, around 17 percent of adults aged 16 to 29 years reported feeling hesitant about the COVID vaccine – the highest of all age groups. When compared with the nine percent average for all adults, that’s a pretty notable difference.
First, it’s important to draw a distinction between those who identify as generally “anti-vaxx” versus those who see themselves as “vaccine-hesitant”. The majority of people I spoke to while researching this piece noted a difference between the COVID-19 vaccine – particularly with reference to recent headlines surrounding the Oxford AstraZeneca jab and blood clots – and vaccines more generally. Many were concerned about this vaccine, but not all of them. Still: what exactly is going on?
Social media has a lot to answer for. A joint research project between King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, conducted in November 2020, found that nearly half (46 percent) of those between 16 and 34 in the UK reported being exposed to anti-vaxx messages online, compared to 34 percent overall.
Worryingly, this has had a knock-on effect: 14 percent of people now “believe the real purpose of a mass vaccination programme against coronavirus is simply to track and control the population”, with that number rising to a whopping 27 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds.
Put simply, vaccine hesitancy among younger age groups seems to stem from spending more time online. According to the study, those who used social media as an “information source” were significantly more likely to believe certain vaccine conspiracy theories than the general population. Those who spent time on YouTube, for example, were three times more likely to believe that a coronavirus vaccine may alter people’s DNA, with that number rising to four times more likely with WhatsApp.
This rings true for 27-year-old Joe* from Manchester. He tells me that his brother won't be having the vaccine – despite being asthmatic – because it's “too political”.
“He gets his political info from YouTubers,” Joe explains, lamenting that this decision has come hand-in-hand with a right-wing spiral during lockdown. He also believes that “the wellness community, especially within yoga, has a lot to answer for”, when it comes to spreading vaccine conspiracies.
“I’ve seen yoga teachers with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram post long-winded explanations of why they won’t be getting the vaccine,” he says. This, he believes, “will reassure thousands of anxious people who are focused on BPA-free water bottles and clean living that their fears of the vaccine are worthwhile, and that it’s good, yogic and spiritually valid to refuse the vaccine.”
Despite statistics pointing to the huge role of social media in fanning the flames of vaccine hesitancy among young people, none of those I spoke to for this article who identified as vaccine-hesitant or anti-vaxx cited the influence of social media as a factor influencing them. In fact, many outright rejected the idea. So, what explains the gap?
Sally Baker, a senior psychotherapist, tells me that young people might not even realise they're being influenced by what they're reading online. “For the generations that have grown up with the internet, taking part in social media is an unexceptional part of their daily activities,” she explains. “Absorbing opinions, liking and sharing comments is just something that happens continually while they’re online.”
This, Baker believes, makes it harder for people to differentiate how they are forming their opinions. “Behavioural scientists have observed that regular online browsing and scrolling can induce a zoned-out state of mind where a person’s critical faculties become muted,” she says. “In this state, a person can subconsciously absorb almost endless swathes of information while they browse social media.”
While some platforms are starting to address the above by adding content warnings when COVID is mentioned (see: Instagram and Twitter), or alerting users when something has been shared multiple times (WhatsApp), others aren't.
“Social media fails to remove nearly 90 percent of the vaccine misinformation reported to them,” says Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. He also notes that “UK-based groups that spread anti-vaccine misinformation are specifically targeting a younger demographic.”
According to Ahmed, the online wellness industry is also a troublesome influence: “Our recent investigation of the Instagram algorithm found that it was promoting vaccine misinformation to people who follow wellness influencers.”
For Phoebe, a 25-year-old from London, it’s precisely the lack of critical insight on her feed that is provoking her hesitancy, which suggests that the polarised conversation is cutting both ways. “I’ve been more concerned by the lack of questioning and the peer pressure, rather than scare stories about the vaccine,” she explains over email. She tells me the conversation is so polarised that it makes it difficult to discuss her fears. “I discuss vaccine hesitancy with friends and family but they're all 100 percent in favour and think anyone who's even slightly hesitant is an ardent anti-vaxxer.”
Mistrust of the UK government is also a common theme. For Eartha*, a 30-year-old Black woman from London, this is particularly true among her community. The stats back this up: A joint survey from LSE and UCL, released in March 2021, found that vaccine hesitancy among young Black people is as high as 64 percent. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist or anti-vaxxer,” Eartha tells me, “but I do not trust any of this one bit.”
In this case, Eartha believes that vaccine hesitancy is compounded by institutional racism within the UK – hardly surprising considering that Black people were found to be four times more likely to die from COVID in the UK. “Most of the people I engage with on social media are from the Black community and the overwhelming fear and doubt expressed has definitely affected me,” she says. “My white friends don’t seem to have the concerns I do… because they have this overwhelming faith in medicine and the government. I’ve never had this faith, so naturally I am wary.”
The government’s recent outright rejection of the endemic problem of racism via its controversial Sewell report, released a couple of weeks ago, has only deepened this mistrust, Eartha says. “How are we supposed to trust them if they can’t even admit racism is a problem in this country?”
Aside from social media and mistrust in the government, some young people are avoiding the vaccine because they simply don't think it's relevant to their lives. “If I was more worried about the virus being a threat to my health I wouldn't hesitate so much about getting the vaccine,” Yasmin* tells me.
As someone who is statistically less likely to be hospitalised from COVID-19, she says she feels she “can afford to wait a little bit longer.” (It's worth pointing out here that we still don't fully know the long-term effects of COVID-19 on young people, many low-risk patients now have organ damage and other long-term health issues thanks to the virus).
While vaccine hesitancy might be on the rise, it's important to note that none of these fears are backed up by medical professionals – in fact, quite the opposite. Dr Ed Parker, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Vaccine Centre, stresses that the vaccine's swift development is nothing but an indication of the huge amount of resources invested in its creation: “It happened quickly, but everything was done right and you can be confident of that.”
As for fears surrounding the AstraZeneca jab, experts have repeatedly debunked the myths and put risks into perspective. “Among the 20 million people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, 25 people developed blood clots following vaccination,” wrote Professor Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, for the New York Times earlier this month. “The rate of blood clots that would normally occur among unvaccinated people is in fact much higher.”
Ultimately, it can be reassuring to remember that an element of risk is involved in everything we do. That includes taking a flight, drinking alcohol or even going on a run. Statistically speaking, you are still more likely to die in a car accident than from developing a blood clot from the AZ vaccine. And, as many have pointed out recently, the combined contraceptive pill comes with a greater – albeit low – risk of clotting.
Still, it’s clear that an increase in hesitancy is likely to be a huge obstacle in the successful rollout of the vaccination programme – one that needs to be addressed with nuance and compassion on both sides. Our capacity to create non-judgemental spaces for people to discuss their fears must be a crucial part of this, as well as efforts to explain how vaccination protects the most vulnerable and to rebuild trust where it has been lost.
And if you’re still unsure? Ask your doctor, who is by far the person best-placed to advise you based on your own medical history. As writer Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin recently wrote on Twitter: “Just got my first dose of the AZ vaccine and they were begging us to spread the word about its safety and encouraging people to at least come in and speak to a professional if they have concerns.”
*Names changed to protect anonymity