By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary choses a Word of the Year – a word that embodies the zeitgeist. In 2013 it was ‘selfie’ and the choice for 2014 was ‘vape’. Times had changed by the end of the decade, with the 2019 term being ‘climate emergency’ and 2020 proving too eventful to be summed up in a word. The choice for 2021, announced earlier this month, is ‘vax’.

As the world fights its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, vax, an abbreviation of vaccine, has become the word of the moment. Sometimes prefixed with ‘anti’, sometimes with ‘pro’, it has become a loaded term, a culture war.

The COVID-19 vaccination discourse has been raging for almost a year, as the most elderly and vulnerable people began receiving jabs in December 2020. The rollout has progressed through the age groups and in September 2021 it was announced that 12-15 year-olds are now eligible to receive their first injection.

Although younger people tend not to be as severely affected by COVID-19 as adults, they can still pass it on to more vulnerable people around them, so this would appear to be great news. It is also reasonable to assume that young teenagers, especially those with pro-vax parents, would be unimpacted by anti-vax sentiments, and likely to accept their COVID-19 jabs.

But these things are cyclical. As long as there have been vaccines, there have been anti-vaxxers. While previous generations have learned to understand and trust (or not) the new vaccine of their eras, young people in the UK today are thinking about the COVID-19 vaccine in a world where the internet is ubiquitious and social media often plays a huge part of their lives.

What role does social media play?

Research conducted in the summer of 2021, for which 27,910 students aged 9-18 across 180 schools were asked about their feelings on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, found that just 35.7% and 51.3% of 9 and 13 year-olds respectively would opt-in to receive their jab. The figure for 17-year-olds was higher at 77.8%, but there is clearly a significant number of young people who don’t feel confident about the vaccine. Whilst sharing their thoughts on the COVID-19 vaccine, these students were also asked about their social media habits, with the research finding that vaccine-hesitant students are more likely to spend longer on social media.

In June 2021, NewsGuard additionally produced a report that demonstrated the prolific amount of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine being spread on TikTok, a relatively new platform. A survey found that in first quarter of 2020, 24% of young people used TikTok and its usage is expected to increase massively over the next few years. A journal published by the BMJ, Social media and vaccine hesitancy, found that ‘large proportions of the content about vaccines on popular social media sites are anti-vaccination messages’.

But why are young people susceptible?

It does appear that social media is at least partly responsible for anti-vax sentiments and vaccine-hesitancy in many young people. While school education can and should be a reliable source of information about the world,  the current curriculum is not doing enough to challenge the tidal wave of vaccine misinformation to be found online. Teaching the science of vaccination in Health Education has only been compulsory since September 2020, and the word vaccine, or any variation of it, does not appear anywhere on KS1-KS4 science curriculum in England. (What would the Oxford English Dictionary have to say about that?)

Digital literacy – ‘the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information’ – is essential for young people to be able to distinguish science from ill-formed views, lies and propaganda that are often spread on social media. ‘Evaluate’ is the key word in the above definition. A scientific approach to researching, assessing information, questioning opinions presented as fact, and finding trustworthy sources of evidence is something that should be taught in schools. It is a useful tool that students can apply to both their academic work and their time spent scrolling through a social media feed.

An article published by the LSE in 2019 argues that the Government isn’t doing enough to promote digital literacy in schools. And this matters because it’s not just vaccine science that is victim to a slurry of misinformation – misinformation about the climate crisis is also now rife online, often funded by industries that make financial gains from climate change. For the sake of a safe and liveable future, it is crucial that young people have a truthful understanding of the COVID-19 vaccine, climate change and indeed all topics that affect our health and world. Teachers work hard to ensure their students are as informed and equipped for the world as the curriculum and time will allow. But, as social media becomes a more and more dominant force, young people need to receive a rounded education that includes how to apply the scientific method to the facts and fictions they may encounter there.