Young Californians who identify as Republicans are less likely to follow social distancing guidelines that prevent COVID-19 transmission than those who identify as Democrats or independents, according to a new USC study published Dec. 14 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The findings among 18- to 25-year-olds mirror what many have observed about America’s politicized response to the coronavirus and are a source of concern for public health experts. The United States is now averaging 207,000 new cases and 2,319 deaths per day, as of Dec. 11.

“You might expect middle-aged or older adults to have established ideologies that affect their health behavior but to see it in young adults who have historically been less politically inclined is unexpected,” said Adam Leventhal, PhD, director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science and professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Regardless of age, we would never hope to find results like this. Public health practices should not correlate with politics.”


As COVID-19 spreads, young Republicans less likely to social distance

The study was conducted during the summer of 2020 via an online survey that was completed by 2,065 18- to 25-year-olds living predominantly in Los Angeles County. The participants were initially recruited as ninth-grade high school students as part of the USC Happiness & Health Project, which has been surveying this group about their health behaviors every six months since 2013.

Of the young adults contacted, 891 identified as Democrat, 148 as Republican, 320 as “independent or other,” and 706 declined to answer or said they didn’t know what political party they identify with.

Researchers found that 24.3% of Republican young adults said they don’t frequently social distance from others, compared with just 5.2% of Democrats.

Differences in social distancing practices were also found when Republicans were compared to independents and young adults who did not report a political party affiliation. Researchers discovered that Republicans were more likely than members of other groups to visit public indoor venues such as malls, restaurants, bars or clubs, or attend or host parties with 10 people or more.

Throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic, California has recommended that all residents practice social distancing and wear a mask when outside the home. Current restrictions prohibit private gatherings of any size.

Leventhal noted that when his team statistically adjusted for 21 factors that could explain the difference in social distancing across political party groups, including propensity for risk-taking behaviors, Republicans were four times more likely than the others to be infrequent social distancers.

He also said that the “blue county within a blue state” setting for the study underscores that the link between political party affiliation and social distancing cannot simply be reduced to an issue of urban versus rural differences.


To cope with COVID, many young people are stress eating

The Keck School’s Department of Preventive Medicine recently looked at another impact of the pandemic on young adults: stress eating.

The pandemic has resulted in a widely reported uptick in snacking, grazing and purchasing of unhealthy “comfort” food. The new study, published Dec. 4 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, surveyed 1,820 19-year-olds about their pandemic coping behaviors.

They found that young adults who reported overeating to cope with social distancing and isolation had gained 5.5 pounds in the first 13 weeks of the pandemic.

“Interventions to promote healthy eating practices in young adults warrant consideration for weight gain prevention during the pandemic,” wrote first author Tyler Mason, an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine.

In addition to Leventhal, other authors of the politics and social distancing study include Jessica Barrington-Trimis, Rob McConnell, Jennifer Unger, Steve Sussman and Junhan Cho, all of USC; and Hongying Dai of the University of Nebraska. The stress-eating study includes Leventhal and Barrington-Trimis as co-authors.

The studies were supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute (R01CA229617), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (K24DA048160) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (K01DK124435).

— Leigh Hopper