Social distancing in a remote world - what we can learn from young people

The federal government has been accused of hectoring young people, blaming the actions of crowds of young people at the beach and pubs for the forced implementation of mass closures.

We all knew those shutdowns were coming, with the timing dependent on a complex interplay between health advice, economic indicators and political will.

There's a bit of victim blaming and shaming going on here.

Young people - usually the most socially connected and who are feeling the immediate economic impact of the shutdown of hospitality and entertainment businesses - are being blamed for bringing forward widespread closures by being complacent and not listening.

At Youth Affairs Council Victoria (YACVic), young people we've spoken with have identified numerous problems with what they're supposed to have been listening to.

The complex "health professional-speak" instructions which change every day have made it difficult for anyone to confidently figure out the current situation and how we should respond.

Until recently, many reports have said that young people were not affected, or asymptomatic.

And much of the info has been in the newspapers, and on the TV news.

The reality is young people are more likely to use social media and peer networks for their information than traditional media.

Health literacy research tells us to develop messages with the people being targeted to make sure the messages are framed for the target audience and shared in places where that audience is.

So, where are the targeted social media campaigns developed by young people?

Where are the visual representations and the voices of real people to translate the jargon?

In Singapore, authorities created easy-to-understand cartoons to spread the message of good hygiene and self-isolation.

Here in Australia, there are no such official messages, so what we've got is a HUGE collection of unofficial myths, mistakes and mayhem on the social media channels where young people get their info.

Thankfully, that seems to be changing now. Community organisations like YACVic, ReachOut and BeyondBlue have started to produce engaging, accessible information that is cutting through.

Governments are finally doing more than posting long documents on Facebook.

The National Disability Insurance Agency has also created accessible, easy-read documents for disabled young people.

Hopefully our leaders will stop telling young people off and focus instead on including them in conversations about how to best fight this pandemic.

Now that so many people are bunkered down at home, we ought to be listening to young people about how on earth we're going to get through this, because their communication channels of social media are the best ones we've got.

So how do you do physical distancing and still maintain human connections?

In regional and rural towns, we're used to the casual ease of those unexpected catch-ups when you meet people in the street, and knowing everybody at the hardware store and the netball competition.

We love how it brings a sense of community, with shared histories and spontaneous connections that work together to address problems and share good news.

For many non-digital natives, social media is still an artificial extra, great for sharing holiday and funny photos or getting recommendations for a tradie.

It doesn't create natural or spontaneous conversations, and it doesn't easily promote empathy or deep discussion.

But it can - we just need to make it work for us.

There are already astonishing and heart-warming examples of communities gathering online to volunteer support and services to those who are vulnerable or quarantined, or those still working in essential services.

Online choir, dance, quiz, yoga, meditation and exercise options have exploded in popularity. There was even a music festival held entirely on Instagram last week.

Young people are volunteering at Food Share and Meals on Wheels, and providing support to older people to manage their devices and connectivity.

Workplaces and individuals are embracing digital technology such as Skype, Whatsapp, Zoom and Messenger to video-call and gather online, and we're learning all kinds of things about each other's lives, homes, children and pets that never used to be shared in workplaces!

However, making sure access is available to everyone in rural areas is a massive challenge.

We don't have reliable, affordable internet, and many people don't have home connections or even computers.

The "digital divide" has not been bridged.

Australians with low levels of income, education and employment are significantly less digitally included, and the proportion of those people is greater in rural areas.

This has quickly become a major equity issue for communities and will have severe impact on students as their education goes online.

There is an urgent need for strengthening of technology infrastructure and virtual connections.

In an ironic twist, with people in metro areas currently experiencing delays and disruptions in internet coverage, the experience of rural and regional communities is now the reality for everyone.

Hopefully the outrage and advocacy results in improvements for everyone, and we can continue to build better connections for young and old in our new virtual worlds.

Stay safe people.

Karen Walsh is the rural development co-ordinator Great South Coast for Youth Affairs Council Victoria.