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How Parents Are Affected by Misinformation About COVID-19 Vaccines For Children


Since COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5-11 years old became available in early November 2021, many families have queued to get their school-age children vaccinated before vacation trips and gatherings.

As of December 14, 5.6 million U.S. children ages 5 to 11 – or approximately 19% of that age group – had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And 2.9 million, or about 10%, of that age group are fully vaccinated.

However, the pace has started to slow down. Vaccination rates in this age group vary widely across the country, and the United States is still a long way from hitting a threshold that would help keep COVID-19 infections at bay.

We are a team of medical and public health professionals based at the University of Pittsburgh. We have extensive experience researching vaccine misinformation on social media and working with community partners to address vaccine reluctance, address misinformation, and promote equality of opportunity in vaccines.

Through that work, we have seen and explored how anti-vaccine activists on social media reach out to vulnerable parents trying to overcome the challenges of digesting health information in order to make appropriate choices for their children.

Small but loud

Anti-vaccine activists are a small but vocal group. According to a study by the nonprofit Center to Combat Digital Hate, only 12 social media accounts – the “disinformation dozen” – are behind most anti-vaccine posts on Facebook. Studies also show that only about 2% of parents refuse all vaccinations for their children. A larger group, around 20% of parents, can be more accurately described as unwilling to vaccinate, which means they are undecided about having their children vaccinated according to the recommendations of the US Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention.

Regarding COVID-19 vaccines, as of October 2021, around a third of parents with children ages 5-11 said they would have their child vaccinated immediately. Another third said they would wait and see how the vaccine worked, and the last third said they would definitely not get their child vaccinated.

Parents can find it difficult to sort through the vast amount of information available about COVID-19 vaccines – both true and untrue. In search of answers, some parents turn to social media platforms. The problem is, these parents are often attacked by anti-vaccination campaigners who are more organized and more adept at tailoring their messages to the diverse concerns of people who are reluctant compared to vaccination advocates.

Social media, in particular, is a major vehicle for spreading misinformation. While misinformation is sometimes obviously wrong, sometimes it is more of a phone game. A core of the truth is slightly modified when it is retold, which in the end becomes something untrue. Unfortunately, exposure to COVID-19 misinformation has been shown to reduce people’s intention to get vaccinated.

Raise concerns

How can pediatricians and other health professionals help parents feel safe making decisions about whether to have their children vaccinated against COVID-19?

The answer could be to work with communities to promote the vaccine as trustworthy, rather than simply asking the communities to trust it. We are part of the Pittsburgh Community Vaccine Collaborative, a collaborative academic partnership that aims to ensure equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines. Through these efforts, we have focused on building the trustworthiness of the vaccines as well as the providers and health systems that offer the vaccines in their communities.

Healthcare providers are a trusted source of information for COVID-19 vaccine information, but they are not the only sources. Research has found the importance of drawing on the expertise and voices of community partners, community health workers, and religious leaders.

Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News / SCNG

Parents can find it difficult to sort through the vast amount of information available about COVID-19 vaccines – both true and untrue

Our research suggests that pediatricians and public health professionals can effectively use social media to promote vaccinations and provide families with reputable scientific information to address their questions and concerns. A survey recently published in Academic Pediatrics found that 96% of parents used social media. Of these, 68% said they used it for health information.

For example, one pediatric group we work with uses comedy combined with information to fight myths and answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Social media is also an effective way to reach teens who can choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine without their parents’ consent (in some cities and states). Young people can also influence their parents.

Studies show that parents who state a high COVID-19 vaccination intention for themselves also state a high COVID-19 vaccination intention for their children. Therefore, speaking with family about vaccines can be helpful to combat misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Additionally, parents who vaccinate their children can use social media to share their experiences and make it feel more normal and accepted among their peers.

We also learned that promoting media literacy, which encourages people to question the media information they come into contact with, can enable parents to search the “infodemy” of COVID-19 vaccine information. While social media platforms have announced guidelines for removing vaccine misinformation, research suggests that doing so may not always be effective in reducing the impact of such misinformation. Learning how to find the source of information and thinking about who the intended goals are can help people determine whether the information is true or skewed.

Next Steps

Tackling misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines can be overwhelming. The American Academy of Pediatrics provides helpful information for parents to support decisions related to the COVID-19 vaccine. Parents can also talk to their children about media literacy and evaluate information. And they can talk to their children – especially teenagers – about how the COVID-19 vaccine can protect them and others.

Increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates for children and adolescents is important to promote their health and wellbeing and move closer to ending the pandemic.

This article was republished by Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts, under a Creative Commons license.


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