Younger children are less willing to have a Covid-19 vaccination than older teenagers, a study suggests.
Youngsters who are less willing to have a vaccine often come from the most socioeconomically deprived backgrounds and they feel less connected to their school community, according to researchers.
The survey, of more than 27,000 students aged between nine and 18 in England, suggests that half (50%) were willing to have a coronavirus vaccination, 37% were undecided and 13% wanted to opt out.
Just over a third (36%) of nine-year-olds are willing to have a Covid-19 jab, compared with 51% of 13-year-olds and 78% of 17-year-olds, according to the study by researchers at the University of Oxford, University College London (UCL) and the University of Cambridge.
The findings come after the Government announced this month that it would widen the Covid-19 vaccination programme to all 12 to 15-year-olds.
The survey, which was carried out in schools across Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Merseyside between May and July this year, suggests that those young people who believe they have had Covid-19 already are more likely to opt out of having a vaccine.
Students who were more hesitant about getting the jab were also more likely to spend longer on social media, attend schools in deprived areas, and feel as though they did not identify with their school community, the study found.
Researchers are calling for more resources and information to be provided to communities and students who are not naturally connected with their schools to ensure young people feel the Covid-19 vaccine is safe.
They say health messaging about vaccine safety and its effects on children should be shared by trusted sources on social media.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told a Science Media Centre briefing: “Given the huge disruption that has happened in education and for children, I think this study is really important because it’s highlighting that we’ve actually missed this really important group in making sure they have access to information.
“And of course they don’t access their information by reading the newspaper or watching broadcast news. A lot of it is through social media.”
He added: “We have some work to do in order to improve that.”
Dr Mina Fazel, association professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Oxford, said: “No matter what we think young people should do, and how we think they should access information, we know that they are accessing information on social media more than others.
“So we don’t have good evidence that they read leaflets, we don’t necessarily know whether they listen to assemblies at school, so we’ve really got to tailor what we do to what young people say.
“The young people we’ve spoken to are saying that we need to use social media channels. That maybe celebrities getting involved might be a route that they would listen to more.”
She added: “I’m also very interested in how to use TikTok. We open the door to any kind of influencers – major influencers, minor influencers – who want to learn more about these findings in order to provide information in their medium.”
The survey found that the majority of youngsters who said they were hesitant about getting the vaccine were still undecided.
Russell Viner, professor of child and adolescent health at UCL, said: “That is a huge opportunity for us, but it also suggests that there is risk.”
He warned: “Young people are potentially vulnerable to those pushing views that are very strongly opposed to vaccination.”
Vaccination could be offered to young people in a variety of different locations – including football grounds and shopping centres – to improve the uptake among students who do not feel engaged at school and who might want privacy as to their vaccination status, researchers say.
Prof Viner said: “Our findings suggest it will be essential to reach out and engage with young people from poorer families and communities with lower levels of trust in vaccination and the health system.
“A school-based vaccination programme, as planned in England, is one way of helping reduce these health disparities. However, the teenagers who are least engaged with their school communities may need additional support for us to achieve the highest uptake levels.”
He added: “Scotland is offering young people the ability to drop into any vaccination centres, and I think those kinds of policies, aligned with the school policy, are the best way for us to offer the choice to all young people.”
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “We continue to do everything we can to further increase vaccine uptake among those aged 12 and over who are eligible.
“School immunisation teams are available to advise young people about the benefits of the vaccine.
“We’re working with the NHS to provide information at every opportunity – including through partnerships with clinicians providing expert advice in films across social media platforms.”