Young People, Covid-19 and Data-Driven Decision-Making

Key findings

  • Young people believe they have not been considered enough during the pandemic;
  • They suggest the Government could do more to ensure young people can access information, particularly information about policies which will impact directly upon them;
  • Young people propose various routes Government could use to improve engagement with young people, including schools, surveys, social media, and youth organisations.


The Government describes its use of data as ‘a cornerstone of the nation’s fight against Coronavirus’.1 The sharing of data to predict virus transmission and protect vulnerable individuals, together with data-driven decision-making more generally, have been central to the UK Government’s response to Covid-19. Data-driven decision-making has also, however, had a significant impact on children and young people during the pandemic.

Much has been written about the potential privacy implications more generally of the sharing and use of data for public health purposes; concerns which apply as much to children as to adults. As the numbers of school pupils testing positive for Covid-19 increase,2 ever greater numbers will find too that they have no option but to disclose information to the NHS and to their school when they have a positive Covid-19 test, to prevent the further spread of the virus.

For children, however, Government decisions (to close schools, to introduce lockdowns, social distancing and self-isolation requirements, and to determine exam results using flawed algorithms) have affected not just privacy, but have had much wider repercussions, impacting upon their mental and physical health, upon their safety and wellbeing within the home, and upon their right to an effective education (a right protected by Article 29 UNCRC).

It is questionable whether the Government, in its focus on public health, has always had the needs and interests of young people in mind. This is notwithstanding the Government’s international obligations under Article 3 UNCRC to treat the child’s best interests as a primary consideration. Whilst Article 12 UNCRC affords young people a right to express their views regarding matters affecting them, there is much evidence that the many decisions that have affected children have been made without their involvement. Indeed, young people – described as ‘the hidden victims of Covid-19’3 – have said that they do not feel heard.4

Our research

omddac decided to explore the views of young people about data-driven decision-making during the pandemic. We also decided to ask young people for their views about the Government’s broader approach to informing and consulting young people about what it was doing to respond to Covid-19.

omddac commissioned Investing in Children (IIC) to speak to young people.5 IIC is a children’s rights organisation based in North East England, whose work is underpinned by a key premise, that ‘young people know about their own world’ and ‘they are the ones best placed to judge whether they are being treated in ways that respect their human and civil rights’.6

Investing in Children uses an innovative ‘agenda day’ approach to afford young people an opportunity to express their views. An agenda day is an adult free event led by young people (facilitators), at which other young people give their views. The facilitators produce a report which details the views of those attending the agenda day.

Pre-pandemic, agenda days were held face-to-face. The lockdown and subsequent social distancing restrictions posed certain challenges for this model. IIC therefore scheduled a virtual agenda day for the omddac project. Conscious that many young people were experiencing ‘zoom fatigue’, IIC also offered young people the opportunity to respond to questions that would be asked at the agenda day by means of an online survey.  In total, 17 young people aged between eleven and eighteen provided their views, either at the agenda day or via the survey.  Whilst this is a small-scale study and findings cannot be considered in any way representative of young people’s views across England, it provides an important insight into the opinions and concerns of some young people.

Young people’s views

What young people knew about the Government’s response to Covid-19 and how they gained that information

The young people who participated in our research were aware of numerous measures introduced by the Government to address Covid-19, including social distancing, mandatory wearing of masks, vaccinations, the tiered travel system, test and trace, the NHS Covid app and self-isolation requirements. Some of the young people also had an awareness of the monitoring of data relating to infection, hospitalisation and mortality rates – including the more novel wastewater analysis – to determine the most appropriate restrictions.

In terms of obtaining their pandemic-related information, the young people advised that they used various methods, referring to sources such as: social media; schools; family and friends; and televised or printed news. Some expressed concern, however, about the quality of the information they could access. Social media, for example, was regarded by some of the young people as ‘a very untrustworthy source’; the agenda day report clarified that the young people used social media as a source ‘mainly when the government had posted an advertisement’. The agenda day report also commented on the ‘bias’ that the young people perceived to be evident in some news articles, which they felt were ‘trying to cause fear and spread wrong information’. Whilst the young people were aware that the Government also published information on its website, the agenda day report commented explicitly upon its accessibility, noting:

‘The government has not used their website effectively as it was very difficult to read and understand. The young people were rather critical of the government website as it was difficult to navigate.’

Agenda Day Report

The responses thus suggest that even young people with a good level of digital literacy who wish to keep themselves informed may not always be able to effectively access Government messaging. It is recommended that more thought is given to the Government’s communication strategy to ensure key messages are accessible to all, including children and young people.

Young people’s views about use of their data to protect public health

Young people were asked to consider two specific scenarios where their data had been, or might be, collected or shared to protect the wider public health:

  1. the use of wastewater testing to identify Covid-19 hotspots;
  2. experiences and views about self-isolation and its monitoring by law enforcement. 
(1) Wastewater testing

Regarding wastewater testing, young people offered a variety of views.  Some were uncomfortable with testing happening without their consent. Others indicated that they thought it a good way of identifying Covid-19 hotspots and preventing the spread of the virus, and that therefore it was either not an invasion of their privacy or was a justified invasion. 

When it came to sharing the information gleaned from testing, again views were mixed. The young people generally thought it acceptable for such information to be shared with health professionals, the local authority and the Prime Minister but were less happy for it to be shared with the police. Only 5 of the 15 young people considered it acceptable for wastewater testing information to ever be shared with the police.  If testers were able to identify specific addresses at which the virus was present, however, then the young people indicated that they would be less likely to consider any sharing of this data to be acceptable.

There appear thus to be some indicative correlations between young people’s views and the findings from the omddac public perceptions survey on data sharing,7 although, of course, no firm conclusions in this regard can be made from such a small group.

(2) Monitoring of self-isolation by the police

Regarding disclosures of information about self-isolation requirements to the police, the young people were fairly equally divided into three categories: those who thought it OK for the police to be given the names and addresses of those required to self-isolate; those who were unsure; and those who objected to such disclosure.  One of the young people who objected cited concerns about police corruption and bias. Another commented upon the fact that any fines levied for non-compliance would ‘disproportionately impact poorer families who often have no choice but to go to work,’ a reflection of broader academic and societal concerns.8

Similarly, when young people were asked if they would mind if they or their family were monitored to ensure they were self-isolating a far greater number objected – 12 responses were received, 8 (66%) of which objecting to such monitoring.  These views again are reflective of wider public concerns about the impact of such monitoring on civil liberties.9

Using algorithms to determine grades

The final more general scenario that we asked young people to consider reflected the Government’s approach to determining GCSE and A level results calculated by an algorithm in 2020.10 Roughly half of the young people were aware of the Government’s assessment strategy, though only one young person thought this a good plan. Ten young people were not supportive of this approach to assessment, whilst six were undecided. 

Specific concerns were raised in relation to the inability of computers to determine a student’s capabilities and the furthering of the class divide as a result of children from poorer backgrounds being disadvantaged by the results of the algorithm.

Do young people think they have been given enough information and their views sufficiently considered when the Government has been making decisions?

It is crucial to emphasise that young people are not all the same. As the discussion above illustrates, they hold different views about the Government’s actions to address the pandemic, and the use of their data.  The young people similarly held divergent views about whether they should have been provided with more information about the Government’s actions or should have been consulted by the Government before decisions were taken.

Nonetheless, when asked whether they thought young people should have been spoken to about decisions impacting them (for example: school closures, wearing masks at school, testing at school) the majority of the young people who participated in our research indicated that they thought they should have been asked before such decisions were made:

‘Without any hesitation, definitely the young people would have wanted to be asked about the decisions being made, as it was their future so they should have a say. They said that if they were asked about wearing masks they would have agreed in a heartbeat as they would rather wear a mask than work on a laptop virtually at home.’

Agenda Day Report

Several made clear they thought greater engagement with young people is necessary:

‘The young people came to the conclusion that young people are not considered enough, especially when the pandemic has affected them massively. People doing exams this year and last year, such as GCSEs, weren’t even considered when forming a plan and making big decisions about their futures. The government put more pressure on young people, which was unfair in an already stressful situation.’

Agenda Day Report

Looking forward

Unfortunately, a lack of engagement with young people on matters is again evident in the Government’s recent proposals to establish a new data protection regime building ‘on the high watermark of data use set during the COVID-19 pandemic’.11 Even though young people have views about how their data is used, as evidenced by omddac’s research findings, the Government’s consultation document largely ignores the young person’s perspective. It does not appear to reflect government Consultation Principles which recommend that specific consideration be given to the needs of particular groups ‘such as young people,’ to ensure ‘the full range of people’ affected by a policy are aware of and able to access relevant consultations.12

The young people involved in this research made clear that they thought more could be done more to capture and consider young people’s views, suggesting engagement could be achieved by a variety of means, including through schools, surveys, social media and youth organisations. Whilst the young people were particularly concerned to ensure Government and policy makers listened to them, it must be recognised that some scholars have also suggested that qualitative research exploring young people’s views has been ‘thin on the ground’.13 This research illustrates that there is value also in academics undertaking research with children to ascertain their views.

Young people are not, however, a homogeneous group, a factor which must be borne in mind by policy makers and academics when determining how to engage with young people. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is not appropriate. Multiple methods of engagement should be employed, with young people best placed to advise what methods are likely to best suit them.

  1. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, ‘Data: A New Direction’ (2021)
  2. Richard Adams, ‘Schools in England struggling to stay open amid soaring Covid cases’ (The Guardian, 24 September 2021)
  3. Barnardos, ‘Supporting the hidden victims of Covid-19: Lessons from the first wave’ 
  4. Laura Lundy et al, ‘Life Under Coronavirus: Children’s Views on their Experiences of their Human Rights’ [2021] 29 Int J Children’s Rights 261-285
  5. Investing in Children,
  6. Bill Williamson, ‘Grit in the Oyster: Final Report of the Evaluation of Investing in Children’, (2003)
  7. Selina Sutton et al, ‘SNAPSHOT REPORT 4: Survey of Public Perceptions of Data Sharing for COVID-19 related purposes‘ (2021)
  8. Stephen Reicher et al, Contrasting figures on adherence to self-isolation show that support is even more important than ever (BMJ, 5 April 2021)
  9. John Harris, Under cover of coronavirus, the Tory government is bulldozing basic liberties (The Guardian, 21 September 2020)
  10. A Levels and GCSEs: How did the exam algorithm work? (BBC, 20 August 2020)
  11. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, ‘Data: A New Direction’, (2021)
  12. Cabinet Office, ‘Consultation Principles‘ (2018)
  13. Stephen Coleman et al, The Internet On Our Own Terms: How Children and Young People Deliberated About Their Digital Rights, (2017)