How Teenagers Are Defying Their Anti-Vax Parents

How Teenagers Are Defying Their Anti-Vax Parents

Close up of doctor hands holding a bottle of covid-19 vaccine and syringe before injection to female patient.
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As if any of us needed more reason to love Gen Z, their latest middle finger to the willfully ignorant is to claim autonomy of their bodies and get themselves vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus — whether their anti-vax parents approve or not.

And they’re not just doing it in a willy-nilly, fly-by-night sort of way. Oh no, these children of technology are organized. They’re tired of adults’ shit and they’re taking matters into their own capable hands.

TIME reports that 18-year-old Kelly Danielpour founded a website called VaxTeen that helps teens find out how to get vaccinated even if their parents are against it. “A vaccine is a collective health measure,” Danielpour told TIME. “We all have to take part for it to be truly effective.”

Gen Z just might save us all.

VaxTeen provides specific information for teens on what the laws are in their state regarding decisions they’re legally allowed to make regarding their own health care and where to access the COVID-19 vaccine. For states like Florida that require the consent of a parent or guardian for pretty much all kinds of health care, it offers advice on what teens can say to their parents to try to change their minds about letting their teen get vaccinated.

Today in the U.S., 40 states require parental consent in order for children under 18 to receive a vaccine. Some states have age minimums at which minors can “self-consent” — 14-year-olds in Alabama and Tennessee, 15-year-olds in Oregon, and 16-year-olds in South Carolina, for example. (Though South Carolina currently has a bill on the table that would prohibit all minors from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine without parental consent.) In other states, healthcare providers may determine whether a minor is mature enough to consent to receiving a vaccination.

The site also directs teens to scientific research that debunks common vaccine myths. In fact, Danielpour didn’t start her work on VaxTeen because of the pandemic. She started it because she’d read a Reddit post from a teenager with anti-vax parents who wanted to get their childhood immunizations. When Danielpour dug in, she found that there were many more teens like the one who wrote the Reddit post — teens who wanted vaccines but weren’t allowed to get them because of their parents’ views. They were trying to find out how they could get vaccines without their anti-vax parents’ permission.

“I was just in awe,” Danielpour told TIME, “and I also realized how many barriers were in place. Whenever we talk about sort of the anti-vaccine movement, we always just talk about parents. We don’t really think about kids having their own opinions on this, or being part of this conversation or having the potential to be the decision makers.”

Surveys have shown that most teens want to get the COVID vaccine.

A poll published in April surveyed 911 teens and found that 76% were willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The survey was completed in October of 2020, and at the time, 42.7% were unconditionally willing to take the vaccine, and 33.3% were conditionally willing — the predominant condition being that they would be willing “if experts deemed vaccination safe and recommended.” When asked what their preferred resources were for getting information about vaccines, they cited medical organizations like the CDC, WHO, and health care professionals.

Yes, that’s right: the generation that grew up on YouTube and whose lives play out on a digital landscape get their information from actual experts.

Meanwhile, many adults remain unwilling to take the COVID-19 vaccine, for both themselves and for their kids. According to a survey in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases conducted back in April of 2020, a large majority of adults (75%) were willing to get the vaccine for themselves or their children (73%).

The anti-vax movement was already in place to push back against the COVID-19 vaccine.

The growing anti-vaccine movement, a problem long before COVID-19 hit, already had an alarming number of parents opting out of the usual doctor-recommended schedule of vaccines for their kids altogether. We were beginning to see outbreaks in the U.S. of measles, for example, a disease that had been declared eradicated in the U.S. as of the year 2000.

Since the COVID-19 vaccine came onto the scene, the same folks pushing the anti-vaccine narrative are spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor reports that nearly 25% of parents surveyed wouldn’t let their teens get vaccinated. 18% said they would allow it only if their kids’ school required it.

Of course, plenty of folks who are pro-vaccine when it comes to regular childhood immunizations are hesitant with the COVID-19 vaccine because it feels so new. And anti-vaxxers glom onto that hesitancy and amplify it. For too many, fear is the most potent influencer of all. It overpowers all science and reason. And anti-vaxxer fear mongering rhetoric is incredibly persuasive to folks who are already nervous.

These kids want the COVID-19 vaccine, and their decisions are based in science.

Ethan Lindenberger, 20, from Ohio, made headlines in 2019 when he went against his mother’s wishes and got his childhood immunizations. Today, he is urging teenagers to get the COVID-19 vaccine if they can, regardless of what their anti-vax parents think.

“Teens faced with this have to weigh things like ‘I know vaccines are lifesaving, but I don’t want to become homeless,’” he told NBC News. “So I tell them if you can’t have that loving conversation with your parents and you’re of age, weigh those consequences seriously. Don’t get yourself kicked out or seriously in trouble … but, if you’re able to have that conversation, please get your shots as soon as possible.”

According to a Mayo Clinic tracker, in the U.S., as of July 14, only 42.6% of 18- to 24-year-olds are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Only 38% of 16- to 17-year-olds and 25% of 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated. These rates are lower than any older age group.

Lagging vaccine rates (along with feeble and inconsistent social distancing measures) in the U.S. and across the world are what allowed the Delta variant to take hold in the first place. But young folks like Kelly Danielpour and Lindenberger see the urgency and importance of getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

Danielpour’s website traffic surged when the COVID-19 vaccine came out and so many teens found themselves in opposition to their anti-vax parents’ views on it. These teens are searching for a way to protect themselves. They’re up against tidal waves of conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Some have even accused that VaxTeen was not in fact created by Danielpour. They say it’s run by a pharmaceutical company. “They said that a teenager couldn’t have possibly created the site,” Danielpour told TIME. “They don’t think a teen could have possibly done it, and I did.” It’s incredible that people cannot imagine that teenagers are smart enough to create a website or start a movement for a cause they believe in. Do these people even go here?

It would be nice if parents across the U.S. could put more trust in the experts who have studied for decades the science with which they are so desperately trying to save lives. In the absence of that, I’m proud of Gen Z for taking matters in their own hands. There may be hope for us yet.