Survey offers insights into young adult attitudes on face masks

Denise Green and graphic of people wearing masks

Early in the pandemic, public opinion surveys showed a worrying trend: young adults were the most resistant to face masks and the least compliant with masking orders. As Cornell University was in the process of deciding how to handle Fall 2020 enrollment, three researchers in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design (FSAD) set out to understand not only who among 18-24-year-olds were wearing masks and who were not, but why or why not.

With funding provided by a special COVID-19 rapid response grant from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, senior lecturer Fran Kozen and lecturer Catherine Blumenkamp joined research lead Associate Professor Denise Green to develop a survey and coordinate with the Cornell Survey Research Institute to secure a demographically representative sample based on U.S. Census data for race, ethnicity, gender and regional location. The survey asked behavioral questions, such as how often respondents washed masks and in what social situations they will or will not wear a mask, and attitudinal questions, such as asking them if they agree with statements like: “people should be able to choose whether or not to wear a face mask,” or, “my facemask fits my face well and requires little adjustment.”

Green, a fashion anthropologist, explained that face masks present researchers like herself with a unique opportunity to study such a rare and dramatic shift in fashion.

“We know face masks slow the spread of COVID-19. They are protective apparel, but they also provide an opportunity for fashion expression. They raise different challenges for individuals, whether that’s physical or social comfort. We know they’re politicized,” Green said. “They encapsulate the nature of fashion itself, which is an inherently complex phenomenon that has been trivialized for centuries. With the demographics in this survey, we’re really trying to understand how people produce identities through dress and how those identities interact with choices around public health.  These choices are social, cultural and aesthetic all-in-one.”

Overall, the behavioral results were encouraging in several ways. When the survey was conducted in August, 94% reported wearing a mask indoors in the previous two months. The young people, it seems, have gotten the masking message better than earlier polls suggested.

Political affiliation and geographic location had the most significant correlations with self-reported masking behavior. Democrat respondents were more likely to report always wearing a mask when out in public (83%) than Republicans (60%) or Independents (63%) and, at 78% compared to 60%, urban-dwellers were more likely to wear a mask out in public than their rural counterparts.

Race, gender, ethnicity and employment status showed no significant correlation with mask-wearing behavior, but did provide some insights for the researchers when it came to an analysis of attitudes around masks.

This portion of the survey revealed six salient underlying factors related to face mask attitudes among young people: face mask avoidance (prioritizing civil liberties over public health); concerned adherence (compliance due to worry over becoming infected or infecting others); vexed faultfinding (complaints about physical discomfort); statement making (preference for masks with logos or political messages); fashion enthusiasm (interest in face masks as fashion); and hygiene adherence (washing hands and masks, and fastidiousness in putting them on and taking them off).

“These factors are not mutually exclusive and we also found significant correlations between these characteristics,” Green said. “For example, face mask avoidance is positively correlated with vexed faultfinding and negatively correlated with concerned adherence, whereas concerned adherence was positively correlated with hygiene adherence. We found significant demographic differences with regard to the face mask avoidance factor: men, white people, Republicans and Independents, people who work full time, who are not students, and who live alone or with their romantic partner only, were significantly more likely to exhibit this characteristic. This is not to say that everyone in these demographics rank high in avoidance, but that when compared to other demographics we observed a significant difference.”

Respondents also indicated some areas for designers and fiber scientists to make improvements that could increase face mask compliance. Over half of those surveyed wanted more breathable fabrics and a little over two-thirds wanted a better fit.

The study results are currently under peer-review and have been shared with other members of FSAD faculty who are engaged in their own projects of designing and testing better fits for adults and children, using nano-technology to create fabrics that are more breathable and more effective, and testing home decontamination methods, such as putting cloth masks in the laundry, microwave or dishwasher.

“Our department takes an interdisciplinary approach to the work we do. We must consider material science, anthropometrics, and fit, alongside aesthetics and the social and cultural aspects of dress,” Green said. “You need all of these different disciplinary approaches to come together to understand and articulate such a complex issue with a dramatic impact on public health.”

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