When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for all children aged 6 months to 5 years on June 18, 2022, it opened the door for nearly 20 million children to be vaccinated.
While the news came as a relief to many parents who have been looking forward to having their young children vaccinated, a May 2022 survey found that most parents with children under 5 years of age felt that they did not have enough information about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. . Vaccines against COVID-19 for this age group. About 40% also said that information from federal health agencies such as the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration about vaccines for this age group is confusing.
This is particularly troubling as misleading public health messages open the door to social media anti-vaccine activity targeting vulnerable parents.
We are a medical and public health team at the University of Pittsburgh. We have a long track record of investigating social media vaccine misinformation and working with community partners to address vaccine hesitancy, counter misinformation, and advance vaccine equity.
Through this work, we have seen and studied how social media anti-vaccine activists are targeting vulnerable parents who are struggling to cope with the challenges of digesting health information in order to make the right choice for their children.
Social media and misinformation about vaccines
Anti-vaccination activists are a small but active group. Just 12 social media accounts — a “dozen of misinformation” — are behind the majority of anti-vaccine Facebook posts, according to a study by the non-profit Center for Digital Hate. Studies also show that only about 2% of parents refuse all vaccines for their children. A large group, or about 20% of parents, can more accurately be described as vaccine indecisive, meaning they have not decided whether their children will receive vaccines as recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In terms of COVID-19 vaccinations, as of May 2022, about 20% of parents with children aged 6 months to 5 years said they would immediately vaccinate their child. Another 25% said they would wait to see how the vaccine works, and 35% said they would definitely not vaccinate their child.
It can be difficult for parents to make sense of the vast amount of information available about COVID-19 vaccines, both true and false. Some parents are turning to social media for answers. The problem is that these parents are often targeted by anti-vaccination activists, who are better organized and better able to tailor their messages to the various concerns of people who have doubts about vaccinations than pro-vaccination activists.
Social media, in particular, has been a major vehicle for the spread of disinformation. While sometimes the misinformation is outright false, other times it is more like a phone game. The grain of truth changes slightly as it is recounted, which eventually becomes false. Unfortunately, exposure to misinformation about COVID-19 has been shown to reduce people’s intention to get vaccinated.
Solving Parental Vaccination Problems
So how can pediatricians and other healthcare professionals help parents feel confident about choosing to vaccinate their children against COVID-19?
The answer may lie in working with communities to promote the vaccine as trustworthy, rather than simply asking communities to trust it. We are part of the Pittsburgh Community Vaccine Collaborative, which is a public-academic partnership dedicated to ensuring equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. Through these efforts, we have focused on building trust in vaccines, providers, and healthcare systems that offer vaccines to their communities.
Health care providers are a reliable source of information about COVID-19 vaccines, but they are not the only source. Research has shown that it is important to draw on the experience and voices of community partners, health workers and religious leaders.
Our research shows that pediatricians and public health professionals can effectively use social media to promote vaccination and provide families with sound scientific information to address their questions and concerns. A survey published in Academic Pediatrics showed that 96% of parents use social media. Of these, 68% reported using it to obtain medical information.
For example, a pediatric group we’re collaborating with is using comedy combined with information to combat myths and answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines.
Research shows that parents who report high intentions to vaccinate against COVID-19 for themselves also report high intentions to vaccinate their children against COVID-19. Therefore, family conversation about vaccines can help fight misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, parents who have vaccinated their children can use social media to share their experience and make it more normal and accepted among their peers.
We also learned that increasing media literacy, which encourages people to question media information they come into contact with, can empower parents to sift through “informational” information about a COVID-19 vaccine.
Although social media platforms have announced a policy to remove misinformation about vaccines, research shows that this is not always effective in reducing the impact of such misinformation. Learning how to find the source of information and thinking about who the intended target is can help people determine whether information is true or misrepresented.
Fighting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine can seem daunting. The American Academy of Pediatrics has helpful information for parents to help them make decisions about the COVID-19 vaccine. Parents can also talk to their children about media literacy and information evaluation. And they can talk to their children, especially teenagers, about how getting vaccinated against COVID-19 can protect them and others.
For questions about COVID-19 vaccines for children of all ages, we recommend that you speak with your pediatrician or other health care provider. During this visit, you can also make sure your child is up to date on other vaccines, as research has shown that rates of routine childhood vaccines have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Increasing the number of COVID-19 vaccines for children is important to improve their health and well-being and move closer to ending the pandemic.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on December 15, 2021.