Historical Trends in Concerns About Social Issues Across Four Decades Among U.S. Adolescents: An interview with Dr. Benjamin Oosterhoff

For this week’s #MustReadMonday, we are very excited to highlight a recent paper by Dr. Benjamin Oosterhoff and colleagues: Historical Trends in Concerns About Social Issues Across Four Decades Among U.S. Adolescents.dcfg.png

This article assesses 40 years of adolescent concerns about social issues and reports on some very interesting trends and patterns! Dr. Oosterhoff took some time to answer our questions about adolescent concerns about social issues, and what he found in this data. Here is what he had to say:

  1. What would you say is the main takeaway from your article?

    In our society, we are constantly faced with a wide-range of challenges. Whether it responding to a global pandemic, addressing racial injustice, or working to prevent climate change—social life is accompanied by several pressing issues that need to be addressed. Awareness and concern regarding social issues is thought to motivate civic action directed at addressing these problems.

    Importantly, during adolescence youth are thought to become more aware of social issues and work to fix them through community and political action. However, researchers have tended to overlook how adolescents’ political development exists within broader socio-historical contexts. Social challenges and youths’ concerns about social issues change overtime and are highly sensitive to specific events. It’s also important to highlight that these events will likely be experienced differently for youth based on their socioeconomic, gendered, racial, and geographic backgrounds.  

    In this article, we sought to model these different sources of variability in youths’ social concerns using 40 years of nationally-representative data from high school seniors. We show that historical effects are relatively strong for many social concerns, and that some of these effects are moderated by adolescents’ socioeconomic status, race, and gender.

    For example, between 1976-2015, adolescents’ concerns about crime and violence and race relations peaked during the mid-1990s. Crime rates reached a historical peak during the early to mid-1990s along with racial tensions following the police assault of Rodney King. Adolescents’ concerns about economic issues also peaked in 2009, shortly after the start of the 2008 housing market crash. These results show that adolescents’ concerns about social issues are at least somewhat reflective of the more dominant mainstream societal issues at that time.

    For some issues, demographic differences in the youth social concerns trends have also changed over time. For instance, although Black youth were more concerned about race relations overall, they demonstrated a steeper decrease in these concerns relative to non-Black youth up until 2015 where the trend begins to increase. Additionally, the peak in concerns about hunger and poverty that occurred in the mid-1990s was higher for adolescent girls relative to boys, suggesting that adolescent girls may have been more attuned than boys to heightened economic needs in the United States or globally in the 1990s.

  2. What are some of the key factors that influence how/why adolescent social concerns change over time?

    Adolescents’ social concerns likely change based on the social challenges they face and those faced by broader society at any given moment in history. Like many facets of adolescent development, social concerns are likely tied to personal experience. That may seem like a simple process, but it becomes far more interesting when considering the layers of qualities and characteristics that directly and interactively underlie how social problems are experienced differently across people and time.

  3. Why is it so important to assess youth social concerns? Do these tend to be consistent with other age groups?

    This is an important question. For some issues (including many of those in our study), I don’t necessarily expect youths’ social concern to differ from adults. Age may not matter too much when considering concerns about crime and violence or hunger and poverty. But if we broaden our thinking beyond this study, we can certainly identify a range of issues that may be uniquely experienced by adolescents. Gun control, climate change, and rising student loan debt are all central issues that might be more pressing for young people than adults. Young people who will continue to undergo active shooting drills, who will experience more severe natural disasters due to climate change, and who will need to make difficult decisions about whether higher education is worth several decades of debt will likely have greater concern over these issues. Today’s young people are grappling with social problems that will never be fully experienced by adults, and as a society, we need to be more sensitive to that.

    It may also be important to consider youths’ social concerns for developmental reasons. Many teens are just starting to become aware of social injustice, social disparities, and other social problems during adolescence. We don’t know too much about how these beliefs predict later levels of social trust and civic engagement. But there is good reason to believe that adolescents’ concerns about social issues may intersect with other facets of civic development, and we need to do more work here.  

  4. If you had to speculate, what would be some of your guesses about how these trends will continue through 2020?

    Our paper examined historical trends in adolescents’ social concerns from 1976-2015. We found some fairly pronounced shifts in social concerns over these 40 years, but even now, 2015 seems like several lifetimes ago. Everyone reading this article can probably fill both hands with the list of social challenges that have emerged over the past five years.

    Young people are likely grappling with a much wider—and more pronounced—list of social challenges than what we examined in our research. COVID-19 has produced a pathogen threat larger than any other experienced in the past 100 years. Some youth are likely concerned for their own health, while many more are concerned for the safety and well-being and of their family and friends. Additionally, many social concerns that we did examine—including economic problems and race relations—have likely become more potent. The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have shined a national spotlight on the deep-seated institutional racism facing Black individuals and communities. The economic shutdowns and historic levels of unemployment combined with the lack of government relief has also created enormous financial strain on many families.

    New concerns have likely emerged for young people while others have become more pronounced. Some of these trends are potentially forecasted in our analyses, with a noticeable increase in concerns about race relations already taken place between 2014-2015. I’d suspect that those increases continued. Monitoring the Future is a cohort study of US teens that has been tracking many social concerns among youth since 1976. Since the study is ongoing and data is publically available, we will likely have some answers to these questions in the coming years.

Read the complete article here

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