What Can We Learn about Adolescents’ Political Development by asking their views of the President?

The Society for Research on Adolescence is a non-partisan organization that promotes the scientific study of adolescence. Any political views reflected in this blog represent the perception of adolescent research participants. 


Adolescents’ political views are varied, complex, and nuanced, and thus similar to adults’ views.

The presidential primary is a showcase of America’s vast social and political views. The left, the right, and everyone in-between are fired up as they evaluate (and attack) presidential candidates, their ideas, and the party’s agendas. Difficult to hear among all of this uproar are the voices of young people; a group of citizens who are often left out because of the broad and age-old stereotype that young people aren’t really invested in the political process, civic life, or social issues.

Yet, when we take the time to ask and listen, we see evidence that many young people are engaged and think critically about these issues. We asked a diverse sample of approximately 1,400 high school students, ages 14-19, how much they approved or disapproved of President Donald Trump.  In addition youth provided qualitative justifications for why they approved or disapproved of the president. These young people from California, Minnesota, and West Virginia represented a diverse cross-section of American youth.

One overarching message emerged from the data: Young people have a lot to say when asked!  The sheer range of views and opinions held by youth, and their willingness to write lengthy and thoughtful evaluations of the president--both approving and disapproving--was truly impressive.  Adolescents’ opinions were fueled by their own budding social and political views, their beliefs about important leadership characteristics, as well as an understanding of national policies that directly impact themselves, their families, or their communities.  Adolescents’ quantitative ratings were systematically associated with particular justifications, further indicating that adolescents’ views were organized, thoughtful, and nuanced.  Whereas many assume that youth are less informed and more indifferent to politics, we found that adolescents are politically aware and equipped to appraise political leadership.

Three additional specific themes surfaced in the data, which suggest that young people are poised to be more engaged, though on their own terms:

  1. Diverse opinions. The extensive range of views held by youth counters the commonly held belief that youth are homogenous and liberal in their views.  Instead, the range of ratings and diversity of justifications more closely mirrored the breadth of political views held by adults in America.  The same contextual and social experiences known to influence adults’ political views also seem to shape the developing political opinions of adolescents. These factors included adolescents’ gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.
  2. Close-to-home issues. Like adults, young people tend to be most concerned about the issues that most directly affect them. Many adolescents focused on specific immigration policies proposed by President Trump, such as building a wall along the border between the United States in Mexico, while others mentioned the President’s stated support for the coal industry. Immigration policy was mentioned more frequently by youth who disapproved of the president, particularly among Latinx participants living in Southern California, who frequently discussed how the President’s proposed immigration policies would negatively affect members of their own community. Similarly, youth in West Virginia who approved of President Trump viewed his policies about energy and coal as positively impacting their families’ economic prospects.  Thus, youth do not view themselves as removed from politics but instead are acutely aware of the impact that political decisions can have on their lives and the lives of people close to them.
  3. Commitment to inclusion. Concerns about discrimination were prominent among youth who disapproved of President Trump.  More than half of adolescents with negative views of the President justified their disapproval with concerns about racism, sexism, and homophobia that youth perceived as being present in the beliefs, rhetoric, policies, or past behavior of the president.  National surveys of youth have found that issues related to unequal treatment based on identity characteristics are more important among young people today (e.g., generation Z and millennials) compared to older generations (e.g., baby boomers).  This heightened commitment to equality may play a stronger role in how young people today evaluate political leaders, which could have a direct impact on how some young people vote over the next few election cycles.

Overall, our study tells us youth are much more politically shrewd than they are often given credit for. The lower levels of political participation we tend to see among younger people may stem more from the fact that our political process isn’t really listening to or invested in young people, taking seriously their concerns, interests, and priorities. Youth have a lot to say about their political world...if we take the time to ask and listen!

Read the complete journal article here.

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Aaron Metzger is an Associate Professor of Lifespan Psychology at West Virginia University.  His research interests focus on contextual factors that augment positive development, youth civic development, and intersections between socio-moral reasoning and youth civic engagement and political attitudes.

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