Despite the problems of today’s world, the state of American youth is “upbeat”, said prominent pollster Peter D. Hart, who served as moderator at a Horatio Alger (pictured) Association press conference held to release its 2004-2005 “The State of Our Nation’s Youth” report. Present at the conference was a panel of seven teenagers selected for their hard work and academic merits to comment on the findings of the report.
Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a nationwide survey of 9-12th graders, ages 13-19, from all different backgrounds: public and private school students, Caucasian and minority, rural and urban. A total of 1007 students were polled, their telephone numbers selected randomly amongst those households with age-appropriate children.
The survey, which has been conducted every May since 1996, covered three general areas: youth perspective on cultural affairs, including the upcoming presidential election; the internet; and their lifestyles—particularly family, school, and aspirations.
“The events of our world are now the events of their world,” said Hart, referring to September 11th and the war in Iraq, amongst other things. Young people are “wary, aware, but extremely optimistic,” he maintained, though, according to the survey, the number of students “still looking ahead with hope and optimism” has dropped from 75% in May 2003 to just 68%. “Teenagers are generally considered a brooding bunch, unlikely to express favorable opinions about anything. This is not an accurate picture of today’s teens…[the 68%] may be a slightly smaller proportion of the whole compared with years past, but it is still an overwhelming majority,” the written report insists.
Students are very divided regarding Iraq; 44% believe it was the right decision to go to war (compared to 58% last year), and 33% believe it was the wrong decision. Not surprisingly, differences widen when specific groups are compared. 53% of boys, compared to 35% of girls, supported the decision. Caucasians were twice as likely to approve as African Americans and Hispanics were, and nearly two-thirds of private school students support the war, compared to less than half of public school students.
Members of the student panel attributed the war’s drop in popularity to the constant media coverage of car bombings, beheadings, and a barrage of other negative developments in Iraq. One student said that the war is no longer a “novelty” since U.S. troops have been in Iraq for an extended period of time. “Teens aren’t seeing a solid benefit to this war as of yet,” said 17-year-old Luis Leon of Florida. “There seems to be no definite end to this war…teens see this as a hopeless occupation.” Hart reminded the audience that this year’s survey was conducted just as the Abu Ghraib scandal was coming to the fore, perhaps contributing to the negativity of the response.
However, the war in Iraq did not top students’ list of critical issues in choosing a candidate for the November election. Thirty-four percent said social issues like gay marriage or abortion were most important to them, while the war in Iraq tied with education issues for 29 percent. Concern over jobs and the economy followed at 27%, and terrorism and national security garnered just 23% of the vote.
Seventy percent of students said they care who wins the presidential race, and 62% predict the country’s future will look very different depending on the outcome. Panel member Michael Friessen, a 17-year-old San Francisco native, expressed surprise over students’, in his opinion, relatively high level of apathy towards politics. Fellow panel member Whitney Keltch, 18, of Texas reminded the audience, though, that most students polled were below voting age and therefore less likely to be interested in the elections.
As for the second theme explored by the report, the survey indicated that nearly all young people (96%) have access to the internet, whether it’s at home or at school, or, for 64% of students, at both locations. Sixty-five percent of those with internet access use it daily, but frequency of usage declines amongst poorer-performing students as well as students who have access in only one location, especially if that location is school. Hispanics, African Americans, and low-income families are less likely to have multiple points of access than are Caucasians and higher-income families.
Although 87% of online students instant-message, America’s youth uses the internet “in serious and important ways,” insisted Hart, and not just as a “play toy.” In fact, 93% go online to do research for homework; for 82% of students, the internet has replaced the library as the first stop for information gathering. Fifty-one percent of young people, often the better performing students, view the internet as more of a help than a distraction, while 36% disagree.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of instant-message services, “when it’s a serious problem, young people indeed tend to go face to face,” said Hart. Seventy-four percent of students would rather have serious conversations in person, and 92% say they have at least one family member with whom they could have such a conversation. Most students feel they have a teacher or administrator they can confide in as well.
Family dynamics seem to be much calmer than often construed. Seventy-seven percent, up 3% from 2003, get along very or extremely well with their parents, and only 3% don’t get along well with them at all. “After 9/11…teens are really turning back to their family,” said panel member Ethan David, 16, of Pennsylvania. “The fact that we could lose our role models in a second just makes us cherish them even more.”
Half of all teens consider a family member their primary role model, and for the first time, as many fathers have made the cut as mothers. Predictably, parental role models are determined along gender lines: girls and boys are three times more likely to choose as their role model the parent that corresponds to their gender.
Still, family problems remain the greatest source of stress for students, more so than financial pressure, pressure to look a certain way, loneliness, and pressure to drink, do drugs, or have sex. Pressure over grades has catapulted since 2001, when only a quarter of students considered achieving good marks a “major problem” for them, compared with 43% who feel that way now. The desire to go to college, which Hart terms the “holy grail,” may play a role in the increase; 73% of students say they plan to attend a four-year college, up from 68% in 2001.
Michele Nagar, a rising freshman at the University of Maryland, is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.