U.S. teenagers today are less hopeful than they were just five years ago about America's ability to address its most critical problems, from the economy and global warming to international terrorism. But a new survey of American high school students shows that the nation's young people remain optimistic about their own futures.
The survey was designed to provide a comprehensive look at the "opinions, apprehensions and aspirations" of U.S. high school students, according to the group that commissioned it. The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans is a private group that promotes the value of higher education in helping young people achieve success as adults.
The phone survey contacted more than 1000 U.S. residents between 13 and 19 years old. Survey company president Peter Hart says the data show that the confidence of many young people in their country's future has been shaken by problems with the American economy, energy and climate issues, the cost of health care, and the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"What we find is today 53 percent say, 'I'm optimistic and confident,' and 39 percent are worried and pessimistic," he says. "If you look over the period of time going back to 2003, it has dropped by some 20 percent."
Despite this growing pessimism, the survey also found today's American teens confident and optimistic about their own ability to succeed in life. Hart notes that fully 70 percent of the young respondents say they plan to attend a 4-year college and 62 percent say they "are very confident" that they will reach their own goals.
"One of the fascinating things that we have seen is the idea that young people want to participate and they want to be able to make a difference," Hart says. "We have not seen that in previous work."
Seventy percent of the surveyed teens say the outcome of the U.S. presidential election this November will make a substantial difference in the direction of the country. What are their biggest concerns? Thirty-four percent say it's the economy and jobs, and 31 percent say it's the war in Iraq.
David Miller, a California high school student who took part in the survey, says he worries about America's standing in the world. "I definitely do not feel confident in where we have been going, and I feel like the United States has lost a lot of the respect it had," he says. "We are still a very powerful country, and we are still very important, and I think we have this responsibility, and we should use it responsibly."
The survey shows a rise in American teens' interest in voting and playing a role in issues of national importance including the environment. The survey found that 72 percent of American teens believe global warming is an urgent or serious problem.
Jacqueline Jewell, a student from Texas, believes her generation is becoming more engaged and proactive. "We definitely do what we can and do a lot of activities that go with that, like recycling," she says. "You see people do fundraisers for everything. I think we are really working to make a difference."
American teens also seem to recognize the need to prepare for an increasingly competitive global economy. One of every three in the survey says the most important school subjects are science and technology, and 38 percent wish their schools had more up-to-date laboratory and computer equipment.
The survey suggests that high school students are using the Internet more for entertainment and social networking than for researching their homework. But Devron Lovick, a high school student from Pennsylvania, says her peers understand the value of the Internet as a learning tool. "With the Internet the way it is, with availability of information, the youth become empowered, because with knowledge comes power, she says. "But then with power comes responsibility. So consequently more responsibility has been rested on our shoulders, and we know the issues, and we get dissatisfied if we do not do anything about them."
The students acknowledge that there has been a negative side to the Internet. Sixteen percent of the survey sample say they have been a victim of cyber bullying – a type of abusive or destructive behavior that is increasingly evident on many online social networks. That would amount to nearly two and a half million of the 14.9 million high school students in the United States who've been victimized online. Almost one-third of the surveyed teens now view online bullying as a greater threat then the physical bullying already taking place in many U.S. high schools.
American teens are divided on another important national issue – the impact immigration is having on the United States. Their attitudes are significantly at odds with their parents on this issue. While only 39 percent of adults in a recent poll describe immigration as a positive force in the life of the nation, close to half of the teens surveyed in the Hart poll believe immigration has been good for the country. Forty percent of the teens say immigration has had a negative impact on American society.