U. Colorado Prof Leads Study Of Teen Political Behavior

This story was written by Daniel Carter, Campus Press
Last week, a CU Professor released the first in a series of results from an in-depth, multi-institutionally funded research project studying the political identification of high school teens in the U.S.

Associate Professor Michael McDevitt of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently produced preliminary results for his project titled "Colors of Allegiance: Mapping the Spectrum of Adolescent Civic Identity in Red/Blue America."

McDevitt, aided by CU Assistant Professor Jennifer Wolack from the department of political science, Assistant Professor Ben Kirshner from the department of education, and Ally Ostrowski, a mass communication doctoral student, received multiple grants for the project including a $50,000 "seed grant" from CU. The study also received funding from the University of Maryland, under the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

"My research looks at the initial period of identity formation and looks at the contribution of schools, particularly civics curriculum, families, news media use and also the geopolitical setting in which young people grow up," McDevitt said in a prefatory interview.

The study was performed in the five primarily Republican states of Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Florida and five primarily Democratic states, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington. The states were chosen because of the competitiveness in their state elections that students may be aware of.

"We wanted to interview high school seniors before and after the 2006 state elections," McDevitt. "And so we looked at states that were very competitive in terms of either a gubernatorial campaign or a U.S. senatorial campaign."

The study consisted of telephone interviews with high school students from these states who were primarily seniors. The adolescents were interviewed two times, once before the state elections of fall 2006, and once after.

What resulted from these interviews is a data set that McDevitt had many theoretical insights about since his initial interest in the subject sparked many years ago as a doctoral student. McDevitt said that this study, among others proves some of his theories and predictions.

One of the main theories that McDevitt said drives his work is his "trickle up influence" theory, which he said is now supported by his recent findings.

His doctoral dissertation investigated the formation of young people's civic identities, particularly within an interactive curriculum called Kids Vote USA, in which students take part in mock elections for high profile campaigns. During this investigation he came upon what he calls the "trickle up influence."

The theory, in basic terms, says that a participatory political curriculum in high schools, one that encourages student interaction, can instigate a strong interest in politics.

The student will then go into his or her household and begin discussing political issues with parents. In turn, if the parents are politically inactive, it may inspire them to start paying more attention to their political surroundings.

"(Teens) start to key in on election news, their positions on issues, who they're going to vote for," McDevitt said. "This is kind of political theory upside down."

Another area McDevitt said he is especially keen on is the expanding scope of how adolescents form their political identities. Specifically, the different forces that influence a teen's political identity formation. He discussed the change that has taken place with these influences.

"The way in which young people form their political opinions today is much more complex than it used to be.," he said. "I think the way young voters are perceived is sloly changing, in a positive way."

McDevitt continued by commenting on the expansion of influence forces upon youth's political mindset formation. He said that in earlier days a youngster's political identity was passed down from their parents, but now they are equally as important factors such as peer groups, school and teachers, church groups and news media.

After the team of researchers received funding for the project they hired a marketing company out of Florida to conduct a survey target group and conduct the telephone interviews.

Ultimately they interviewed high school seniors, 85 percent of whom were 17-year-olds. 56 percent of the interviewed were females; 44 percent were males. About 74 percent of the interviewed were white/anglo; about 9 percent were Hispanic; 7.5 percent African-American; and about 4 percent Asian, with remainder of the interviewed coming from various other ethnicities.

According to McDevitt's 46.3 percent of the interviewed said that their parents' household made under $15,000 per year.

In looking at the preliminary results McDevitt's research shows a liberal tilt in the 2006 mid-term elections for youth, which mirrors the voting population. McDevitt calls this a "blue wave."

The percentage of students who identified as extremely conservative decreased 5.6 percent from the first time the students were interviewed to the second, in red states.

The students who identified as extremely liberal increased 8.6 percent, in red states. Furthermore, the percentage for those who identified as a Democrat increased about 5 percent, from before the elections to after.

McDevitt emphasized the differences between partisanship and ideology. Identifying as a Democrat or Republican is not synonymous with identifying as a liberal or conservative. It was in this discussion that the practice of activism arose.

McDevitt sees activism as a tool for young people to explore political ideologies, both liberal and conservative. In his study there are interesting figures to help illustrate this activism exploration by youngsters, especially in a time of political importance (election periods).

Liberal confrontational activism showed a strong representation, more so in blue states than in red states. When students were asked if they would drop a banner over a highway to protest government policy 24.2 percent answered "yes" in blue states, as compared to 17.9 percent in red states.

McDevitt also found that teachers in blue states encourage students to talk about controversial issues and frequently lead classroom discussions about politics.

McDevitt said that he is interested in questions this raises in red states such as, are teachers in red states more intimidated by parent reaction to political discussion than in blue states? Do teachers in red states maybe believe it is not their role to socialize or influence a young person's political identity?

McDevitt said that the area of the results that hit home most in the results was where students believe their greatest influence is on them politically. Parents remain the primary influence on adolescent development of civic identity. After that it is teachers followed by news media for both red and blue states.

The study indicates that students in red states perceive religion as a stronger influence. Those interviewed in blue states were more likely to name friends and news media as their strongest influence.

At the college level, McDevitt expresses concern about a liberal group-think that seems to prevail in the college atmosphere.

"I think it's safe to say that most college campuses can be considered more liberal or Democratic," McDevitt said. "But I also think that this idea creates a notion of group-think and I believe that young people should be critical of that, not simply adopt the popular views of their campus or peers.&qot;
© 2007 Campus Press via U-WIRE