Can teens make a difference in their parents’ views and behaviors about air pollution? The answer is yes.
Regions of Utah suffer occasionally from some of the worst air pollution in the United States. Overcoming locals’ general apathy about local air pollution, however, has been a key challenge for tackling Utah’s air pollution problem. Targeting adults for formal education about clean air actions poses formidable barriers simply because many adults are busy and there are few institutions where they can be reached easily as a captive audience.
But can teens make a difference to engage their parents and influence their behaviors? This was the question we set out to explore in our research published recently in the journal Sustainability: The Journal of Record.
In 2015, we launched a clean air poster contest at Logan High School, in northern Utah, combining environmental science, art, and savvy marketing.
The aim was to educate teens learning to drive to understand the air pollution implications of their new driving privilege and to learn driving and transportation strategies to preserve air quality, such as by refraining from idling and considering carpooling or taking the bus to and from school.
A post-contest survey indicated that contestants were more likely to engage in air pollution-reduction behaviors promoted in their posters than before the contest.
Unexpectedly, contestants also reported that they were conversing with their parents, families and friends about clean air actions in what we called the “Inconvenient Youth” effect based on a Wall Street Journal article that reported how growing school environmental education programs were encouraging youth to pester their parents about environmental behaviors, and parents often felt pressured to comply to maintain their children’s respect.
Since 2015, our contest has grown into the Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest, engaging hundreds of teens each year at high schools across Cache and Grand counties. Poster entries are often funny, edgy, terrifying and tied to teen pop culture.
Intrigued by the potential influence teens may have on their adult parents, for the 2018 iteration of the contest, we surveyed poster contestants’ parents for the first time. Seventy-one percent of parents reported that their teenage children initiated conversations with them about Utah’s air pollution.
Statistical analysis found that parents reported that they were most influenced into changing their own driving behaviors when their kids talked to them about specific actions for preserving air quality, such as refraining from idling, compared to more general conversations about air pollution or the contest itself.
Contrary to our expectations, only a few parents reported that their children pestered them to force compliance. Rather, the vast majority of parents said that their teens’ influence came about with a simple, rational conversation about air pollution or request to take action, and some parents reported even welcoming it.
Our results indicate that teens learning about Utah’s air pollution and ways to address it through the poster contest can become credible and persuasive change agents among their parents.
This article was written together with Dr. Roslynn Brain McCann, an associate professor of Environment & Society at Utah State University.