Saturday, 31 March 2012

Adolescent Engagement in Community and Society

Adolescents’ involvement in their communities and society has become a topic of intense interest in the past few years. Although civic involvement has been studied in the past as an aspect of adolescents’ political socialization, there has been a dramatic resurgence of interest in the topic, due in part to the more general
interest in positive psychology and the more specific interest in positive youth development. In addition, research has been generated in response to claims from social commentators that American youth have become too self-centered and individualistic and not sufficiently concerned with community and social responsibility. Finally, the interest in youth civic engagement is based on the assumption, supported by some research, that involvement in extracurricular activities at school and community-based youth organizations facilitates adolescent development in ways that will lead to greater community and civic involvement in adulthood.

The evidence suggests that involvement in community organizations and service influences the development of greater compassion and interdependence, engagement in community service, feelings of affection and attachment to the larger social order, a greater understanding of democracy, and civic or moral identity, particularly when adolescents have an opportunity to reflect on their involvement. Thus, civic engagement in adolescence is seen as an important pathway in training youth for future citizenship, although the evidence to date is largely correlational or based on treatment studies that do not include random assignment. Evidence for the links between adolescent involvement and adult participation is based primarily on retrospective accounts, but several short-term longitudinal studies have shown that service learning in high school does lead to a greater sense of social responsibility and changes in students’ priorities.

Initially, the studies in this area focused on the demographic and family factors associated with greater civic involvement and volunteer community service in adolescence. The evidence suggests that higher socioeconomic status, college attendance and higher educational aspirations, greater religiosity, greater parental involvement in civic organizations or political issues, and higher academic self-esteem are all associated with greater civic involvement and volunteering in adolescence.
Adolescents who volunteer also tend to be more mature, more altruistic, and are more likely to be female. Some studies have examined ethnic disparities in civic engagement, but the available evidence suggests that socioeconomic status rather than race or ethnicity is a better predictor of civic and political participation.

Service learning has become normative for American youth. The results of several large-scale studies attempting to document the benefits of service learning have found inconsistent results and mostly transient positive gains. This has led researchers to investigate how specific characteristics of youth civic involvement, for instance between required school-based and voluntary community-based youth programs, influence positive developmental outcomes. Required school-based service positively impacts students’ intentions to be involved in the future, even when adolescents were less inclined to participate prior to the required service.

Recent research has examined the optimal organization or structure of organizations to facilitate engagement. A systematic review of programs indicates that organizations that allow adolescents the freedom to make real decisions and take leadership roles while adults still provide some structure help to promote positive youth outcomes. In addition, organizations that are centered on a specific philosophy, cause, or ideology appear to infuse adolescent participation with meaning. The informal, less hierarchically organized environment of community youth organizations fosters adolescents’ affective ties to their community and provides an environment where at-risk youth may feel efficacious and respected by adults. This is particularly important given the disparity in civic identity and development between adolescents from affluent versus poor urban environments. Community organizations also may provide adolescents with the opportunity to interact with a heterogeneous group of individuals, which has been linked to adolescents’ social trust, tolerance, and reduction of stereotypes. Social trust is proposed to be crucial to democratic societies because it leads to an investment in the social order and commitment to community involvement; it is also associated with a more positive belief in people and a more hopeful outlook on society.

Much of the research in this area has been guided by applied and social policy concerns, and integrative frameworks for understanding civic engagement remain to be developed. Furthermore, and although rarely made explicit, most of the research thus far appears to be guided by the social learning assumption that adolescents’ civic beliefs and behaviors are molded by their involvement with parents, schools, or the characteristics of youth organizations, and more dynamic models of civic engagement are needed. Other research has shown, for instance, that among U.S. adolescents as well as adolescents in other cultures, basic understandings of concepts of rights, civil liberties, and democratic decision making develop in middle childhood, but that the ability to view these issues as overriding when they conflict with other concerns in complex situations increases with age. Although the seeds of civic involvement are no doubt sown in childhood, very little longitudinal research has examined the mutual interactions among individual, family, and community in childhood and early adolescence that facilitate civic participation and involvement in late adolescence and young adulthood.

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