Third Millennium Teens

October 2nd, 2009

This is an excerpt from a new report, “Third Millennium Teens,” by George Barna, Barna Research Group, Ltd., Ventura, California. In the full report are the results of several recent national teen surveys. Topics addressed include the role of faith and the church in teenagers’ lives, prevailing religious beliefs, life goals, sources of information and influence, family life, Internet use, self-perceptions, common lifestyle activities, and more. Three critical realities remain true today: Youth culture changes incredibly fast, youth culture drives adult culture, and people’s formative faith decisions are largely in place by age 18. This means that all who minister in Christ’s name must be current in their understanding of youth culture and how to translate the barriers and opportunities their culture raises into transformed lives. (To receive the full report surf to www.barna.org or call 805/658-8885.)

In this excerpt, KidsPeace—a nonprofit organization that works with young people around the country—has determined that safety, love, power, and trust are four key needs of young people. We sought to understand how well teens feel that each of the four key people groups in their lives—parents, siblings, peers, and teachers—support and empower them. We posed 94 scaled-assessment questions to a sample of 1,028 teens and developed a series of indexes related to the four core dimensions (safety, love, power and trust). The result was what we labeled “the peace index.”

In the study we calibrated kids’ responses to a 100-point scale with a range of 20 to 100. A 100 is a “perfect” positive rating, meaning that every teenager feels that the group in question (parents, teachers, peers, siblings) provides perfect support all the time on that dimension. A 20 is a “perfect” negative rating, meaning that every teenager feels that the group in question never provides the support teens require in relation to that dimension.

Overall teenagers feel relatively comfortable regarding the degree of safety, love, power, and trust they experience in life. The net Peace Index of 73.9 suggests that they “usually” receive the kind of support they require to have a healthy and functional environment. As you will see, however, there are some areas that could be improved to produce a substantially better quality of life.

Clearly parents exert the greatest influence over teenagers. One of the pleasing findings was that teens award their parents the highest marks in terms of supporting them in each of the four index areas (peace, trust, power, and safety). According to teens, parents do best at providing teens with love (index: 84.5) and safety (index: 86.4) but also do reasonably well at delivering power (index: 78.9) and trust (index: 77.5). The absolute scores awarded to parents in these four areas suggest that while few teens feel that their parents do a perfect job in these dimensions, their parents usually provide what the teen needs to maximize personal potential, to feel positive about themselves and to handle the challenges of life.

In examining parents on 16 different indicators, teenagers were most likely to say that their parents are not as supportive as they’d like regarding the quality of their decision making, the value of their ideas related to decisions parents make, and how well parents understand teens’ strengths. Teens also downgraded their parents for their failure to follow through on commitments made them.

At the same time, the areas teenagers most consistently gave their parents stellar evaluations pertained to protecting them from sexual abuse of any type, providing love in all situations, protecting them from physical abuse, and encouraging them to pursue their dreams for the future.

Teachers ranked second to parents among the four influence groups evaluated, substantially lagging behind parents and moderately ahead of the ratings achieved by both peers and siblings. Teachers fared best in providing a sense of safety for students (index: 81.1). They were least skilled at providing love (index: 68.3). They were in the mid-range regarding the provision of power (index: 75.3) and trust (74.3).

Teachers were applauded by teenagers for protecting them from both sexual and physical abuse and for encouraging them to both persevere and to pursue their life dreams. Teenagers expressed disappointment with teachers for causing them to feel as if they’re not important in teachers’ lives, for ignoring teens’ ideas when they make decisions, for communicating that teens are worthless, and for providing acceptance based upon behavior, beliefs, and achievements (i.e. conditional or performance-based acceptance).

Siblings and peers generated statistically equivalent aggregate index ratings. Siblings were best at providing safety (index: 74.4), somewhat less proficient at delivering love (69.9) or power (68.6). They were least effective at providing an environment of trust (65.4).

Teenagers were most appreciative of their siblings for protecting them from physical and sexual abuse. They were most disgruntled with their siblings because they perceive them to focus on teens’ personal weaknesses, for lying, for not protecting their belongings, for ignoring teens’ ideas, and for conveying lack of worth.

Peers also did best at providing safety (72.9) and were worst at establishing trust (65.5). Peers were slightly better at delivering power (70.3) and love (68.9). It is interesting that although teenagers base many of their lifestyle decisions on input and reactions from their peers, teens are substantially more likely to describe their parents and teachers as supportive than they are to describe their peers in the same way.

Peer relationships were most esteemed for the ability to protect teens from sexual and physical abuse and for the encouragement provided to pursue life dreams. The detrimental aspects of peer relationships had to do with failure to follow through on commitments, lying, not considering the teens’ best interests, and for communicating that teens are worthless.

The Big Picture Regarding Peace in Life
Notice that the people with whom teens seem to experience the greatest peace are their parents—the very people, among the four groups tested, with whom they spend the least amount of “quality” time. The individuals with whom they spend the most “quality” time—their peers—are the people who provide them with the lowest sense of peace. Perhaps there is more to the old axiom “absence makes the heart grow fonder” than we realize.

Also notice that the highest index scores were awarded to the two adult groups (parents and teachers). This conflicts with responses to other surveys in which many teens suggest that they feel emotionally abandoned by most, if not all, adults. That may be the outgrowth of unspecific needs and expectations that they feel adults do not satisfy, even though adults fare better than peers and siblings when specific behaviors are evaluated.

Overall we found that higher peace scores were most common among students who view themselves as secure or self-confident. Lower peace scores were most likely from students who define themselves as angry, confused, lonely, or skeptical. There was also a group of self-characterizations that appear to have only minimal connections to peace. Those attributes were being an achiever, completely honest, happy, a leader, optimistic, sexually active, or stressed out. Attributes that appear to have no connection to peace include being physically attractive, religious, and well-liked.

Slicing the data a bit differently, we discovered that teenagers are most satisfied with the level of safety they experience in their lives as a result of the interaction with and support from these four groups of influencers. Trust was the attribute least likely to be provided by the influencers; three of the four influence groups (the exception being teachers) proved to be least proficient at providing trust.

Peace by the Piece
As expected, different subgroups within the teenaged population have different perspectives and experiences. Some of the more significant distinctions are described below.

Teens in the 13- and 14-year-old age categories have the highest peace levels, 15- and 16-year-olds have the lowest levels, and those who are 17 and 18 experience a bit of a rebound. Most remarkable, however, is the minimal distinction between the age groups. Upon creating and analyzing 25 different indexes we found that age emerged as one of the least significant variables.

The traditional thinking would suggest that girls form much tighter and secure bonds with their peers than do the competitive, rough, aggressive teenage males. The data show that the distinctions between teenage boys and teenage girls, however, are surprisingly minimal.

As a category, the largest distinctions were between whites and non-whites on the Parent scores. In all four of the categories evaluated (trust, love, power, safety) white teenagers offered significantly more positive views regarding their parental relationships than did non-white teens.

Academic performance appears to be one of the variables that makes a big difference in a child’s sense of peace. The scores for “A” students compared with those of “C” or “D” students were substantially different across all four influencer groups. In other words, academic achievement seems to facilitate a sense of peace in life, while low academic achievement correlates with a less developed sense of peace.


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