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The Inconvenient Youth: Pestering others on pro-social behavior

Two researchers set out to learn how, and how much, young people can influence others to change their environmental behaviors.

Social influence is often instrumental for encouraging pro-social behavior in others. And who’s more influential than youth, with whom parents want to maintain mutual love and respect?

This was the focus of a study (PDF) we published recently in Sustainability: The Journal of Record with regard to the Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest. We piloted the annual outreach initiative a few years ago to engage teens learning to drive about the air pollution implications of their new driving privilege and to teach them driving strategies to preserve air quality.

Each winter, northern Utah’s urban valley communities — from Logan to Salt Lake to Provo — suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the country due to inversions, where a blanket of warm air traps cold air and a cocktail of pollutants from cars, buildings, factories and agriculture onto the valley floors. Of particular concern is fine airborne particulate matter that, once embedded into the lungs and passed into the bloodstream, can pose serious health effects.

Frustratingly, many Utahns remain apathetic because they perceive the inversion-trapped haze as beyond their control. We wanted to change those attitudes.

In 2015, we launched our first clean-air poster contest at a high school in Cache Valley (home of Utah State University) to target teens about winter inversion pollution through a fun and creative contest that combined science, marketing and art. Contestants could design educational posters for their campuses and communities and be eligible to win desirable prizes donated by local businesses (typically, a $50 gift card).

The resulting poster entries were funny, edgy and tied to teen pop culture and values. Winning posters were displayed in shop windows and public bulletin boards throughout the community. 

To measure the contest’s educational impact, a voluntary feedback survey revealed that contestants perceived that they had an improved understanding of local air pollution issues and said they were more likely to engage in air-protective behaviors that they promoted in their posters, such as refraining from idling, engaging in carpooling and taking the bus.   

One outcome, however, was unexpected: Some teens reported nagging their parents about engaging in clean-air actions, even though they were not instructed to do so. For example, one contestant said, "I tell my parents not to idle, and they haven’t as much."

Could our poster contest be encouraging teens to become clean-air evangelists and influence others? We decided to find out. 

Some teens reported nagging their parents about engaging in clean-air actions, even though they were not instructed to do so.
Upon reviewing the literature on children’s social influence, we came across an amusing 2007 Wall Street Journal report about how school environmental education programs and popular media were motivating children to lecture and admonish their parents about environmental issues from the backseats of family minivans. Referred to as the "Inconvenient Youth," after Al Gore’s award-winning 2006 documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," kids were pestering their parents to engage in green behaviors, from recycling to buying solar panels and gas-electric hybrid cars. Grudgingly, parents felt obliged to comply with their children’s demands to maintain their respect — a powerful force behind children’s social influence.

In practice, social advocates and marketers long have recognized the power of children’s influence. Public service campaigns, for example, often have targeted children as a proxy to reach adults and broader audiences, as exemplified by the famous Smokey Bear "Only you can prevent forest fires" campaign’s call-to-action aimed at children, who in turn instructed their parents about campfire safety. Children also have been targeted to encourage adults to buckle up in the car. Research has shown that children can influence adult health behaviors, such as convincing parents to quit smoking.  

Likewise, consumer research also has recognized that children wield significant sway on family purchase decisions, including selecting where and what to eat, recreation and entertainment, car purchasing and vacations. As children mature and are seen as "young adults," they can influence their parents’ values and attitudes even more.

We wanted to see if the Inconvenient Youth effect was a natural outcome of our annual poster contest. For our 2017 iteration of the contest, we expanded it to six high schools in Cache Valley to engage more than 400 teens. We found that about two-thirds of surveyed participants reported encouraging others (mostly parents and families) to engage in clean-air actions — even though we did not instruct them to do so — and 43 percent believed that they actually changed others’ behaviors for good.

For those teens who perceived that they had not been influential, we asked why. Most reported that others simply didn’t care or didn’t believe habits, such as car idling, contributed much to air pollution. For our next contest, we plan to survey parents to help us better understand the dynamics of how amenable parents are with their teens’ pestering on pro-social behaviors.

Assigning posters as 'homework' and encouraging contestants to brainstorm clever poster messages and designs with family and friends may jumpstart evangelism and social influence.
We’re encouraged by our findings, and we’re investigating ways to better empower the Inconvenient Youth. For example, research on school education programs suggests that take-home assignments can transfer environmental knowledge from teachers to students to parents. It may be that assigning the posters as "homework" and encouraging contestants to brainstorm clever poster messages and designs with family and friends may jumpstart the evangelism and social influence process.

Many outreach and public service campaigns target children with the hope that environmental education today will result in more environmentally responsible adults tomorrow. We’re finding, however, that empowering youth today through hands-on outreach may foster more immediate effects through young people’s natural willingness to pester their parents, families and friends on what they’re learning.

Educators and social marketers should recognize the potential power of the Inconvenient Youth and experiment with strategies to channel and broaden their reach for social good.

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