AP-NORC poll: Teens cynical about politics, yet many remain hopeful

A survey of US children ages 13 to 17 finds that America's teens are nearly as politically disillusioned as their parents, yet they are also somewhat more likely to say that America's best days lie ahead.

Jessi Balcom/AP
Jessi Balcom (r.) takes a selfie with Nick Paredes in September 2016 on Pilot Butte in Bend, Ore. Jessi is one of 790 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 who participated in a first-of-its-kind Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll on teens' social media use, political views and political outlook.

Today’s teens are tomorrow’s voters, helping to shape the political trajectory of the country. So what do young Americans see when they look to the future?

A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of teens ages 13-17 presents a complex picture. Like adults, many teenagers are pessimistic about the current situation: Just 16 percent say they believe the federal government is looking out for the interests of all Americans, while 8 in 10 say Americans are divided on important issues. At the same time, teenagers are uniquely optimistic about the possibilities of the future, with 56 percent indicating that America’s best days are ahead.

Amid concerns about disillusionment and undue influence on the political process, from fake news to hacking allegations, today’s teens provide some with a thread of hope. America’s youth are engaged and increasingly media-savvy – traits they will carry into adulthood, observers suggest.

“I think once these teens grow up and get older, they're actually going to have a much better insight into what it means to have things published online than their adult counterparts do now,” Jennifer Golbeck, an associate professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Gretel Kauffman in a November phone interview, speaking about how young people will meet the challenge of fake news.

For young people, the 2016 election served to highlight the extent of the political challenges facing America as much as it did for other generations. Disillusionment with the candidates of both political parties was clearly present, the AP-NORC poll found: Less than one-third of teens surveyed were favorable to President Trump, and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton fared little better in their assessment. The teens also said that they had little in common with peers of differing political views. Just 1 in 4 reported having a lot in common with people who had different party preferences.

And just as the influence of fake news met with concerns among the wider community, educators were concerned about what it meant for young people. In a Stanford University study released in November, researchers found that 82 percent of middle school students surveyed could not distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a news story.

Education is already helping address the challenge of fake news, observers say. And teens themselves seem to have some ideas about how to overcome apparent political divisions, the AP-NORC survey suggested.

For some, like Caroline Millsaps of Garner, N.C., it’s a question of trying to see the other side. The self-described liberal Democrat told the AP she watches Fox News and talks with friends who support Mr. Trump to understand others’ perspectives on the issues.

"I try to see both sides of the situation and see which side fits my view best,” she said.

Jessi Balcom, a Green Party supporter from Bend, Ore., said she believes people can work together to address problems rather than letting their divisions push them into conflict.

"It's not you versus me, it's us versus the problem and the problem isn't other people," she told the AP.

According to Sophie Svigel, a Dallas teenager who described herself as a conservative Republican, one of those problems is the way in which politicians discuss issues.

"I feel like the politicians and people in politics speak very vaguely about the problems that we're facing,“ she said. An overwhelming majority of teens surveyed agreed that the federal government is not doing a good job of looking out for the interests of all Americans.

Teens are active in their communities, working hard to make a difference. Nine in 10 teens said they had volunteered or raised money for a cause.

Underlying teens’ work to improve their world is a fundamental belief that they will ultimately succeed, whatever the odds against them. Fifty-seven percent are optimistic about the possibility of achieving the American Dream, the poll found.

"Sometimes it does get you down, but I try not to focus on it too much because I see myself as someone who despite all the odds that are against me, I'm still going to prevail," said Nyles Adams, a New York teenager whose grandparents were Trinidadian immigrants.

The AP-NORC poll was conducted online and by phone between December 7 and December 31. NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the US population, produced a probability-based sample of parents with teenage children, and parents then gave permission for their children to be interviewed.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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