March 30, 2004

Prof Investigates Teen Discontent, Rebellion

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Most people write off adolescent rebellion as simply a natural stage in teenage development, but according to recent research findings of Prof. Janis Whitlock, human development, this explanation may not be entirely fair.

After surveying urban teenagers, Whitlock found that most teens felt disconnected from their community and discriminated against by unknown adults.

“There was a general sense of powerlessness and a desire to be heard among a majority of the youths. The older the students, the less connected they said they felt to their schools and communities,” Whitlock said.

The research was carried out in an urban community in upstate New York. It was based on a cross-sectional survey of 350 young people in grades eight, 10 and 12 and of 110 students in 11 focus groups.

Whitlock defined “connectedness” according to four elements: trust, respect, listening, and caring. A youth was considered to be connected to the community if he or she received and reciprocated all four elements with the community’s adult members. Whitlock found that when the adolescents felt trusted, respected, listened to and cared about, they were overwhelmingly likely to reciprocate those things to adults.

“Connectedness to school has been shown to protect against violence, risky sexual behavior, drug use and dropping out of school. Youths who possess a sense of belonging are more likely to work harder and be involved in positive activities in and outside of school,” says Whitlock.

However, most teens did not feel connected. Whereas 60 percent of eighth graders reported feeling connected, less than 20 percent of high school seniors reported similar feelings.

The age discrepancy is extremely apparent.

“We tend to treat 10-14 year olds in communities the same way we treat 16-18 year olds, but they are developmentally different,” says Whitlock. As teenagers age, they have an increasing desire to exercise influence, but aren’t provided with opportunities to do so within their communities.

A major source of the problem, according to Whitlock, is anonymous encounters between teenagers and adults. Teens seem to feel disrespected most by adults they do not know, such as the police and businessmen. Their age groups are often discriminated in public settings such as the mall, at school, or while driving.

Whitlock pointed out that “if a certain sex or race were similarly discriminated, people would be outraged, but it’s done to [adolescent] age groups all the time.”

The two most important things a community can do to make its youth feel more connected, according to Whitlock, is change its general attitude toward the teenagers and provide them with more meaningful and powerful roles.

Whitlock’s dissertation on school and community connectedness won the 2004 Hershel D. Thornburg Dissertation Award for its “outstanding scholastic promise in research on adolescence.” Her research on school and community was presented on March 13 at the meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence in Baltimore, and will be presented again in April at the American Educational Research meeting in San Diego, California.

Archived article by Missy Kurzweil
Sun Staff Writer