The Inconvenient Youth Revisited: Teens, Parents, and Clean Air Conversations and Action

Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Edwin R. Stafford, and Paige Morgan (2018). “The Inconvenient Youth Revisited: Teens, Parents, and Clean Air Conversations and Action.”
Sustainability: The Journal of Record 11(6), 284-297.

Abstract: How influential are teens in prompting clean air actions among their parents? What factors improve effectiveness of teen communication? To answer these questions, the authors surveyed both teen participants and their parents in the 2018 iteration of an annual high school clean air poster contest. The contest combines environmental science, marketing, and art to engage teens about responsible driving strategies that can preserve air quality (e.g., carpooling, refraining from idling, trip‐chaining, riding the bus, etc.). A survey from the 2017 iteration of the contest indicated that about two‐thirds of contestants (N=205) reported engaging others (primarily parents and siblings) about local air pollution, even though they were not instructed to do so, and 43 percent of those contestants reported that they believed their actions had changed others’ behaviors to engage in clean air actions. This result was dubbed the “Inconvenient Youth” effect, inspired by a 2007 Wall Street Journal article describing how adults (especially parents) often feel uncomfortable having youth instruct or pester them about social behaviors, making them feel pressured to comply in order to maintain the youths’ respect.

A survey of the 2018 iteration of the contest asked the teen contestants to report impacts of their direct personal behavior and asked parents about conversations their teens had with them that potentially changed their own behaviors. Seventy‐one percent of parents (N=114) reported that their teens talked to them about air pollution as a consequence of the poster contest, and teens who discussed specific actions for preserving air quality had the most influence on changing parent behaviors. Interestingly, only a few parents described their teens’ social influence as pestering or annoying. Rather, most parents reported that their teens simply initiated a reasoned conversation about local air pollution and solutions, and some even welcomed it! This article discusses the implications of these findings and future research directions about understanding how adolescents may become persuasive change agents through their proactive knowledge dissemination.

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