The youth vote was a decisive factor in last week’s election where 50 percent of young adults 18-29 voted–a contrast to youth voter turnout in the 1990s that was consistently below 40 percent.
Researchers want to know what makes the millennial generation more likely to engage civically. Has the character of youth today changed, or is it the environment?
Aaron Metzger, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at West Virginia University, is conducting a large-scale study to explore the roots of engaged citizenship in childhood, assessing how civic beliefs and attitudes manifest from one’s character and are encouraged by the environment. Metzger says that ultimately he would like to create an effective assessment tool for educators and individuals who work with youth so that they can become more active participants in their communities.
“Whether it is voting, volunteering during a crisis like Sandy, or engaging in behaviors like giving blood or becoming an organ donor, ultimately the goal is to find the character traits and environmental factors that influence our young people to become more engaged citizens and responsible members of their communities,” Metzger said. “How can we engender positive civic attitudes that translate those attitudes into action?”
Looking at types of engagement and the child’s environment, Metzger hopes to answer how interactions with families, friends, teachers and other adults directly relate to civic behavior and attitudes. Metzger’s research will construct a method for measuring character strengths, such as leadership, future-mindedness, purpose, generosity, responsibility, humility and civic engagements.
“The type and degree of civic engagement is definitely affected by individual character traits,” Metzger said. “Leaders may be drawn to civic engagement as a way to best use their skills, and youth who are future-minded and purposeful may use civic involvement as an outlet for applying their forward-thinking and goal-setting natures to civic and community issues.
“Youth who display generosity, responsibility or humility may have higher civic engagement due to their abilities to think beyond the self.”
Metzger assesses the positive aspects of development in 9 to 18 year olds that can later predict active community engagement through face-to-face interviews with participants. By examining dimensions of families, schools, and communities, he hopes to locate positive characteristics that facilitate children’s civic involvement at an early age. Information from these interviews aids in the development of a standardized measure of civic involvement.
“When we address the youth of today we are looking at new factors that did not exist 15 to 20 years ago, specifically technology, access to information, and the ability to connect with like-minded individuals through tools like the Internet and social networking,” Metzger said.
Metzger will work with Laura Wray-Lake, Ph.D., at Claremont Graduate University in California and Amy Syvertsent, Ph.D., at Search Institute in Minnesota. Their joint research is supported by a recent $700,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Graduate students Elizabeth Yale, Kaitlyn Ferris, Carrie Lee and Benjamin Oosterhoff in the Department of Psychology, together with Metzger’s colleagues on the grant, are also working to explore potential regional and ethnic differences that may influence civic engagement in different environments.
“I’m interested in what teens think about citizenship and civic responsibility, and how these cognitions transpire into civic action,” Oosterhoff said. “My involvement in the lab has provided me with an opportunity to work on several research projects examine these processes.”
Metzger received his doctorate from the University of Rochester in 2007. He is currently an assistant professor in life span developmental psychology in the Department of Psychology. His research explores adolescent social-cognitive development in familial and community contexts.
For more information, contact Aaron Metzger, at 304-293-1672 or Aaron.Metzger@mail.wvu.edu
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