One question in particular from the 2004 Gallup Youth Survey* illustrates the wide variety of issues that American teens have on their minds: "What do you think is the most important problem facing people your age?" Responses ranged from drug use to the likelihood of a draft.
The question was asked in an open-ended format, allowing respondents to volunteer any answer they wished. Substance abuse, education, and peer pressure were among teens' top concerns.
The Most Important Problem
The results show that problems associated with drugs, smoking, and alcohol are prominent concerns in teens' minds. An annual survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that the use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco by young Americans has decreased in recent years. Nevertheless, 20% of teens say that drinking, smoking, and drug use is the most important problem for people their age.
Peer pressure also ranks as one of teens' greatest concerns. Seventeen percent mention fitting in, peer pressure, and popularity as the most important problem facing American teens. While every generation of American teens experiences peer pressure, some teens noted that contemporary media -- which often characterize teens as irresponsible, sex-crazed, beer-drinking partiers -- pressure them to live up to that ideal. A 15-year-old girl summed it up when she said, "Pressure from movies and commercials and music affects us greatly, with all the sex, violence, drugs, etc. More and more teens feel comfortable having sex at a young age and drinking or smoking weed."
Thirteen percent of respondents mention education issues as a top problem facing people their age. A number of teens ardently expressed their concerns about the state of the education system. For example, one 17-year-old-girl said that "affordable education" is a key concern. Another 16-year-old pointed to the problem of poor teachers, saying, "The schools should hire teachers that want to teach instead of just handing out assignments and not explaining what to do with them. Most of my teachers will give me trouble if I ask a question."
The Gender Effect
For the most part, the results of the survey show few differences between girls and boys in their expressed concerns. However, teenage boys are more likely to mention economic concerns than are teenage girls. Specifically, 15% of boys mention career opportunities, jobs, the economy, and what the future holds as the most important problem facing people their age, compared with just 5% of girls. While worrying about these issues is not necessarily a prerequisite for a successful career, it is interesting that girls do not seem to have them on their radar screens.
Differences between girls and boys also arise on issues related to sexuality, such as teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases. While 9% of girls named one of these issues as the most important problem, in stark contrast, only 1% of teen boys did the same.
*The Gallup Youth survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 785 respondents, aged 13-17, between Jan. 22 and March 9, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.