All too often, teenagers’ opinions are dismissed. They are seen as being too young; the perception is that they don’t understand all the issues or the potential consequences.
When talking about politics, this is shortsighted. Many adults forget that teens either are or will soon be able to vote. Either way, elections impact their future. Presidential elections in particular are important, as most teens will be adults, with adult responsibilities, before the next opportunity arises for them to make their voices heard.
Today we are bombarded with information and left to sort it all out on our own. Sometimes it is difficult to sort out the facts from the opinion. There are many issues with many levels of complexity. As adults, we struggle to weigh issues against one another, to determine where we can compromise and where we must draw the line. Given the numerous ways they get their information, our teens must be even more confused than we are.
Teenagers today get much of their news from social media outlets. Some candidates have capitalized on this fact to get the word out and save campaign dollars in the process. With social media, candidates are also able to focus their message based on their audience. It’s no coincidence that the messages being sent over social media are those that are important to that audience.
Although some teens show no interest in political affairs, there is evidence that many care a great deal. This was demonstrated both in Obama’s election in 2008 and the popularity of Bernie Sanders. Both were thrust into the forefront largely by young voters.
Experts say that parents’ attitudes matter, but to be effective, we need to talk to, and listen to, our teens. We need to talk to kids about politics. We should watch debates together and discuss them, to talk about political ads, whether they are on television or social media. We need to address which media are reliable and which may be biased (hint – all media today are biased, but some more so than others). Talk about polls and whether you think they accurately portray views. Talk about untrue or partially true statements and emotional implications. Address the fact that much of what is called news today can be better described as news analysis. (Why are the news reporters being interviewed? How are their opinions relevant?)
As with everything else in their lives, their friends influence them (which may mean their friends’ parents also play a role). Since teens generally spend more time with peers than parents, they likely will be exposed to opinions that differ from yours. This can be the catalyst for some animated conversations. Here it would be wise to follow the advice to “listen twice as much as you speak.” Ask questions to determine what issues are important to them and why they believe what they do. If you think they are misguided, state your opinions and back them up with facts. If you are unsure of the facts, research the issues together.
Teachers also influence our teens. History and politics are intertwined. Especially in a presidential election year, there is conversation about the process in classrooms. Historical events can be (and often are) filtered, according to the viewpoint of who is presenting the information. (This is most obvious when traveling. Opposing sides of military disputes tell very different stories of events. The facts may be accurate, but each focuses on that which paints them in a better light.)
Teens, of course, form opinions based on the facts they hear, which may mirror or challenge those of their parents. Some watch political events such as debates or even State of the Union as an assignment; others have an interest or a desire to be informed to be able to engage in intelligent conversation. Ask your teen questions about what is being taught in school. Point out the historical significance of places and events in your daily life.
Voting is both a privilege and a responsibility. Many people fought long and hard for the privilege we all have to select people to represent us in government. It is our responsibility to take that privilege seriously. We need to lead teens by example in this. We need to teach them to gather facts to determine who would best represent us and to keep an open mind.
It is especially true today that what people say is true may not be, at least not completely. It is too easy today for misinformation to spread (and outrageous statements usually spread quickly). We need to insist that our elected representatives behave in a way that truly represents who we are as a society. Sometimes the choice is easy; sometimes it is much more complicated than we want it to be.
Not only do the decisions of today affect our teens tomorrow, but today’s teens are also the generation that will be making decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. If we don’t show them that this is important, if we don’t guide them through the process, then who will?