Today’s Teenagers: Anxious About Their Futures and Disillusioned by Politicians

Although it has never been easy to be a teenager, the current generation of young Americans feels particularly apprehensive, new polling shows — anxious about their lives, disillusioned about the direction of the country and pessimistic about their futures.

Just one-third of respondents ages 12 to 17 said things were going well for children and teenagers today, in a survey published Monday by Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group. Less than half said they thought they would be better off than their parents when they grew up — a downbeat view shared among teenagers in many rich countries, other data shows.

It’s not just about teenage angst. A different survey, by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, the latest installment of which was also released Monday, has asked questions of young people over time and looked at how their answers have changed. Members of Gen Z, ages 12 to 27, are significantly less likely to rate their current and future lives highly than millennials were when they were the same age, it found.

Among those 18 to 26, just 15 percent said their mental health was excellent. That is a large decline from both 2013 and 2003, when just over half said so.

Together, the surveys offer an unusually detailed look at the perspectives of teenagers, who are rarely surveyed in high-quality polls.

“The data is pretty stark: Our kids are not all right,” said James P. Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media.

These impressions among young people could be contributing to a challenge for the presidential campaigns with the country’s newest eligible voters: Youth turnout and engagement, which helped President Biden in particular in 2020, appear to be down.

“For young people, the options that have been available to you your entire lifetime have been either Trump or Biden,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a founding partner of Echelon Insights, a Republican polling firm, and one of the pollsters who conducted the Common Sense Media survey. “You may be looking at that and saying, ‘No thanks.’”

It’s not that soon-to-be voters are apathetic about public policy — this generation tends to be passionate about issues including climate change, abortion and the war in the Middle East, pollsters said.

But in the Common Sense Media survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents 12 to 17 said politicians and elected officials did not reflect the needs and experiences of young people. Boys and white respondents were slightly more likely to say so. Only 7 percent of teenagers said politicians represented young people very well.

“Young voters, while they’re very issue oriented, they’re not specifically tied to either party and they think the entire political system is failing,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, and another pollster behind the new survey.

An issue of prime importance to teenagers across surveys is education. Asked an open-ended question by Common Sense about the most important thing that could be done to improve the lives of children, a plurality, one in five, said improving or reforming the education system.

More than half of teenagers said public K-12 schools were doing a fair or poor job. Just 8 percent said they were doing an excellent job.

Sixty percent said pandemic learning loss was a problem. Margaret Spellings, the chief executive of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a secretary of education under President George W. Bush, said teenagers are “absolutely right.”

“We have to get these kids caught up or they’re going to have a world of hurt in their lives, and consequently in our country,” she said.

When Gallup asked teenagers for the three words that best described how they felt in school, the most common answers were bored, tired and pressured.

Just a quarter said they were very confident their current school was doing a good job preparing them for the future. They said they wanted more instruction focused on hands-on learning that prepared them for careers, said Romy Drucker, director of the education program at the Walton Family Foundation.

“What we hear is that high school just feels outdated to many students,” she said.

A related issue was mental health. In the Common Sense survey, 65 percent said the mental health of children and teenagers in their community was poor or fair. Girls were more likely than boys to say so. The responses were largely consistent across race.

Young people have more awareness of mental health issues today, and face less stigma in talking about it. Their concern is reflected in increasing hospitalization and suicide rates.

Other measures of well-being and ambition have declined slightly. Compared with millennials when they were that age, children 13 to 17 are a bit less likely to say that they have a friend they can confide in, that they exercise regularly or that they plan to attend college, Gallup found.

A major driver of the mental health crisis, said Dr. Matthew Biel, the chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital, is “the digitization of our lives, and social media in particular.”

Teenagers agree. Asked for the main cause of mental health issues in the Common Sense survey, the largest share said the negative impact of social media and the internet, and the next largest said bullying, including online.

“Mental health in and of itself is a public health concern, and I think it’s also a signal of an overall sense of distress, uncertainty, dislocation,” Dr. Biel said.

Adults shared many of the teenagers’ concerns. In a companion survey of 1,000 likely voters by Common Sense, a majority said things were not going well for families.

Eight in 10 said they were concerned about children’s future economic opportunities, consistently across race, gender and party.

Together, Ms. Lake said, the surveys suggest that the causes of teenagers’ pessimism — their concerns about politics, education, mental health, social media and their financial futures — are interrelated, a message she said she wants the politicians she serves to understand.

“Right now, if I said to clients that investing in kids is the No. 1 issue, they would say, ‘No, the economy is No. 1,’” she said. “And what we would say to them is: You are missing what people want in this economy. Investment in children is central to the economy, both to young people and to adults.”

Audio produced by Patricia Sulbarán.

By Bury