SALT LAKE CITY — Nine days after her 15th birthday, Abby Hahn stood with her mom at last year's Women's March on Washington. Still three years away from casting a ballot, she was overwhelmed and inspired, amazed by how good it felt to raise her voice.
Back home in Georgia, Hahn spent the last year working to keep that spirit alive. She's attended meetings of the Columbia County Democratic Party, for which her mom serves as chair. She's studied women's rights and other political issues. She's even tried to register classmates to vote, with limited success.
As Women's March organizers prepare for another round of events on Jan. 20 and 21, research shows that few young people share Hahn's excitement for political activism and public protests. Americans ages 15 to 24 are still figuring out their preferred approach to politics, according to the PRRI/MTV 2017 National Youth Survey, released this week.
"A majority of young people describe recent protests and marches negatively, as 'pointless' (16 percent), 'counterproductive' (16 percent), 'divisive' (12 percent), or 'violent' (11 percent.) Only about one-third ascribe positive value to them, saying they are 'inspiring' (16 percent), 'powerful' (16 percent), or 'effective' (4 percent)," the survey reported.
"Recent protests garnered a lot of media attention … but they really didn't lead to young people adopting positive attitudes about them," said Dan Cox, Public Religion Research Institute's research director. "There's a lot of built-in pessimism among young people about just how effective these things can be."
Unlike Hahn, most young Americans are sticking with online political engagement, exploring campaign websites and signing petitions instead of taking to the streets to express their views, the survey showed.
Apathy versus activism
In general, Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are struggling to find their voice when it comes to politics, according to the survey. Few have ventured out to in-person political events and many worry about everything they have yet to learn.
Only around one in five Americans ages 15 to 24 have attended a public rally or contacted an elected official, and nearly half (48 percent) say they choose not to get involved in campaigns or causes because they don't know enough about the issues, researchers noted.
The survey, which has a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points, is based on responses from 2,023 young people. Online interviews took place from July 19 to Aug. 3, 2017, in both English and Spanish.
Young Americans today aren't unique in their low engagement, Cox said. It's common for people to learn more and care more about politics and social issues as they age.
"I don't think this generation is uniquely apathetic or disengaged," he said.
However, modern conveniences like social media sites create easy opportunities to get involved. More young people should be taking advantage of it, Hahn said.
"I don't think many high schoolers understand as much as they should. They think (politics) is something for years from now, even though they can start voting at 18," said Hahn, who turns 16 this week.
The new survey highlights a number of factors holding young people back. Beyond worrying about what they do and don't know, Americans ages 15 to 24 are concerned about whether they can make a difference and about facing criticism. Around one in four say there aren't any issues or causes they really care about.
Young women are particularly sensitive to misunderstandings and criticism, although they are still more politically active than young males. "Twenty-nine percent say avoiding criticism is a reason to abstain (from political engagement), while only 16 percent of young men say the same, the survey reported.
"They feel constrained by the belief they don't have the right information to be active," Cox said.
Race and ethnicity also affect how young people approach political engagement. For example, half of black Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 hold positive views on rallies and demonstrations, compared to one in four white young people.
This particular finding likely stems from black young people's awareness of the civil rights movement and other protests that benefitted their ancestors, Cox said. White young people may feel less connected to this type of activism.
"They don't have that history and connection to draw from. They may start from a place of being a little more suspicious," he said.
Like Hahn's mom, Holly Biehl saw her daughter's life change because of her participation in last year's Women's March. She became a high-school volunteer for a political campaign and started a Young Democrats chapter at her school.
For these reasons, Biehl, a college and career adviser for high school students, is a big fan of events like the Women's March. But she also understands why young people may not always view them in a positive light.
"Some of it's because they're looking for instant gratification. They're asking, 'Those people marched and then what?'" Biehl said.
A bit of skepticism isn't a bad thing, said Robyn Leigh Muncy, a history professor at the University of Maryland. Marches energize participants, but they don't automatically lead to new results.
Muncy's research into reform movements throughout the last century has shown that meaningful political engagement comes in many forms. The important part is that young people learn to do something, she noted.
"Big marches can generate interest in ongoing work, but it's the ongoing work that makes the big changes," Muncy said. They can register people to vote or ask their neighbors to explain how they feel about an issue that's in the news.
Young people are already trying out different forms of political and social engagement online, according to the PRRI/MTV survey. Parents and other older Americans interested in their opinions may need to meet them there.3 comments on this story
Half of young women and 39 percent of young men have liked or followed a campaign or organization online and similar percentages have posted on social media sites about issues they care about or signed an online petition, the survey showed. Around one-third of young Americans say they've volunteered for a group or cause they care about.
Parents should model the type of activism they'd like to see from their kids, Hahn said, crediting her mom not only with going to the Women's March with her, but also teaching her to ask tough questions and then hunt for the answers.
"I think I got active so young because of my mom. I noticed how passionate she was about fighting for what she believes in," she said.