Last week I returned from a trip with the Swan Trade Training Centre staff and students to the Philippine island of Boracay.
There I was able to watch 23 young men and five staff work with underpriviledged schools and communities to improve the standard of their classrooms, and work with some of the students to improve their literacy, numeracy and english language skills.
The boys also engaged in service work, feeding children from the Ati tribe who had been displaced by tourist development in their homeland area and who had to try and survive in the mountains of Panay.
I was impressed by the behaviour and responsibility displayed by the boys and, more importantly, the sense of social justice and social responsibility that influenced their behaviour, and the initiative they showed as they reacted to the injustice and poverty they saw amongst these people.
This situation was very real to the students and it led me to reconsider a recent article by Amanda Ripley where she talks about this sense of autonomy and social justice and how we can use this knowledge to harness what we often regard as adolescent rebelliousness.
She writes that the brains of adolescents are notoriously more receptive to short-term rewards and peer approval, which can lead to risky behaviour. But young people are also very attuned to autonomy and social justice. There are two main adolescent imperatives: to resist authority and to contribute to community. It might be possible to take advantage of these characteristics to influence teenage rebelliousness toward wholesome ends.
Researchers asked young teenagers to read a typical health article on eating a diet low in sugar and fat, with colourful pictures of fresh foods.
A second group read an exposé of food companies deliberately reformulating products to make them more addictive and deceptively labelling unhealthy foods so they looked healthy.
The executives behind this kind of food marketing were portrayed as controlling adult authority figures so that the avoidance of junk food was a way to rebel against their control.
The next day, the students were asked to choose which snacks they wanted in anticipation of a big celebration. Students in the second group were more likely to choose fruit, baby carrots or trail mix over cookies or potato crisps. They were also more likely to choose water over soft drinks.
Even these small differences in choices could translate into losing about half a kilo of body fat every six to eight weeks if the healthier choices persist over time. If you can appeal to teenagers’ sense of wanting to not be tricked, you empower them to take a stand. If they are motivated, you can change their behaviour profoundly.
A similar campaign was effective against cigarette smoking when young people were shown how tobacco companies were trying to manipulate them into addiction in order to make a profit.
Teenagers seem to be particularly sensitive to even a whiff of being conned. This is a time in their lives when justice matters. A big unanswered question is whether the positive behavioural shifts in the experiments will last more than a few hours; after all, there is a powerful consumer culture pushing young people in the other direction.
The ultimate coup would be getting teens to see the food industry ads as a booster shot of indignation, rather than temptation.
Acknowledgement: A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated for Good?” by Amanda Ripley in The New York Times, September 13, 2016.