Engaging youth in the political lives of their communities benefits both youth and the communities in which they live (McLeod, Eveland, & Horowitz, 1998; Pritzker & Metzger, 2011). Research on civic engagement suggests such benefits include improving communities, strengthening young people’s connections and interests in community success, and improving their own sense of citizenship (Levine, 2007; O’Donoghue, Kirshner, & McLaughlin, 2006; Youniss & Levine, 2009). In addition, civic engagement can enhance healthy behaviors and prevent feelings of disenfranchisement, cynicism, and helplessness (McBride, 2008). Despite these benefits, civically engaged youth remain the exception rather than the rule. In fact, youth are generally more likely to feel detached rather than feel a sense of connection with their government (Checkoway, Allison and Montoya, 2005). Feelings of detachment can lead to mental health issues, delinquency, and substance use (Bearman & Moody, 2004; Copeland, Fisher, Moody, & Feinberg, 2018).
We collected primary survey data from ninth through 12th graders (N=455) who signed on to participate in “Engaging Youth for Positive Change” (EYPC), a civic engagement program. EYPC facilitators work with local schools and public health departments to recruit these youth, who in turn, work over a semester to research, develop, and present an ordinance to local officials who ideally would vote to pass it. Youth in this study signed up for EYPC from 2014 to 2018. All participating youth complete a pre-and post-assessment survey to examine how EYPC affects youth participants. Variables of interest included: community bonding, teamwork, leadership, internal & external efficacy, and substance use. As part of analysis, researchers designated program implementation sites as either high implementation or low implementation sites based upon the number of activities completed, in order to determine if greater program exposure had a significant impact on outcomes.
Youth and young adults (N=455) who participated in EYPC reported significant increases in teamwork (p<.001), leadership (p<.01), and internal efficacy (p<.05). On average, students at high implementation sites reported significantly greater increases in teamwork (p=.012), leadership (p=.034), community bonding (p=.02), and external efficacy (p=.001) compared to students at low implementation sites. Furthermore, significant inverse associations emerged between community bonding (β=-0.53, SE=.26, p=.04), external efficacy (β=-0.43, SE=.21, p=.035) and alcohol use.
Conclusions & Implications:
Youth and young adults who participated in EYPC reported significant increases in a variety of areas, although those at higher implementation sites reported greater gains. Analyses suggest increasing external efficacy and community bonding may reduce alcohol use in youth and young adults. These findings are consistent with prior research indicating young people with low external efficacy will not believe, and therefore not act, as if they have power over issues concerning their communities and themselves. These feelings of powerlessness are, in turn, associated with increased rates of substance use. Conversely, strong community bonds may protect against proximal risks of substance use via well-integrated community systems. Future research and practice with youth and young adults should emphasize the importance of self-efficacy and community support, and increased civic engagement is one means to that end.