8 November 2019

Adolescents and the new challenges of the 21st century

Adolescence is known as a turbulent period in a person's life, in which they develop from a child into an adult. It is important for the mental health of adolescents that they establish and maintain social relations. Global trends and developments in the 21st century are making this increasingly difficult. The Educating 21st Century Children report, by, among others, Utrecht University Professor of Youth Studies Catrin Finkenauer, describes some of the associated challenges. The researchers show how global trends in the 21st century, such as climate change, forced displacement, increasing individualism and digitalisation, can influence the development of adolescents, their relations and their mental health.

Climate change

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Its effects range from agricultural downturns and decreasing biodiversity to rising sea levels and increasingly severe heat waves. In addition to these effects, climate change also makes it more difficult to establish and maintain social relations. For example, a limited harvest or supply of water due to climate change can heat up social tensions as a result of mutual competition. Moreover, extreme weather conditions cause fear, stress and insecurity, which can lead to reduced empathy and a greater chance of conflict.

These examples demonstrate that climate change creates social challenges, but it also creates social opportunities, including increased social connectivity in relation to climate change concerns, at both the national and international level. Swedish pupil Greta Thunberg, who held a solo climate protest in 2018 in the form of her school strike, is an example of this. Her actions were soon echoed by over 20,000 adolescents worldwide, who participated in school strikes of their own.

Forced displacement

Following a historical increase in violence and conflict and the effects of climate change, more and more people have no choice but to leave their homes. Young people are the most vulnerable group in this context. Many of them have dealt with traumatic experiences either before or during migration. Such traumas can impede the establishment of social relations, even though these relations are incredibly important in recovering from traumas. Additionally, most people forced to leave their homeland are faced with complex legal systems and persistent insecurity regarding residence rights in their host country. This persistent insecurity can affect their capacity for trust, which forms an obstacle to establishing and maintaining social relations.

Adolescents could have the conviction that asking for help is a sign of weakness

Increasing individualism

The increase in prosperity, education, urbanisation and technology has resulted in another global trend: individualism. Increasing individualism is not without benefits, as it contributes to free speech, self-expression and the fight for equal opportunities. However, the global increase in individualism also presents challenges, by disturbing adolescent development of the balance between independence and mutual dependence, for example. Among other things, this may result in the conviction that asking for help is a sign of weakness, even while dealing with personal hardships or mental health problems.

Increasing individualism can also undermine young people's motivation to continue helping their relations, for example, when these relations are dealing with hardships (such as disease) or when maintaining the relation is demanding or difficult (making sacrifices or showing forgiveness). Young people can experience this as infringing on their personal freedom. New technologies that simplify the process of establishing alternative relations exacerbate this problem by making it easier for young people to find and establish new relations.

Jongere ligt op de bank met een telefoon

New technologies

New technologies, particularly information and communication technologies and social media, are developing at a rapid pace and are increasingly omnipresent. On the one hand, these new technologies have a positive effect on social relations, as they make it possible to contact others from anywhere and at all times. On the other hand, digital communication has proved to present challenges of its own. Research has shown that digital communication is less comforting than face-to-face communication. This is in part because there is no physical contact, such as hugging someone or holding their hand. Even if you send someone a hug emoticon, this does not have the same impact as an actual hug. Enjoying the benefits of new technologies while reducing the associated difficulties can be a challenge for young people.

As the examples above demonstrate, global challenges such as climate change, forced displacement, increasing individualism and new technologies can influence and shape the social development of young people. The Educating 21st Century Children report has made a start on this analysis, but future research will be necessary to more accurately chart these influences and improve young people's resilience.


Research theme Dynamics of Youth

If you want to tackle social problems, it would be best to start with children. The Utrecht-based research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Academics from all fields collaborate in order to learn to better understand child development. How can we help children and youngsters to grow and flourish in our rapidly changing society