The science every campaigner should know about before mobilising teenagers

Galvanising support from younger generations can transform a social change campaign into a genuine global movement — but what do breakthroughs in neurological patterns have to teach us about how young people engage when fighting for a positive impact?

Authors: Ceri Jones
  • Reading time: 5 min.
  • Posted on: April 26, 2019

More teenagers than ever before are showing up on the platforms where change is catalysed. The number of ‘minimum age’ Instagram users is increasing year on year. When they can vote, participation is higher than amongst their older peers, as seen in the 16–17 year olds turnout for Scotland’s 2014 Referendum. Climate activist and media sensation, Greta Thunberg, show us that teens have the ability to distract politicians away from Brexit, mobilise young people in mass, and enthral world leaders.

Indeed, they are a force to be reckoned with when they act in numbers. So when getting them behind a cause is the difference between the success and failure of policy, fundraising, or behavioural change outcomes, can we afford to ignore the science behind crowd mentality? Research tells us we might be missing a trick when it comes to youth mobilisation.

Historically, the way science has paid attention to neurological patterns in adolescence, the more twenty, thirty, forty somethings have come to think of it as a period for “impetuous rebellion”, “uncontrollable hormones” or “all gas and no brakes”. And this had me thinking. When it comes to truly understanding adolescent behaviours, why is there almost never any positive neurological evidence to rationalise the choices that do some good?

Here I look at the latest research breakthroughs on how young people make decisions, and it might just surprise you.

Young activist and school-shooting survivor David Hogg leads March For Our Lives, supporting smarter gun controls in the USA.


Yes, research tells us that adolescents take more risks than adults. And because these risks can lead to life-limiting health outcomes, risky behaviour has been a focus in science for decades. But what’s really going on when they dabble with other choices? What if we started to shift our focus from the negatives — to those ‘first time’ social behaviours; experiences such as casting their first vote, calling out racism, or explaining sexual consent to a friend?

Neurologist Eva Telzer (University of North Carolina) set out to explore the potential positive effects peers could have in a 2014 study. Her game reflected somewhat of a ‘golden balls’-esque concept, asking teen players to donate or keep money, under the assumption that they were being watched by 10 of their friends. Each time they made a donation — and their peers approved — a new thumbs up icon would appear on the screen, which encouraged them to make many more. As Telzer later put — there’s a dominant narrative that a teenager’s friends can be a “monolithic negative influence”, but what we’re seeing here is that this isn’t always the case.

What would it mean to apply this logic to how youths take a pledge, vocalise their support, or join a digital movement? It echoes the powerful value of crowd mentality and offers three important takeaways for mobilising adolescents: communicating campaign numbers back is vital; retargeting needs to be personalised to the demographic you are targeting; and most importantly — to get teens on board, you need to show other relatable teens already committing their support. Understanding the contexts in which they make decisions with charitable impact is invaluable to how we design experiences that might influence these.


Other research conducted in the last five years indicates the role visual imagery plays in how teenagers makes sense of the world around them.

A joint study undertaken by Harvard, Columbia and California universities found teens were more likely to remember things when they were shown a recognisable image associated with the correct answer. So teenangers respond to positive reinforcement — nothing new here? But if we look at how the adults performed in the same set up (considerably worse!), the research implications are more striking.

Indeed, there are unique differences between adult and teen brains that lay in the hippocampus. In simpler terms, the way in which they create memories is entirely different. By forming powerful connections between two things that aren’t usually connected, teenagers can, and do, build important understandings of the world around them.

What does this mean for campaigners? When it comes to getting teenagers to take up an action, the creative tools in any social impact campaign are ever more vital, arguably more so than the copy itself. But instead of imposing assumptions about what sort of creatives might resonate with a younger audience it would be better to let teens dictate this themselves. Think young apprentices at the traditional ad table, creative competitions in student and youth hubs, and user-generated content.

YMS19 — a London conference sharing the latest insights on youth engagement tactics.


As a professional trying to reach a particular demographic, we must not forget there are distinct cognitive differences that influence behaviours, and emotions. Teens with weaker working memories, have poorer cognitive control and may be more vulnerable to adopting unhealthy practices in school, in the home, or online. Such research speaks for the need for better support for vulnerable groups, and a conscious understanding of the bias we may all adopt when it comes to decisions made in this exploration phase.

Likewise, it’s fundamentally important to remember that socio-economic differences disrupt, and devalue any preconceptions. I recently attended YMS19 — a conference sharing the latest insights on youth engagement tactics — to find the dialogue homogeneously tied all young people to behaviour trends such as drinking and smoking less, and practicing meditation more. I find these representations difficult — and highly London centric at times. If we are trying to bring young people from diverse backgrounds together holistically, we must look to the science and research with larger more representative sample sizes.

Lastly, it’s important to be mindful of the, albeit obvious, limitations to lab-context research. How do we emulate how someone feels seeing peer participation in a movement on their Facebook newsfeed, to an artificial lab setting in a US university? Of course, there are assumptions being made about the replication of such behaviours when it comes to public participation in a campaign.

But while these studies may only serve to capture a teen’s inclination for decision making, there are important implications to bare in mind. Has the time come for brain research to have a rightful place in every campaigner’s strategy?

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