What's the Story with Teen Energy Use?

Toth, N., Little, L., Read, J. C., Fitton, D., & Horton, M. (2013). Understanding teen attitudes towards energy consumption. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 34, 36 - 44.

Teenagers are often known for their attitudes, and this study explores a particular type of attitude in teens: attitudes toward energy use and energy saving. Environmental researchers know very little about what teens think about energy or how they use it. Previous studies indicate that teenagers consume more electricity than adults, a troubling trend given the environmental impacts of increasing energy consumption worldwide. By listening to the stories of teenage energy users, researchers hoped to gain insight into the next generation of adult consumers to inform effective strategies for reducing consumption.

This study actively engaged teenagers about their attitudes toward energy by providing opportunities for teens to express themselves. These opportunities came in two forms: (1) a diary and storytelling and (2) focus groups based on data from the first stage. Researchers recruited participants between 10 and 19 years old in the United Kingdom.

Sixty teenagers used diaries to record their energy use over seven days. For every diary entry, participants included the time, activity, object in use, and duration of use. Ninety-six participants took part in a 30- to 60-minute story session. Participants documented their energy consumption during a normal weekday or weekend using various writing, drawing, and collaging materials to appeal to multiple creative preferences.

Researchers collected the diaries and stories and extracted themes from the contents. Initial themes included type of energy used, devices used that require energy, and various locations where energy consumption took place. This initial qualitative analysis informed the development of written scenarios used in the focus groups.

These written scenarios described how teenagers use energy. Using these scenarios as prompts, researchers engaged teen participants in focus group discussions around energy, energy consumption, and saving energy. These discussions lasted 25–60 minutes and sought to further explore teens' ideas, perspectives, and attitudes about energy.

Researchers compiled data from the diaries, story sessions, and focus groups. After going through the data and familiarizing themselves with the content, researchers coded the data into relevant features and then general themes.

The analysis revealed several important themes related to teenage attitudes toward energy.

Energy use: Teens associated energy with a variety of activities and appliances. Although older teens focused on household electricity consumption (TVs, computers, phones, kitchen and personal appliances, lights), younger teens considered a broader range of energy uses (water, transport, heat, physical energy, food).

Location: Teens cited different locations for energy use, mainly home and school. Older teens focused primarily on the home. Focus groups revealed many teenagers only associate personal energy consumption with devices they turn on or use. Many teens did not feel responsible for energy use at school.

Sources of information: Teens identified public media, school, and parents or guardians as sources of energy information. Teens heard energy conservation messages via the media. Most teens learned about energy in school, but many did not understand the relevance to their lives. Parents or guardians presented energy-saving information as a matter of cost, but some mentioned safety and global impacts.

Impact of energy use: Teens mentioned impacts of energy use on the environment, future generations, and cost to themselves. Teens linked energy consumption to global warming, ozone depletion, and CO2 emissions. Many teens expressed concern over depleting energy resources. Teens viewed cost as an important issue but pointed out that cost mostly concerns those responsible for paying bills. Many felt that cost to consumers mattered more than environmental impacts.

Barriers: Teens identified lack of knowledge of environmental impacts, lack of motivation to change lifestyle, lack of connection to the issue, lack of financial responsibility, difficulty in breaking habits, unpopularity of “eco-friendliness,” and extra effort as barriers to saving energy.

Green teens: Teens expressed mixed attitudes toward the importance of saving energy and whether teenagers care about energy issues. While some expressed concern about the impacts of energy use, others did not. Concern about energy saving could be influenced by other themes, including: how teens consume energy, where they consume it, and what information they receive regarding energy use impacts. Teenagers understood many energy-saving methods, but many felt wary of energy-saving competitions.

The Bottom Line

<p>This study found that engaging teenagers through diaries, storytelling, and focus groups drew on different forms of expression in participants and provided useful details and contextual information. Attitudes toward energy consumption varied across participants: older teens often focused on personal consumption while younger teens included a broader array of consumption types and locations. Most teens understood the link between energy consumption and impacts of energy use, but many teens did not feel personally responsible for lowering energy consumption. These findings can inform future research and education strategies to influence teenage energy habits.</p>