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The Medical Implications of Nuclear War, Institute of Medicine. @) 1986 by the National Academy of Sciences. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Scandinavian Youth View the Future: A Preliminary Report of a Large Questionnaire Survey MAGNE RAUNDALEN, PH.D., and OLE JOHAN FINNOY University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway Several recent studies have asked children to rank the most pressing problems of the world and to list their feelings about the future. Data from these surveys indicate the percentages of children who are pessimistic or optimistic about the future and how many think about nuclear war daily, twice a week, twice a month, and so on. But multiple-choice question- naires alone cannot elicit the spontaneous thoughts or feelings of children or describe their perceptions of how future problems may color their daily lives and affect their psychological functioning. In 1984 and 1985, we also asked students 3,000 Norwegian and 1,000 Swedish boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 19 to rank the world's problems in order of importance to them. Among a given list of 10 problems, the study group ranked the threat of nuclear war first. (Un- employment was ranked second, with older youths giving more weight to this problem than younger group members.) In addition to the ranking, we requested that the youths write essays on what they thought the future might be like. From their extensive writings we tried to classify or systematize their attitudes. We are sorry to report that 44 percent of those surveyed were pessimistic about the world-an This survey took place in cooperation with the Norwegian Save the Children Fund. For a more comprehensive description of research methods used in this study, see Raundalen, M., and 0. J. Finnoy, in press, Children's and teenagers' views of the future, International Journal of Mental Health. 435
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436 IMAGES AND RISKS OF NUCLEAR WAR attitude we defined as a profound hopelessness toward the possibilities of peace and future life on earth, including their own survival. Other attitudes were more complex to categorize. For example, we rated about 13 percent of the group as having "forced" optimism. These children and adolescents seemed to shift gears, punctuating a long list of the world's problems with a sudden declaration of a hopeful outlook. Another 12 percent had an attitude we classified as powerlessness. This group passively listed future problems, emphasizing that solutions were beyond their control. But they did not indicate whether they were opti- mistic or pessimistic about the fate of the world. Ten percent of the respondents had "active denial," refusing to answer and declaring that they could not bear to think about future world conflicts or problems. This group repressed all feelings and reactions to the bomb and other threats. Even within this group there were differences: Some easily shut out thoughts about the future, and others said they were com- pelled to ignore such thoughts in order to avoid mental distress. The last and fifth group we called "active hope." Fourteen percent of the youths surveyed were in this category. They not only expressed an optimistic attitude about the world, but could tell us why (unlike those with "forced optimisms. Their main sources of hope, they said, were international organizations working in poor (third world) countries. These youths viewed efforts of the United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross, and Save the Children Fund as peace work with which they felt a bond. Generally, children who were active or whose parents were active with international organizations such as these expressed more optimistic atti- tudes about the future. This group felt strongly that the threat of nuclear war and other global problems could be solved. Less quantitatively, we also tried to grasp main themes within the writings of the youths. We believe that these themes can guide future research. One of the central themes that emerged from the essays was concern about planning for the future. Here, we selected all writings about personal aspirations, including education, work, and family. Only about 20 percent had high expectations for the next 12 to 15 years. Many of the youngsters felt it was meaningless to plan for these pursuits at all, especially long-term education and vocational training. We believe that combating this personal pessimism will be a primary challenge to the entire education system in the future. Allowing and encouraging pupils to participate in work for a better world and constantly emphasizing what is being done around the globe to prevent ecological disaster and poverty and to halt the arms race may be one solution. Another theme was anger, which was expressed by many of the youths toward the bomb and other threats that they believed were taking the future
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SCANDINAVIAN YOUTH VIEW THE FUTURE 437 out of their hands. Still others expressed depression, and some said they were living under such a heavy burden that it was an effort to decide whether to live another year. Some young people said they were tempted to use drugs to relieve their pain about the future. Others commented that it was pointless to avoid alcohol and narcotics, since the world might soon be destroyed anyway. Relating to these feelings, a number of the youths wanted immediate rewards for their accomplishments. It appeared that they were seeking instant gratification in a world where there may be no future. Many of the youngsters commented on the upsetting news they receive from the media. They see in the news a tidal wave of rising problems the global hurricane that could very well destroy, with no potential for saving or rebuilding. It seems that some young people have developed a "news phobia. " Unfortunately, this closes off a channel of communication that might lessen their fears to the extent that the media do report on positive actions for peace and justice. The pessimism encountered in our survey raises questions about how the media, schools, and parents present the world to children. The survey also suggests that working with international organizations to promote peace and justice is one strategy for allaying fears and increasing optimism among children. In the youngsters' own words, becoming involved with such groups is an important source of relief and comfort for those who are depressed about the future of the world. STUDY METHODS In our survey we used the following methods. Three sheets of paper containing questions were distributed during a school lesson. The front page listed 10 problems about the future, which the students were asked to rank according to importance. (The problems had been selected after surveying a previous group of approximately 200 children and adoles- cents.) After ranking the 10 problems, the students were asked to comment on the problem that they cited as most threatening. They were also asked to write what they thought could be done about the world's problems and to indicate whether their view of the future was optimistic. Lastly, we asked the youngsters what they thought about the nuclear bomb. It was emphasized that no answer was right or wrong and that it was their own thoughts in which we were interested. These open questions were especially attractive to the students. They wrote lengthy descriptions about their concerns and perspectives on the worId's future. The problems that they described were both of a global character such as the nuclear bomb, food shortages, and pollution and
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438 IMAGES AND RISKS OF NUCLEAR WAR a more local character, such as drugs, unemployment, and bringing up children. Regarding our methodology, we acknowledge the following: The con- tents of the entire survey form were directed at problems about the future; that is, they were focused so that we expected that many students would voice considerations specifically on the subject of nuclear war. We did this because we believed that the threat of nuclear war was already of great concern to them. There may have been other answers to the survey had we asked different questions about the future or used a different format; but this does not mean that the statements are not significant. Rather, we must interpret their pessimistic responses from the perspective that they were asked to focus on a few of the world's problems in a relatively short amount of time. The children in the survey were selected to yield a broad distribution in age and geographic location. We also wanted children that lived in the north, close to the Soviet border, to participate in the survey. To some extent we had to abandon the principle of random selection because some school authorities reacted so strongly to the theme of the survey that under no circumstances would they have allowed it to be conducted in their schools. So far, we have not focused on an analysis of attitudes in different parts of the country. The data were analyzed as follows: The structured part of the survey, in which the children were asked to rank We future problems from 1 to 10, was registered, punched, and analyzed with a program that will be descnbed thoroughly in a later article. Systematization of We wnKen material took place in several phases. After reading Trough all the an- swers, we worked out score categories that we found were representative of the children's main responses. We started win the category "optimism" at one end of Me spectrum and the category "pessimism" at We over. TABLE 1 Ranking of Problems About the Future Average Rank Problem Ranking 1 Nuclear Weapons 2.31 2 Unemployment 3.84 3 Drugs 4.08 4 Pollution 4.87 5 Scarcity of food 4.88 6 Russia 5.48 7 World population growth 6.44 8 United States 6.71 9 Genetic and medical experimentation 7.55 10 Bringing up children 8.18
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SCANDINAVIAN YOUTH VIEW THE FUTURE TABLE 2 Future Problems that Students Ranked Number One 439 Number of Percent of Rank Problem Students Students 1 Nuclear weapons 935 52.7 2 Unemployment 357 20.1 3 Drugs 166 9.4 4 Pollution 103 5.8 5 Scarcity of food 89 5.0 6 Russia 55 3.1 7 World population growth 33 1.9 8 Bringing up children 16 0.9 9 United States 14 0.8 10 Genetic and medical experimentation 5 0.3 Gradually it became clear that the optimists could be divided into two categories: those who said that they chose to be optimists, in spite of the dark future outlook they expressed, and those who had a supported hope, who believed that what is being done is of some use and something that they could actually take part in. Furthermore, it became clear that pes- simism had several nuances of powerlessness and escape. As a result of the analysis, we broke down the responses into groups of active hope, forced op~rnism, powerlessness, repression (active denial), and pessimism. RESULTS* Page one of the survey, which contained the ranking of the 10 problems about the future, was used for several analyses. First, we calculated the average ranking of all 10 problems (Table 1~. The nuclear weapons issue was clearly given the lowest numerical value, indicating that it generally was ranked high as a problem. Next were unemployment and drugs, which are local concerns-that is, problems that may concern youths more directly in their private lives. The fourth and fifth concerns, however, were the global threats of pollution and scarcity of food. The ranking may also be analyzed according to how often a single problem area was ranked first, as shown in Table 2. The results presented in Table 2 show that, according to this method of analysis as well, the threat of nuclear weapons is the future problem *The findings of the analysis of the first 1,800 responses are reported here. The results from the full 4,000 show no significant changes in these trends; they are described in Raundalen, M., and O. J. Finnoy, in press, Children's and teenagers' views of the future, International Journal of Mental Health.
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440 IMAGES AND RISKS OF NUCLEAR WAR TABLE 3 Differences in Ranking the Number One Future Problem, by Age - Nuclear Age (years) Weapons (%) Unemployment (%) Drugs (%) 12 64.6 5.7 16.6 13 66.9 9.9 11.9 14 56.5 21.4 10.0 15 49.1 26.6 5.6 16 52.5 14.8 10.9 17 41.9 25.2 8.1 18 38.0 32.7 4.7 19 38.9 27.8 7.4 that the children most often considered to be number one, but the analysis reveals the distance between the ranking of the problems, for example, between nuclear weapons and unemployment. There were only modest differences in the ranking between sexes. Girls ranked nuclear weapons, unemployment, and bringing up children as the number one future problems slightly more often than did boys. Table 3 shows differences by age in the ranking of the number one future problems of nuclear weapons, unemployment, and drugs. Evident age-related factors are shown by Me fact that the ranking of nuclear weapons as the number one problem decreases with age. The importance of unemployment increases in ranking with age, while the importance of drugs decreases. Table 4 shows that pessimism is the dominant attitude group, whereas the other groups are about equally distnbuted. In an analysis of all the data, the negative group consisting of attitudes of pessimism, powerless- ness, and repression constitutes nearly 70 percent of the study population, whereas the two groups with optimistic attitudes represent 26 percent. We found that the attitudes of boys and girls were distributed differently among the categories of optimism and pessimism. Girls were slightly less TABLE 4 Attitudes About the Future . .. . . Attitude Number of Percent of Students Students . Forced optimism 23913.3 | 25 8 Active hope 22412.5 J Pessimism 79444.2 Powerlessness 22012.2 69.3 Repression (active denial) 23212.9 Impossible to code 894.9
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SCANDINAVIAN YOUTH VIEW THE FUTURE 441 pessimistic but expressed a higher degree of powerlessness. The per- centage of boys with active hope was considerably lower than the per- centage of girls, but forced optimism was twice as common among boys than among girls. We also found that attitudes toward the future changed across the age span of the study group. Pessimism tended to decrease with age. More significantly, forced optimism tended to be replaced by active hope in the older children. DISCUSSION AND SUMMARY Currently, several surveys can be found in which children and adoles- cents have been asked to rank and write about problems of the future. They vary in specificity that is, some only use the word "future," whereas others also use formulations about problems and threats. Fur- thermore, there are more specific surveys in which children are asked their views about local problems and especially the use of nuclear weapons or the risk of comprehensive nuclear war. Within this framework, the questions we asked the youngsters to write about were directed toward their feelings. We wanted to know how much or how often they were bothered by thoughts of the world's future prob- lems, whether they shared their feelings with someone, and what their perspective was on the future according to their age. In response, ap- proximately one-half of the students answered that the world is going to be destroyed by one or several of the future threats during their lifetime. When the youngsters were asked how much they were bothered by these threats, great variations in response, especially among age groups, were found, but the answers did not point in a particular direction. However, children and adolescents agreed that they did not talk to adults about future threats, especially about nuclear war. We also got the impression that they do not frequently share these thoughts with their companions. Data from other surveys are primarily quantitative and do not address issues of feelings. Our method, a more problem-oriented approach, was aimed at providing more insight into how children express themselves and what they say when concerned about the future. It appears that our ques- tionnaire-essay format was attractive to the respondents, especially those over 14 years of age. They enjoyed the ability to freely express their thoughts, and a majority provided answers that were detailed and personal. An analysis of the responses to such a questionnaire, which was only partially structured according to how the problems were presented to the children, is of course difficult to systematize. Our analysis is not finished, and currently we are classifying the data into certain theme areas. We are
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442 IMAGES AND RISKS OF NUCl:FAR WAR doing this by re-reading the material and noting the themes that occur throughout and then discussing the structure and essence of these themes. The method is very exciting, but it is necessary to compare many state- ments and to avoid interjecting our own biases into what we read. It is therefore very important that two people do the analysis and have a con- tinuous discussion during the work. So far we have chosen to examine the following theme areas: 1. Psychological reaction. Many youths described their feelings in detail as they faced the future threats. So far we can say that they usually described their situation as stressful: It is heavy, they live under the burden of the threats, and so on. 2. Long-term planning. We gathered together all those who wrote about looking far ahead into the future and planning their lives. A marked trait was the large number of youths (more than 20 percent) who found it meaningless to invest in long-term educational and vocational training because the future of the world was uncertain. 3. Politicians and democracy. About 1 in 10 wrote that they can no longer trust democratic processes, politicians, and government officials or international alliances in any way. They are looking for strong leaders, and if there are none, then it is better to have the world end. Some young people combined this outlook with contempt for weakness and suggestions that insane persons should be institutionalized so that they cannot come near "the button" and destroy the world. We were concerned to find such intensity of antidemocratic attitudes. 4. Aggression. This group comprises those who express strong aggres- sion in the description of their future perspective. The aggression is di- rected toward the destruction of nuclear weapons and against the generation who they say is "playing with our future." 5. Belief in the good forces. This group comprises those who express belief in the good powers and in the possibility of action and peace for the world. Many have similar attitudes to those who were placed in the active hope group in the analysis discussed above. In summary, 7 out of 10 children and adolescents between 12 and 19 years of age fall into the negative response category. This includes those who either express directly that they are pessimists or note that they do not want or cannot bear to write about future world problems. The pes- simism is attached to nuclear war and unemployment and to the fact that soil, air, and water may be damaged by other threats in the near future. The actively hopeful view of the future that we found in a sizable minority of young people typically is connected with the fact that they or
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SCANDINAVIAN YOUTH VIEW THE FUTURE 443 their parents have taken part in actions against the proliferation of nuclear weapons or to improve the conditions of the world. The young people often equate peace work with aid to developing countries. They associated the spread of nuclear weapons with the risk of revenge and terrorism being directed against us from the third world. These children also tend to be knowledgeable about the United Nations and the disarmament talks.
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