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Turning anxiety into action: how to support young people to create a better world.


By Natasha Parker, Head of Compassion not Consumerism, 5 minute read



Young people growing up today have a lot of concerns on their shoulders. They are understandably anxious about the climate and ecological emergency and angry about economic, gender and racial inequality. They are worried about rising rates of mental health issues and loneliness in their generation and now they also find themselves amid a global health pandemic.

When it comes to helping young people to cope with the social and environmental problems they see around them, research tells us that the best antidote to anxiety is action.


New research by Persil, a Unilever brand, and charity Global Action Plan reveals that most young people (60%) are feeling worried about the future but many are not taking as much action as they’d like on the causes they care about because they feel alone in their concern. But our research also shows that they are not alone. Most young people are compassionate and want to have a positive impact on other people and on nature. The misconception that others don’t care when they actually do is called the ‘values-perception gap’ and it has important implications for educators and those supporting young people to take more social and environmental action, and for those who care about their wellbeing.


Our research, including a survey with 916 children between the ages of 7 -18 in the UK and Turkey and a range of focus groups, asked young people about their values, their wellbeing and factors that prevent them from taking action on the causes they care about.


We revealed 3 key insights:


  1. Most young people are compassionate


Young people care deeply about people and nature. Almost all the young people we surveyed said that caring for nature (89%) and other people (96%) was important to them. And benevolence (kindness) was their most highly prioritised value. We also found that despite the hardships experienced over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to young people becoming more compassionate than ever with two thirds (66%) reporting that since the onset of COVID-19, they felt they cared even more about other people.


  1. But they don’t believe that others care as much as they do.


Our survey found that the majority of young people (86%) prioritise compassionate values over self-interest values. This means that it is more important to them to care for other people in their own communities, for people they don’t know, and for nature, than it is important to them to achieve things for themselves like having more wealth, status, and power over others.  

But more than one in three (38%) believed that other young people would prioritise self-interest values over compassionate values, and the older they got, the more they perceived others as being self-interested. By age 16-18, one in two thought other young people would be more self-interested than they are compassionate.


This tells us that young people are under-estimating how compassionate their peers really are. They are then left feeling alone and unusual for wanting to act on the issues they care about.


We found them to be pessimistic about how compassionate the adults in their lives are too. Almost half of young people (41%) did not think it would be important to adults to care for nature and more than half (57%) thought that most people where they lived did nothing or very little to help the natural world. And sadly, 38% thought that most people where they lived did nothing or very little to help other people.

They did not trust that the groups with the most power to make positive changes in the world really cared and more than half did not believe it would be important to businesses and politicians to care for the natural world.


No wonder young people are feeling anxious about the future when they feel so alone in wanting to create a better world and feeling isolated has worrying consequences.


  1. When young people don’t feel, see and believe that others are compassionate, their wellbeing suffers, they worry more about the future and they take less action on the causes they care about.


The perception that their peers, adults and leaders do not share their compassionate values has powerful implications for the education system and the emerging youth environmental movement as it affects their wellbeing and their ability to act. The more that young people believed others not to care and be compassionate, the more they were found to have lower emotional wellbeing, feel worried about the future and were less likely to act on the issues they care about.


We are all less likely to act in compassionate ways if we don’t think others care too. Our perceptions tell us what is normal, and we behave in ways to fit in. This is especially true for teenagers who are particularly sensitive to what others think and when fitting in becomes of the utmost importance. Young people experience strong emotional reactions to social exclusion so if they think it is normal not to care, this is how they will act. This then perpetuates the myth that other young people don’t care, leaving them feeling alone and making it harder for them to feel they can take action.


In a series of focus groups young people told us that they often hide what they care about for fear being judged, bullied, disliked and tarnished with the negative stereotype of being an overly serious activist who can’t chill out and have fun. They don’t want to take the risk of standing out so don’t show their true feelings to their friends.


At home they perceive their parents as too busy juggling work and caring responsibilities to have time to care about and take action on social and environmental issues. They feel that adults don’t take them seriously and see them as naïve for trying to take action to create a better world, which again, puts them off trying. And schools seem unsupportive of youth collective action, like going on protests, as they worry about safety and the impact on their grades.


We must all do more to help young people be active agents of change and to feel that they can make a difference to world around them. We must show young people that others care too and help them take action – together – on the causes they care about.


To learn more about these key insights, and how parents, educators and those with an interest in youth action can do more to support young people get stuck in to creating a better world with others who care too, you can:


Read our white paper “Generation Action: How to unleash the potential of children and young people to take positive action and create a better world for all”. The paper outlines the results of the research and discusses how addressing value-perception gap could be key in efforts to promote and sustain youth action on social and environmental issues, and subsequently the wellbeing of young people. 


Read more about the white paper


Sign up for our free online event: Join us for an exciting panel event bringing together academics and thought leaders in the wellbeing, education and environmental fields to discuss the implications of our new research findings. The event is on 02 February 2021 from 4pm to 6pm. 


Sign up to the panel event


Find out more about the new Dirt Is Good Schools Programme which aims to help 10 million young people take positive action for a better world. 


Resources for teachers