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The best way to teach adults to save energy might be through their children

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It’s hard to get people to change their habits, even when doing so could have lasting benefits for the environment. But a team of scientists may have just found a way to hack it when it comes to helping families develop better energy-saving practices at home. The trick, according to them, is to have children help deliver the message.

In a new study involving 30 California Girl Scout troops, researchers demonstrated that interventions targeting youth can help promote energy-saving actions in both children and their parents, with concrete behavioral changes lasting for months after an intervention takes place. The research highlights the idea that youth-oriented environmental programs can have a tangible impact on entire families.  

The study, which was published Monday in the journal Nature Energy, revolves around a concept known as social cognitive theory, an idea that suggests a person’s behaviors can be influenced by their social interactions, their environment and other factors affecting the way they learn new things. Social cognitive theory has been used effectively in the past in public health interventions — including ones targeted at children — but rarely in environmental ones, the researchers note in the paper.

“A lot of the techniques that are recommended through that theory have to do with really practicing skill-building, behavior changes, modeling those behavior changes to others, setting goals — pledging and committing to make changes to behavior — and then monitoring progress over time,” said Hilary Boudet, a sociologist at Oregon State University and the new study’s lead author. “And so we tried to build all those components into each session with the Girl Scouts.”  

Boudet and colleagues from Stanford University designed a study aimed at testing the effects of two different interventions on two separate groups of Girl Scouts. One was aimed at promoting residential energy-saving behaviors, such as turning off lights when leaving rooms, and the other was aimed at improving sustainable behaviors related to food and transportation, such as eating less meat and walking or biking more frequently. Each group included about 150 Girl Scouts, all in the fourth or fifth grade and generally about 9 or 10 years old.

Each group participated in a series of sessions aimed at educating the Girl Scouts about a variety of different types of sustainable behaviors they could adopt at home. The sessions were based on ideas related to social cognitive theory — that is, they were designed to be interactive and include group discussions and activities.  

For instance, one activity included in each session was called the “action jar,” Boudet noted, and it involved brightly colored pom-poms. At each session, the troop leader would walk through a variety of different energy saving behaviors the Girl Scouts could have adopted that week — and if they did so, they could take a pom-pom.

“The girls could track their own individual progress in that way,” Boudet said. “At the end, they all would put their pom-poms together in a big jar so they could see the troop’s progress.”

Before the interventions began, the Girl Scouts and their parents filled out questionnaires about their behaviors at home. Afterward, they filled out a post-test survey, and about seven months after the interventions ended, they completed another follow-up survey.

The results suggested that interventions related to residential energy use were successful in both the Girl Scouts and their parents, and the effects were long-lasting. In their post-test surveys, Girl Scouts reported that their residential energy-saving behaviors were nearly 50 percent higher than they were to begin with — and at follow-up, their behaviors were still 27 percent higher. The effects were less pronounced, but still noticeable, in their parents, with a 12 percent increase from the baseline at post-test and a 6 percent increase at follow-up.  

These behavior changes translated to significant energy savings. The researchers estimated that the behavioral changes reported in the post-test surveys allowed household energy savings of up to 5 percent per year per household, which could add up to more than 300 pounds of avoided carbon dioxide emissions.

In contrast, the group focusing on food and transportation had somewhat less luck. After the interventionthe Girl Scouts’ behaviors had improved by about 7 percent, but the improvements wore off by the time they took their follow-up survey. And there were no effects on the parents.

The reasons for this are unclear, but the researchers suspect a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are more household constraints on food and transportation than on residential energy use — and children may have less of a say over them, as well. For instance, how families get around town probably depends largely on their location and the availability of public transport. And differences in home economics or culture could play a big role in what kinds of meals are served on a regular basis.

In terms of the residential energy savings, Boudet pointed out that the families maintaining their sustainable behaviors for such a long period of time post-intervention was an unusual result. But there was a drop-off between post-test and follow-up, raising the question of what could be done to keep these behaviors going indefinitely.

It’s important, too, to point out that all the participants in this study were girls of a particular age in the same organization — so it’s unclear whether the same results would be true for children of different ages or for boys. And in an accompanying commentary on the study, also published in Nature Energy, Alice Grønhøj of Aarhus University points out that further research may be warranted into the exact mechanisms behind the behavioral changes observed.

“It is convincingly documented that the interventions resulted in energy-saving behaviours in households, but it is less clear how these changes came about,” she writes. “For instance, it is unclear how the communication between parents and children impacted the results, warranting further attention especially when aiming to transfer and utilize the findings to cultural contexts other than northern California.”

In any case, though, the study presents evidence for the promising idea that children can play a key role in the long-term transition to a more sustainable world. And the researchers suggest that making such youth-oriented interventions more common in society is probably a good step.

“I would suggest that, to create broad and durable society-wide change, it will be important to have energy savings behavior change programs in many contexts and targeting many different age groups,” Boudet said in a follow-up email to The Washington Post. “This is something we have learned in the public health context as well. We should not depend on a single program to be a panacea, but many programs working together synergistically, reaching a very broad portion of the entire population.”