Overview of the Importance of Adolescent Connectedness

Adolescent connectedness has landed squarely in the middle of the emerging field of applied youth development (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). Roth and Brooks-Gunn found that 100% of the youth development programs they reviewed served to promote connectedness in some form. They note that 73% explicitly “sought to improve adolescents connections; connections with their families (40%) and peers (42%) were the most common connection goals for the programs” (p. 207). Connectedness to school was targeted as well, but only in 17% of programs. This is surprising given that connectedness to school has been found to be one of the strongest predictors of adolescent health and risk-taking behaviors in studies using ad hoc measures of connectedness (Resnick et al., 1997). But perhaps most surprisingly, only half of those programs designed to promote connectedness actually used a measure of connectedness to evaluate program success.

“More programs held goals of promoting...connections than actually measured these characteristics in the evaluations. Of 35 programs promoting connectedness only 19 (54%) reported measures of connectedness.” (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003, p. 215)

However, research on adolescent connectedness is not likely to have a positive influence on the field of applied developmental science until it is clearly defined and consistently measured. The Hemingway Measure of Adolescent Connectedness is the only (or one of very few) measures of adolescent connectedness in the published literature that have been empirically tested and found to demonstrate validity evidence beyond face validity. Measures used in most studies have been ad hoc, and when described within each study, the term connectedness has been used interchangeably with other works like bonding, attachment, belongingness and relatedness (Resnick et al., 1997). Not until a clear nomenclature for connectedness is established and measures of connectedness receive sufficient validity evidence will this construct, heralded as the third of the five Cs of applied youth development programs, provide a useful and meaningful measure of programmatic outcomes on youth development.

Two issues may serve to bring clarity to the meaning of connectedness. First, consistently reported in studies citing findings related to adolescent connectedness is the assumption of an ecology of connectedness. Connectedness during adolescence is (or at least is described by many researchers as) ecologically specific. Studies of connectedness typically have focused on connectedness to school, family, or community. Yet connectedness to peers, religion (religious institutions), friends, youths’ neighborhoods, and even siblings have also been reported as important contributors to youth development (Blum, 2003; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). However, only research on one measure (Karcher, 2003; Karcher & Lee, 2002) has examined this assumption.

Second, across studies, connectedness has tended to reflect an ill-defined mixture of affect, activities, and sources of support. For example, connectedness items in several studies have included statements such as “My teachers care about me,” which really is a measure of the construct of social support received from teachers. Other items found in several but not all connectedness measures are items reflecting belonging, such as “I feel like I belong at school.” Most all connectedness surveys, however, measure the youth’s caring for and feelings about other people and places, such as “I care about my school.” More consistent with a depiction of connectedness as an outward expression of affect are the survey items reported in many measures which capture the volitional activity of youth investing time with others or involvement in specific context, such as “I work hard at school” or “I attend a religious service at least once a month.” Unlike the items reflecting belonging and social support are redundant with available measures of these constructs, the connectedness items reflecting activity in and caring about other places and people seem to capture what may uniquely reflect connectedness.

In an effort to develop a more precise definition of adolescent connectedness, Karcher (Karcher, Holcomb, & Zambrano, 2006, see also “Connectedness contributes to developmental assets and is shaped by school climate, so how can we measure it?”) proposed a theoretical model explaining the antecedents and consequences of adolescent connectedness. In this model, the attachment that develops in response to parental support contributes feelings of relatedness and belonging in later childhood through expectations regarding the degree of support and warmth other people and places will provide. Also contributing to these feelings of relatedness to individual others (such as teachers and peers) and to feelings of belonging within contexts (such as school, one’s neighborhood, and religious institutions) are the degree of social support experienced in these contexts and from these other people. Subsequently, as initially demonstrated through attachment behaviors, in late childhood and early adolescence youth seek out and demonstrate positive affect towards those places and people from whom they experience social support. These demonstrations of positive feelings and indicators of proximity seeking reflect connectedness to people (e.g., siblings, friends, teachers, and peers) and to places (school, neighborhood, and religious context)(see Hypothesized Path Model). Relatedness and belonging, like the words bonding and attachment, are used in the literature and in this model to represent feelings one “receives” based on interpretations of social support. Connectedness, like behaviors and expressions of affect associated with specific attachment styles, reflects a reciprocation of this social support. Like plugging a power cord into the wall outlet, connectedness reflects outward movement and affection towards other people.

Two additional components of connectedness that have only recently begun to emerge in the connectedness literature are the distinctions made between conventional and unconventional connectedness and between present-focused and future oriented connectedness. Jessor and Jessor (1977) found that as the adolescent’s ecology widens, so too do the opportunities to engage both (a) in conventional behaviors (e.g., reading, working at school, spending time with family) that usually are mediated by parental or adult sanctions and governance and (b) in unconventional behaviors (e.g., risk-taking behaviors) that are encouraged by peers and in contexts not governed by adults (e.g., the neighborhood). This distinction between conventional and unconventional connectedness is important because it suggests connectedness may have both protective and risk-promoting properties depending on two whom or to what place the connectedness refers.

The second element of connectedness appears to be its temporal orientation. If indeed connectedness reflects a reciprocation of social support from ecologically specific people and places, then connectedness to specific people and places may also reflect the functional emphasis of those people and places at different points in development. Connectedness to teachers and school may be considered future oriented because the function of those relationships is on a developing self-in-the-future. Conversely, connectedness to friends and to one’s neighborhood likely reflect a here-and-now set of activities that contribute to how a youth feels about him or herself in the present. Thus, conventionality and temporality can covary greatly. However, there are contexts and relationships, such as the family and specifically connectedness to parents, that serve both to facilitate the development of a future self and to esteem the youth in the present. Thus, time orientation also may be an important way in which to characterize the ecology of adolescent connectedness.

It would be incorrect, however, to suggest that all of the descriptions of connectedness in the literature converge with or support the proposed model. For example, Blum (2003) has stated that connectedness is not simply an activity but more so “about perceptions of closeness with a parent” (p. 243). However, it becomes difficult to use this same definition “perceptions of closeness” (which reflects relatedness in response to social support from parents in the aforementioned model) to define connectedness to school or to community. Whatever definition that is chosen for connectedness, it must be applicable across the ecology of connectedness or else it will remain ambiguous and inconsistently defined. Similarly, the excellent work of Grotevant and Cooper (1983) on what they call both relatedness and connectedness has emphasized the element of cognitive maturity demonstrated in the youths’ behaviors with parents. Specifically, connectedness/relatedness is seen in their work as reflecting degrees of perspective taking that the youth utilizes in the parent-child relationships and the degree of openness to the parents’ ideas and guidance. However, this definition, which includes perspective-taking activity, cannot easily be translated to define connectedness to school, religious contexts, or the neighborhood and did not hold up in our measurement development analyses (Karcher, 2003). Thus, one must admit that there is debate in the field about whether connectedness reflects both activity and affection (positive feelings) and whether it also takes into consideration the maturity of the youth’s thinking about people and places in their wider social ecology (Townsend & McWhirter, 2005). However, the Hemingway Measure of Adolescent Connectedness provides one way to assess connectedness along the dimensions illustrated in the figures on this website and which is detailed in several research studies also available on this website.

The scales, which are available in Chinese, Spanish and French, as well as in English are accessible on the survey page of this site. Scoring information also is available in the Manual, which includes SPSS syntax for scoring the adolescent version. Also available, but for which there is much less research and data on validity, are child and college connectedness scales, both of which are extensions (both downward and upward) of the theory supporting the Hemingway Measure of Adolescent Connectedness. These scales are free for use; however, Michael Karcher asks that users simply acknowledge their use of the measure and consider passing along to him blinded (no identifying information) data and/or findings from users’ application or use of the scales. This information will be used to help further refine the definitions and estimates of reliability and validity that he can make available to other users.