Mira Aaboen Sletten heads up the Youth Research Section at Norwegian Social Research – NOVA, a research institute that is part of Oslo Metropolitan University. "We aspire to be the leading research community in Norway for issues related to young people’s lives," Sletten tells us.
Like other researchers at OsloMet, NOVA researchers are keen to influence policymaking and real-world outcomes. "Our goal," Sletten explains, "is to produce knowledge that politicians and practitioners in Norway make use of in their work. "Policy decisions grounded in research will always be the best starting point for positive outcomes."
Understanding the complex lives of young people
Researchers at NOVA take a three-pronged approach to studying young people. In their work, they focus on:
- how young people experience family life, school and their free time
- the ways in which young people's experiences differ from those of other age groups
- differences between different groups of young people
NOVA researchers are also interested in issues related to mental health, gaming, social media, school, experience with alcohol and drugs, and the exposure to radicalisation, violence and crime.
Spotting emerging trends
Ungdata and Ungdata junior, two of Norwegian Social Research’s best-known data collection schemes, are comprehensive surveys of young people carried out at the local level. The information they collect is added to a national database containing information from all conducted surveys.
Sletten explains: "The database is the starting point for much research—both for us at NOVA and for other researchers studying young people. It is remarkable how much insight the data gives us about changes in young people´s life situations and about how connected different areas of their lives are."
Ungdata also gives researchers clues as to what they should ask young people in future surveys.
There are numerous examples of how Ungdata has uncovered new trends among young people. One such finding was the discovery a few years ago of an increasing number of young Norwegians reporting that they struggled with mental health issues.
In the wake of the public debate this sparked, Norwegian policymakers acted by adding mental health to the school curriculum, launching mental health campaigns and funding more school nurses throughout the country.
"Our youth researchers have been very concerned with nuancing the picture,"Sletten explains, "for example by stating that these findings do not indicate that all youngsters are struggling. Some groups are more affected than others."
Policy decisions grounded in research will always be the best starting point for positive outcomes.– Mira Aaboen Sletten
"The most vulnerable are often those who come from homes with fewer resources, and have difficult relationships with parents, friends or school", Sletten tells us, before going on to say that the Ungdata survey is a suitable tool for shedding light on these kinds of nuances.
In addition to bringing attention to the specific challenges facing young people, NOVA’s surveys bring the bigger picture into focus. "Although many young people say that they experience ailments, stress, and pressure in everyday life, our research shows that the vast majority of young people lead good, active lives. Only a minority of young people in Norway report that they have problems coping with stress of various kinds."
A useful tool for monitoring local issues
Ungdata includes both a list of standard questions posed to all respondents and a section containing optional questions that the municipalities participating in data collection can elect to include or leave out.
This opportunity to adapt the questionnaire to local conditions makes it an excellent tool for monitoring local issues. Moreover, Ungdata enables local authorities to gain access to information about young people in a quality controlled and cost-effective way.
In recent years, for example, findings from Ungdata indicate that many young people participate in organised after-school activities, but that some groups participate less than others. This is particularly the case for young people from low-income families.
"We cannot conclude that this is because the parents are unable to afford the fees associated with these activities," cautions Sletten. "However, the survey can be used as a tool to explore this as a possible explanation, both through local surveys and by obtaining different types of information from young people, parents, and clubs and organisations responsible for the leisure activities."
In this case, twelve municipalities have been selected to participate in a one-year national pilot project, in which participants between the ages of 6 and 18 can receive financial assistance to cover participation fees.
Egil Sandgren, a project coordinator in Haugesund municipality, says that his municipality intends to add its own questions to the Ungdata questionnaire.
"We will be asking if the project has made it easier to participate in organised leisure activities," Sandgren tells us. "This will afford us the unique opportunity to find out whether the trial project has worked as intended or if we ought to experiment with different measures instead."
While NOVA is perhaps best known in Norway for its Ungdata surveys, its researchers work on a wide range of projects.
One such project, Inequality in youth, is a large longitudinal qualitative study, in which researchers tracked the same group of participants over a number of years. The main research questions that this project poses are: how inequality appears and develops in the lives of adolescents in terms of education, health, leisure and risk; and how individual trajectories play out against the backdrop of social change, personal relationships and societal institutions.
Inequality in youth is intended to be a supplement to the quantitative Ungdata surveys.
The methods researchers at NOVA employ vary. In some research schemes or scientific works, they measure and count, in others they observe or interview. More and more, they bring together different research methods.
NOVA researchers represent a wide range of academic disciplines—sociology, psychology, anthropology, in addition to several others.
Whether they are designing or conducting a research project, disseminating their findings, or teaching, NOVA researchers embrace interdisciplinary approaches.
"This allows us to get a fuller picture of what it’s like being young in Norwegian society today," reflects Sletten.