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Adolescent Time Use, Risky Behavior and Outcomes: An Analysis of National Data

Publication Date

Adolescent Time Use, Risky Behavior and Outcomes: An Analysis of National Data

Nicholas Zill, Christine Winquist Nord, and Laura Spencer Loomis

Westat, Inc.

September 11, 1995


For the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Participating in positive, goal-directed activities gives teenagers a chance to develop skills, build character, and sample different fields of human endeavor. It may also lessen their chances of engaging in risky behaviors, such as drug use or delinquency, by occupying idle time, strengthening commitment to school and other conventional institutions, and exposing teens to beneficial peer and adult influences. There has been considerable debate, however, as to how effective youth programs are in preventing misbehavior. More evidence is needed as to how today's teenagers spend their time and whether constructive activities help to deter problem behavior.

The present study made use of several large-scale data bases to examine the time-use patterns of American adolescents in the late 1980s and early 1990s, compare them with those exhibited by young people 10 to 20 years ago, and test whether participation in extracurricular activities reduces the chances that young people will engage in various risky behaviors. The data analyzed came from Monitoring the Future (an annual survey of high school seniors), the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, the National Education Longitudinal Study begun in 1988, and an earlier longitudinal study called High School and Beyond. The risky behaviors studied were dropping out of school, having children while still teenagers, being delinquent, smoking, using marijuana or cocaine, and binge drinking.

The study found that U.S. teenagers have a lot of discretionary time available to them and, for most, that time is not being filled with activities that build their skills or characters. For example, today's 10th grade students devote on average only one half hour per day to homework. Less than 20 percent of them read for pleasure almost every day, only 15 percent work daily on hobbies, arts, or crafts, and just 5 percent routinely use personal computers for schoolwork or recreation. Less than a third attend religious activities once a week or more, about a fifth participate in youth groups or organized recreational programs that often, and a similar fraction take weekly classes outside of school in music, art, language, or dance. One in eight takes weekly sports lessons outside of school, while one in fourteen volunteers or performs community service activities.

How then do teenagers spend the considerable amounts of free time at their disposal? They watch television (two and a half hours per day, on average); they talk with other teens on the telephone (60 percent say they do so on a daily basis); and they hang out with friends in malls and other neighborhood hangouts (64 percent do this at least one or twice a week). As they get older, they work for pay at relatively low-skill jobs that do little to prepare them for the more complex and demanding jobs at which they are likely to later work. Sixty percent of U.S. 12th graders and 27 percent of 10th graders do seven or more hours of paid work per week during the school year.

When the study compared adolescent time use in the 1990s with that in the mid-1970s or early 1980s, overall patterns were surprisingly similar. The changes found were mostly in a negative direction as far as constructive use of time was concerned. For example, high school students in 1990 spent no more time doing homework than earlier cohorts did, despite taking courses that were supposedly more rigorous. Teenagers in the 1990s were less likely to read books, do household chores, or attend religious services on a regular basis than their predecessors were. Compared to the early 1980s, fewer students in the 1990s participated in band, orchestra or chorus in school, in traditional hobby clubs such as photography or chess, or in cheerleading or drill team. On the other hand, almost as many went out for varsity sports, and slightly more took part in academic clubs, such as science, computer, or foreign language clubs, math team, or debating society. Overall, however, the increased emphasis on academics that has supposedly dominated American education in recent years has not resulted in much apparent change in intellectual effort or studying behavior among American adolescents.

Not only is the time use of the average American teenager relatively unproductive, there is considerable inequality in the extent to which different groups of teens use their free time in constructive as opposed to idle or detrimental ways. Young people from families with low levels of parent education or family income, who would seem to be most in need of organized skill-building and character-nurturing activities, were found to be least likely to engage in such activities. Likewise, students whose parents were uninvolved in the PTA and other school-related activities did not participate in constructive free-time activities as often, nor spend as much time doing homework, as students with involved parents. Students enrolled in general or vocational/technical programs in high school had much less exposure to extracurricular activities than students enrolled in academic or college-preparatory programs.

The time-use patterns of 10th graders were predictive of what they would be doing one year after high school. Those who were "homework-focused" were twice as likely to be enrolled full time in postsecondary school as those who were focused on paid employment as 10th graders. Conversely, those in the latter group were twice as likely as those in the former to be employed full time after high school. However, the link between doing more paid work as a teenager and full-time employment as a young adult was weaker than the association between doing more homework and full-time college enrollment. This indicates that the jobs that adolescents hold are not giving them the skills or experience necessary to obtain stable full-time employment after high school.

Time-use patterns of 10th graders were also predictive of whether they would engage in a variety of risky behaviors. For example, compared to those who reported spending 1-4 hours per week in extracurricular activities, students who reported spending no time in school-sponsored activities were 57 percent more likely to have dropped out by the time they would have been seniors; 49 percent more likely to have used drugs; 37 percent more likely to have become teen parents; 35 percent more likely to have smoked cigarettes; and 27 percent more likely to have been arrested. These significant negative relationships were found after controlling for related family, school, and student characteristics such as parent education and income levels, parent involvement in school-related activities, and students' grades. Up to a point, students who spent more time (5-19 hours per week) in extracurricular activities were even less likely to engage in risky behavior. However, there was not as great a deterrent effect among those who spent large amounts of time (20 or more hours per week) in extracurricular pursuits.

One behavior that proved an exception to the rule that extracurricular participation reduced risky conduct was binge drinking. After other factors were controlled, time in extracurricular activities did not show a significant relationship with underage drinking. The difference may be due to the greater social acceptability of drinking in adult society, compared with cocaine or marijuana use, or to another finding of the study. This was that one form of extracurricular activity -- varsity sports -- actually seemed to predispose young people to binge drinking.

When data on adolescent time use and risky behavior were analyzed separately for males and females, similar relationships were found. One difference was that the deterrent effect of extracurricular participation on teen childbearing was more clearly evident among females than males. Similar relationships were also observed when the number of activities in which students participated was used as a measure of extracurricular involvement instead of hours per week.

Participation in two specific forms of extracurricular activity, varsity sports and music or drama, showed somewhat different relationships to later risky behavior. Students who participated in varsity sports were less likely than non-participants to drop out of school or become smokers by their senior years. On the other hand, student athletes were significantly more likely to have engaged in binge drinking, as noted above. Also, male (but not female) athletes were more likely to have become teen parents. By contrast, students who participated in band, orchestra, chorus, or in a school play or musical were significantly less likely than non-participants to engage in nearly all the problem behaviors: dropping out of school, being arrested, becoming smokers, using drugs, or engaging in binge drinking. Female (but not male) performers were also less likely than non-performers to have become teen parents.

The findings indicate that organized youth activities can help to deter risky behavior in adolescence and young adulthood. However, the effectiveness of an activity depends not just on the degree to which it occupies idle time, but also on the extent to which it develops skills, creates challenges, and provides fulfilling experiences for teen participants. It depends as well on the attitudes that other participants have about engaging in specific high-risk behaviors. If the group code encourages some forms of risky behavior, such as binge drinking or sexual promiscuity, participation in the activity may be counterproductive.