Menus Subscribe Search
volunteer-teens

(ILLUSTRATION: ART4ALL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Help Others to Help Yourself: High School Students Benefit From Volunteer Work

• April 05, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: ART4ALL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Getting teenagers off of the couch can be difficult, but the benefits are undeniable.

Let’s perform a little parental thought experiment. Your daughter (or son) is in her senior year of high school, headed for the exit, when she’s told she must perform 30 hours of community service before graduation. How does the scene play out? A bit of drama, perhaps some eye rolling and door slamming. After you threaten to revoke her car privileges, she signs up to volunteer at the local elementary school. Once a week, she spends an hour reading to youngsters, helping out with homework, leading playground games, and organizing arts and crafts. In the end, she survives. Maybe she even has fun.

In fact, say researchers, it gets better. A controlled, randomized study of 100 Canadian high school students reveals that those assigned to three months of weekly volunteer work came out of the experience happier—and healthier—than their classmates.

Twelfth graders at an urban British Columbia school were recruited to volunteer in an after-school tutoring program; half were randomly assigned to begin immediately, while the other half were assigned to begin the following semester. All the students underwent personality assessments, designed to gauge their negative affect, self-esteem, and prosocial skills (e.g. empathy and altruism). They also submitted blood samples, with which researchers measured their levels of cholesterol and inflammatory markers (associated with obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes). At the end of 10 weeks—either working or waiting—the students repeated the battery of tests.

Writing recently in JAMA Pediatrics, Hannah Schreier of New York University, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl of the University of British Columbia, and Edith Chen of Northwestern, report that those students assigned to volunteer work finished the semester healthier (lower body mass indexes, better cholesterol levels, fewer inflammatory markers) and happier (less negative, more altruistic and empathetic) than their peers.

Notably, the teenagers’ self-esteem wasn’t affected—suggesting that the effects of volunteerism were so subtle as to be invisible to the students themselves. Yet by helping others, the authors write, the teens were really helping themselves.

Altruism is a slippery thing—am I helping you for your sake, or because it makes me feel generous?—but this is the first study to demonstrate that high school students (not the most selfless of individuals) derive real benefits from mandatory volunteer work, beyond learning that they’re not the center of the universe.

By getting teens off the couch and out of the house, the authors argue, volunteerism has all kinds of impacts on the teenage mind. It forces them to work with (and alongside) individuals from all walks of life, and wrestle with questions of power and privilege. It puts them in contact with other volunteers—the kind of boys you’d like your daughter to bring home for dinner—and normalizes unselfish behavior. Poor emotional well-being—depression, low self esteem—has long been linked to negative “health outcomes” such as cardiovascular disease, the authors write, and because it’s two-way street, improving one side of the equation will necessarily improve the other.

So yes, teenagers are busy, what with calculus and studying for the SAT and college applications and so many episodes of Glee to keep up with. But doing a little volunteer work won’t kill them. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.