BYU study: Service important for teens

Teenagers who serve strangers are less likely to participate in delinquent behaviors, researchers out of Brigham Young University recently found. Even small acts of service can have a great impact on the future of today’s youth.

“Getting your kids involved in service towards those they don’t know has other really protective effects over time,” said Laura Padilla-Walker, study lead and professor at BYU.

The study, recently published in the journal Child Development, looked at youth in a large city in a Northwestern state in the United States. Researchers assessed youth — from various family situations and backgrounds — three times from 2009 to 2011. Researchers looked at “prosocial” behavior — things like helping, sharing, being kind and volunteering — among teens.

“Usually people study prosocial behavior as an end in and of itself, so [we looked at] what things promote prosocial behavior,” said Dr. Padilla-Walker.

The researchers decided to — rather than look at prosocial behavior as an end — look at the consequences of prosocial behavior to see if it actually protects against negative behaviors.

“A lot of parents feel it is good to get their kids involved in good behaviors, but does that actually protect them later on?”

Looking at various studies over the last 30 years, researchers have seen the positive outcomes that often accompany prosocial behavior. Oftentimes self-esteem, sympathy and positive academic outcomes come from prosocial behavior. It has also been a protective factor against negative outcomes, such as aggression, participating in risky behaviors, substance abuse and emotional regulation.

For this study, researchers looked at who the youth were serving — their family, friends and strangers.

“We know from other studies that teenagers are much more prosocial towards their friends and their family members than they are strangers,” Dr. Padilla-Walker said. “Friends are first, family and then strangers.”

Although serving family and friends can have positive benefits — resulting in stronger relationships — it is the service to a stranger that has noticable positive outcomes. Some of those outcomes include teens being less likely to participate in delinquent behaviors or show aggression.

“I think sometimes parents might think, ‘Well, it’s enough for my kids to help out around the house,’ and that is helpful, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as directly protective as some of these more challenging or long-term volunteer types of things,” said Dr. Padilla-Walker. “If we can get our teenagers involved not just in any type of helping behavior, but towards those whom they don’t know — those who are considered a ‘higher cost’ helping behavior where it is a little harder, a little more outside our comfort zone — then that over time can be protective.”

Voluntary service, particularly service that takes a little more effort, seems to yield the more positive outcomes.

“It might be harder, but it seems to be more protective,” she said. “We have to be a little bit more careful about how we think about prosocial behavior and who that might be towards. Maybe not all types of helping are created equal.”

Dr. Padilla-Walker said an important part of encouraging teens to serve comes from the example of their parents.

“Families can create that family identity of serving,” she said. “If we can involve our children from a young age they learn how to help other people. Parents need to make it a part of your identity, and parental example is the strongest example for a child.”

Rather than focusing on helping people who “are just like you,” Dr. Padilla-Walker spoke of reaching out to people that might be different.

“It doesn’t have to be a long, lengthy volunteer service,” she said. “Just having that kind of mentality of the family that ‘we’ll help people that we don’t know, not just people that live in our neighborhood, or in our church or in our family.’ ”

Dr. Padilla-Walker suggested “trying to match the service to the individual” by taking the interests and hobbies of teens and matching those with service opportunities. For a child who loves to read, find them opportunities to serve at a library, Dr. Padilla-Walker suggested. But rather than just sorting books individually, Dr. Padilla-Walker said to take it a step further — by holding a book drive or volunteering to read to or with someone else, for example — to include interaction with people the teen doesn’t know. For a child who loves to be outside, she encouraged parents and leaders to find ways for teens to serve in the places they want to be.

Recognizing that a lot of youth programs integrate service in their activities, Dr. Padilla-Walker encouraged youth leaders to integrate the interests of their group members within their service opportunities. For many faiths, especially an LDS audience, service is central to faith, and structuring meaningful service opportunities promotes prosocial behavior with large benefits.

Bridging interests and service sets youth up for positive experiences, encouraging service to become more than just an activity but rather an important part of their identity.

[email protected] @marianne_holman