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Iowa Research Shows More Volunteering as Teens Leads to Less Illegal Activity as Adults

Teenagers who participate in volunteer activities may be less likely to get in trouble with the law when they become adults, according to a new study from the University of Iowa.

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[Photo: Dr. Shabbar Ranapurwala (left) and Dr. Carri Casteel]

Researchers in the UI College of Public Health found that teenagers who participated in volunteer activities on their own had 11 percent fewer illegal behaviors between the ages of 18 and 28 than teenagers who did not volunteer. Teenagers who volunteer also had 31 percent fewer arrests and 39 percent fewer convictions, according to the study. That trend continued as they grew older; self-volunteers reported 53 percent fewer arrests and 36 percent fewer convictions between the ages of 24 and 34.

“Adolescence is a formative period during which major moral and emotional development occurs, so self-empowering experiences like volunteering may provide a sense of social responsibility, self-worth, and happiness that helps in moral development,” says Dr. Shabbar Ranapurwala, the study’s lead author, who is a member of the faculty at the UI College of Public Health and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“When these individuals grow, they may become self-confident and responsible adults who may not get involved in criminal activities as much as the non-volunteers may,” he says.

The researchers gathered data using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. More than 14,000 students in grades 7 to 12 answered surveys in 1994–95 and again in 2001–02 and 2008–09. They were asked questions related to whether they had committed illegal behaviors, mostly concerning theft, gun violence, drugs, fraud, or gang activity.

The study also looked at teenagers who were required to volunteer by adults and how often they got in trouble with the law as they grew older. Here, researchers found a more complex picture. Those who were required to volunteer actually reported 20 percent more illegal behaviors between the ages of 18 and 28 than those who did not volunteer, and 10 percent more illegal behaviors between the ages of 24 and 34.

Dr. Carri Casteel, associate professor of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health and study co-author, says researchers are unsure why; the database didn’t include enough relevant information. But she says it could be a result of the types of volunteering activities that self-volunteering teenagers engage in and the amount of time they spend doing such activities.

“Those who self-volunteer may be doing different activities and may have different outcomes than those who are required to volunteer because they chose the activities themselves,” she says.

However, researchers found a similar decrease in arrests and convictions among those who were required to volunteer by adults versus those who self-volunteered. The study reported that adult-required volunteers had 37 percent fewer arrests and 29 percent fewer convictions than non-volunteers between the ages of 18 and 28, and 29 percent fewer arrests and 19 percent fewer convictions between the ages of 24 and 34.

The paper, “Volunteering in Adolescence and Young Adulthood Crime Involvement: A Longitudinal Analysis from the Add Health Study,” was co-authored by Dr. Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health. It is published in journal Injury Epidemiology.