February 11, 2011 — Working a part-time job during high school is an exercise in responsibility often encouraged by parents or guardians. However, a new study finds that while there are certainly life lessons to be learned from these experiences, the number of hours teens work during the school year has a significant impact on their academic and behavior patterns.
For instance, high school students working more than 20 hours a week during the school year experienced declines in school engagement and increases in substance abuse and delinquency.
The study, whose findings were released in the January/February 2011 issue of Child Development, was conducted by a team of researchers including Joanna Lee Williams, assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, and others from the University of Washington and Temple University.
They took extra steps to control for working students who may have pre-existing academic or behavioral differences, making sure those didn't skew their results, Williams said.
"For example, teens who get jobs may be more likely to feel disconnected from school to begin with – hence they get a job; they might be lower income – so they need a job for financial reasons, etc.," she explained. "So we had to account for these potential pre-existing factors to make sure our findings were accurate."
Students working more than 20 hours per week showed significantly higher declines in school engagement than those not working. These behaviors included goofing off more often with friends and generally expressed less interest in school. These students were reporting significantly higher levels of substance abuse, including use of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. Increased delinquency, also found at significantly higher levels in students working more than 20 hours per week, included acts of theft, carrying a weapon and vandalism.
Students who worked 20 hours or less per week, and those who did not work at all, did not experience any significant change in their academic success or behaviors.
However, the study found that teens who left their jobs had increases in grade-point averages and paid more attention in school compared to youth who continued working.
The study followed students beginning in grades 10 and 11 through their 11th- and 12th-grade years. Hours worked only referred to a "regular-paying, part-time job" and did not include non-paying extracurricular activities.
"Our findings suggest that families should consider monitoring the number of hours that teens work while in high school," Williams said. "Since moderate levels of employment – fewer than 20 hours per week – were generally not associated with negative outcomes, working during the school year is not a bad thing in and of itself."
While this study does not explicitly address why teens who work more than 20 hours per week are more likely to take on these behaviors, Williams suggests that existing research on adolescent employment provides some possible explanations.
"Having more financial resources to spend on illicit substances might be a part of it; but other possibilities are related to the work environment itself," explained Williams. "The type of employment settings that cater to youth often are lacking in adult supervision and provide space for teens to interact with slightly older youth and young adults. If teens are working with young adults who can legally purchase alcohol, it may give them more access to alcohol and other adult behavior after work hours.
"Time could be another factor – working long hours may make teens more disconnected from their school work."
Williams sees the need now to determine if different types of jobs have different impacts on teens.
"Given that youth work because of economic need," Williams said, "it is important that additional research begin examining the types of employment experiences and environments that will promote positive outcomes for working teens."