Taking a Stand

Do civically active youth turn out any different from the rest?

By Ashley Lyles, published May 1, 2018 - last reviewed on July 2, 2018

Burlingham/Shutterstock

Many initiatives aim to get young people excited about communal and political engagement, but do civically active youth turn out any different from the rest? Researchers recently analyzed data gathered from a sample of more than 9,000 young Americans as they grew from early adolescence into adulthood. The team compared youths who were similar on a variety of characteristics (such as school performance) but who differed—when asked between ages 18 and 27—on whether they had recently voted for president, volunteered, or engaged in activism by attending a political rally or march.

When surveyed half a decade later, those who had reported these experiences tended to disclose higher levels of education and personal earnings than those who had not. Voting and volunteering were additionally associated with fewer reported symptoms of depression and lower ratings on an index of risky health behaviors, such as smoking. While the correlations do not establish that civic engagement caused the outcomes, lead author Parissa J. Ballard of Wake Forest School of Medicine and her colleagues hypothesize that civic behaviors could play some part by, for example, helping youth develop skills, social support, and professional aspirations.

Not all of the study findings were positive: There was some evidence that activism is also correlated with risky health behaviors, possibly reflecting its more oppositional nature, says Northwestern University developmental psychologist Emma K. Adam, who was not involved in the study. "Activists' battles are hard-fought and fraught with frustration," she says, "potentially contributing to behaviors such as drinking and smoking as a way to cope."