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Volunteering Benefits the Health and Wellness of Kids and Teens

New research demonstrates the postive effects of volunteering for young people.

Key points

  • Volunteering benefits those who do it as well as those on the receiving end of it.
  • Recent research shows that volunteering correlates with important benefits for children and adolescents.
  • Volunteering mitigates isolation and feelings of being different that afflict so many young people.
Source: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Volunteering—being of service to others via unpaid work—is a value promoted in a wide range of social, cultural, and spiritual circles. Importantly, besides being beneficial for those on the receiving end of volunteer services, there are also positive effects on the health and well-being of those doing the volunteering.

Volunteer service is any action that contributes directly or indirectly to the welfare of others, and its ethos is a connection with and responsibility to something beyond oneself. Previous research has substantiated the benefits of volunteering for adults.[1] However, the effects of volunteering on children and adolescents has been relatively unknown, with two studies of limited samples of adolescents finding that volunteering reduces cardiovascular risk factors[2] and is positively associated with school engagement.[3]

For the first time, recent large-scale research assessed the connection between volunteering and the health and well-being of children and adolescents across the United States. Published in Jama Network Open in May, 2023,[4] this study utilized parent-reported survey data for 51,895 children and adolescents: 22,126 children aged 6 to 11 years and 29,769 adolescents aged 12 to 17 years from the publicly available 2019 to 2020 National Survey of Children’s Health, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among the youths included in the sample, 26,863 (52%) were male, 3,621 (7%) were Black, 6,618 (13%) were Hispanic, and 35,021 (67%) were White, and most were above poverty level (88%).

Parents were asked whether, during the previous 12 months, their child or adolescent participated in any form of volunteer service at school, in the community, or church/synagogue/mosque. Moreover, the study surveyed parent-reported outcomes related to their children in five areas of health and well-being: (1) excellent and/or very good health, (2) flourishing, (3) anxiety, (4) depression, and (5) behavioral problems.

The results indicated that more adolescents than children were reported to have volunteered (54% vs 34%). Volunteering was associated with:

  • Higher odds of parent-reported excellent/very good health in both children and adolescents.
  • Higher odds of flourishing in children, as well as adolescents.
  • Lower odds of behavioral problems in children and adolescents.
  • While volunteering was associated with lower odds of anxiety in adolescents, there was no such association for children.
  • Interestingly, there was no association between volunteering and depression for either children or adolescents.

While the study results include the potential for response bias, due to parent-reported data and limitations in determining causality, this research nonetheless shows that volunteering correlates with important benefits for children and adolescents.

These findings invite further research to assess the potential causal relationship between volunteer service and child-adolescent health and well-being, and may provide the impetus for effectively prescribing volunteering as a public health intervention. In addition to helping others, volunteering can help children and adolescents clarify and strengthen a sense of competence and self-efficacy. It can connect them with other people in ways that mitigate the sense of isolation and feelings of being different that afflict so many young people and contribute to high levels of anxiety and depression.

Inasmuch as volunteering in adolescence has been found to be associated with decreases in risky health behaviors and depressive symptoms in adulthood,[5] youths who help others may be helping themselves now and later.

Copyright 2024 Dan Mager, MSW


[1] Jenkinson CE, Dickens AP, Jones K, et al. Is volunteering a public health intervention? a systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers.  BMC Public Health. 2013;13(1):773.

[2] Schreier HM, Schonert-Reichl KA, Chen E. Effect of volunteering on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents: a randomized controlled trial.  JAMA Pediatr. 2013;167(4):327-332.

[3] Bang H, Won D, Park S. School engagement, self-esteem, and depression of adolescents: the role of sport participation and volunteering activity and gender differences.  Child Youth Serv Rev. 2020;113:105012.

[4] Lanza K, Hunt ET, Mantey DS, Omega-Njemnobi O, Cristol B, Kelder SH. Volunteering, Health, and Well-being of Children and Adolescents in the United States. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(5):e2315980.

[5] Ballard PJ, Hoyt LT, Pachucki MC. Impacts of adolescent and young adult civic engagement on health and socioeconomic status in adulthood.  Child Dev. 2019;90(4):1138-1154.

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