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Young Offenders Who Work but Don't Attend School Show More Antisocial Behavior

Young offenders don't always benefit from employment.

--by Julia Haskins A young construction worker in handcuffs

The Gist

If idle hands make for bad behavior, the natural solution is for those at risk of getting into trouble to take on a character-building venture like employment. While this line of thinking expresses good intentions for at-risk youth, it isn't necessarily the answer for juvenile offenders. It is only in early adulthood that the positive influences of holding a job really come to fruition. Until then, it's a bumpy road for adolescents juggling school, making money, and reforming past misconduct. 

"The combinations of high intensity employment and irregular school attendance, unemployment and irregular school attendance, and unemployment and not being enrolled in school are associated with significantly greater antisocial behavior, particularly during early adolescence," researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and the University of California, Irvine explain in a new study in Child Development. "High-intensity employment diminishes antisocial behavior only when accompanied by attending school." 

The Expert Take

High intensity employment can be extremely helpful in early adulthood, giving individuals the income and purpose to lead fulfilling lives, as well as connections to other productive members of society. Younger people do not reap the same benefits, however. 

"Although being gainfully involved (that is, attending school regularly, working, or both) is preferable to being idle, if the choice is between facilitating adolescent offenders’ school attendance versus placing them in jobs as a deterrent against further antisocial behavior, the preferred practice depends on the young person’s age," the researchers said.

And it's not all about the money, either. While taking home a paycheck would seem to motivate young offenders to turn over a new leaf, the value of employment doesn't immediately translate to improved behavior or social interaction. An adolescent must also be attending school regularly to get the most out of the work-school balance, which is a challenging feat for anyone, let alone a young person with a rough past to overcome. 

"While working long hours may deter adolescents from income-related delinquency, high-intensity employment diminishes antisocial behavior only when accompanied by attending school," the researchers conclude. "Given that the impact of employment is not moderated by type of job or amount of wages earned, it suggests that the mechanism by which employment reduces antisocial behavior among high risk youth is not due to providing them with money or job skills." 

Source and Method

The current study incorporates 60 months of data from the Pathways to Desistance study, a prospective study of 1,354 serious juvenile offenders in Phoenix, Arizona  and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Most participants were from lower socioeconomic brackets, but constituted a variety of races and ethnicities. They were between 14 and 17 years of age when they were convicted of a felony or similarly serious non-felony offense.

Interviews were conducted in a facility if the juvenile was confined, in the juvenile's home, or at a mutually agreed-upon location. They were conducted every six months for three years and annually from then on. During the follow-up interviews, the youths created "life calendars" that documented important information about each month since the previous interview. Participants used this opportunity to discuss issues in their school and home lives. 

Several factors limited the research. The sample population represented juvenile offenders, not high-risk youth overall, most of whom do not display the same types of antisocial behavior. In the same vein, the behaviors studied were serious indicators of anti-sociality, while examining less serious antisocial behavior could reveal different findings. And while researchers did all they could to minimize memory recall issues, there is still the potential for recall bias in the life calendar data. 

The Takeaway

The "idle hands" theory seeks to give at-risk youths outlets through which to contribute to society in a meaningful way. However, this goal can really only be accomplished once adolescents have reached maturity. The researchers caution against pushing these juvenile offenders into employment before they are ready. 

"As an intervention strategy during young adulthood, placing juvenile offenders in jobs may be a wise idea. But for adolescents of high school age, placing juvenile offenders in jobs without ensuring that they also attend school may exacerbate, rather than diminish, their antisocial behavior," the researchers said.

Other Research

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health reports a significant positive relationship between some school-year employment and GPA for adolescents, but the correlation could also be caused by characteristics of the individuals themselves. 

Again showing that moderation is key, this study from the Journal of Business and Psychology found that youth do benefit from some employment while in school. Researchers sought to determine appropriate work hours and the kinds of jobs that adolescents wanted.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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