The average American teenager spends about nine hours sleeping and about seven and a half hours participating in school-related activities on any given weekday during the school year. That means they have roughly seven and a half hours of downtime every day to fill however they choose.
Which makes us wonder:
How do our teenagers fill those seven and a half hours of downtime?
Thankfully, we don’t have to guess, rely on anecdotal evidence, or concoct theories based on what makes sense to us. There’s a far more reliable way to find out, based on facts and figures collected from real people living real lives. Every year since 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has conducted the American Time Use Survey, which gives us exactly the information inquiring parental minds want to know.
Let’s take a look at the data on teenage time use from the 2018 survey: that’s the best way to find out what our teens are up to.
How American Teens Spend Their Time
(Hours/minutes per weekday)
- Sleeping: 9 hours 1 minute
- Educational Activities:
- Total: 7 hours 20 minutes
- In class: 5 hours 54 minutes
- Doing homework: 1 hour 26 minutes
- Leisure and Sports:
- Total: 5 hours 17 minutes
- Sports, exercise, and recreation: 42 minutes
- Socializing and communicating: 56 minutes
- Watching TV: 2 hours
- Reading (non-homework): 8 minutes
- Relaxing/thinking: 10 minutes
- Playing games and non-school computer use: 49 minutes
- Other leisure: 32 minutes
- Eating/Drinking: 1 hour 5 minutes
- Grooming: 45 minutes
- Working: 16 minutes
- Volunteering: 10 minutes
- Religious Activities: 2 minutes
By these numbers, they fill over half of that downtime—over four hours—with activities adults probably consider nonessential, such as socializing, watching TV, grooming, or playing games on the computer.
While teenagers need unstructured downtime—meaning time when they’re simply doing what they choose, with no pressure and no external expectations—as much as anyone, do they really need four hours a day?
We think they can fill that time with activities that are more productive than grooming and watching TV.
We also think that for adolescents, four hours of unsupervised time per day sounds like time they might spend getting off track.
And by that we mean getting in trouble.
Believe it or not, the data says we’re right about that.
Hobbies and Risky Behavior
In this article, we’ll define extracurricular activities—including school and non-school clubs and sports, as well as activities like reading, writing, and playing music—as hobbies. We’ll think of a hobby as anything an adolescent does outside of school hours that’s not compulsory. By this definition, research shows that adolescent participation in structured activities—compared to nonparticipation—is associated with positive developmental outcomes, such as:
- Higher academic performance and attainment
- Reduced dropout rate
- Reduced rates of substance use (drugs as opposed to alcohol)
- Less sexual activity (among girls)
- Higher self-esteem
- Less worry about the future
- Reduced feelings of social isolation
- Fewer criminal arrests
- Less antisocial behavior
The opposite of these positive outcomes happens when teens don’t participate in extracurricular activities:
- Lower acedemic performance and attainment
- Increased dropout rate
- Increased rates of substance use
- Higher rates of sexual activity (among girls)
- Lower self-esteem
- More worry about the future
- Increased feelings of social isolation
- More criminal activity
- Increased antisocial behavior
Those are the facts about what happens when teenagers don’t structure their downtime, i.e. what happens when they don’t do extracurriculars or have hobbies.
Now we’ll discuss the psychological and developmental benefits of hobbies for teenagers.
Hobbies for Teens: Making the Most of Downtime
Everyone knows the teen years are filled with dramatic changes. Broadly speaking, adolescence is the period when humans transform from children into adults. It’s far more complicated than that, of course. The latest neuroscience tells us the brain does not finish developing until the mid-20s, but that’s almost academic: when a teen reaches adulthood—i.e. the age of eighteen—the world thinks they’re an adult.
To become successful adults, two critical things need to happen: (1) Teens need to develop their own identity, and (2) Teens need to develop an identity that is distinct and separate from their parents.
These two developmental milestones are called identity formation and differentiation.
That’s how hobbies can help teens on their way to adulthood: they’re an ideal way for them to meet these two essential developmental milestones. Hobbies can help teens to find out who they are, on their own, away from mom and dad, and away from teachers and friends they may have known their whole lives.
That’s a big deal.
The long and short: hobbies help teens grow in new and different ways—and that’s exactly what they need on their way to adulthood.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.