On any given weekday during the school year, the average American teenager spends about eight and a half hours sleeping and about six and a half hours in school. This leaves nine hours of their waking time unaccounted for. Which leaves us with an important question: what do our teenagers do during those nine hours?
First, let’s take a look at the big-picture data, published by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the American Time Use Survey for 2017. Our data for hours spent in school comes from a different source – the National Center for Education Statistics.
How American Teens Spend Their Time
- Sleeping: 8.6 hours per day (8 hours 36 minutes)
- At School: 6.6 hours per day (6 hours 36 minutes)
- Media/Communications: 2.3 hours per day (2 hours 18 minutes)
- Other Activities: 1.7 hours per day (1 hour 42 minutes)
- Leisure Activities: 1.4 hours per day (1 hour 24 minutes)
- Eating/Drinking: 1 hour per day
- Grooming: 0.9 hours per day, or 54 minutes
- Playing sports: O.7 hours per day, or 42 minutes
- Working/Volunteering: 0.5 hours per day, or 30 minutes
- Doing Homework: 0.2 hours per day, or 12 minutes
- Religious Activities: 0.1 hours per day, or 6 minutes
We’ll spend a moment on that homework figure because it’s misleading.
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The big survey (American Time Use) included data collected from all American adolescents, including teens not enrolled in high school and teens already in college. However, for American teens enrolled in high school, the average time spent doing homework comes closer to an hour: fifty-four minutes, to be exact. That number comes from a separate section of the HHS survey. So, let’s revise our spare time calculation. If our adolescents spend about eight and a half hours asleep, about seven and a half hours on school-related activities, and an hour eating, what do they do for the remaining eight hours of the day?
By the numbers, they spend about sixty percent (about five hours) of that time doing things that we, as adults, would probably consider non-productive, such as using media/television, grooming, and “other” activities. Granted, teenagers need downtime just like we all do: time when we’re basically doing nothing but relaxing and recharging.
But do teens need five hours a day of downtime?
For teenagers, that sounds like a situation tailor-made for getting off track and getting in trouble.
And guess what?
The numbers say we’re right about that.
Hobbies, Extracurricular Activities, and Risky Behavior
For the sake of this article, we’ll consider all extracurricular activities – including school clubs, school/non-school sports, and individual pursuits like reading, writing, and playing music – as hobbies. Think of a hobby as anything a teenager does outside of school hours that’s not compulsory and they don’t earn money doing. Viewed through that lens, research shows adolescents with hobbies are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors compared to adolescents without hobbies. Data from a wide-ranging meta-analysis of how teens spend their time shows that teens who don’t spend any time at all doing extracurricular activities are:
- 57% more likely to drop out of high school
- 49% more likely to use drugs during their high school years
- 37% more likely to become teen parents during their high school years
- 35% more likely to smoke cigarettes during their high school years
- 27% more likely to get arrested during their high school years
There’s a minor caveat to this set of data: it’s from 1995. We use it because since then, no similar meta-analyses have been conducted which correlate the time teens spend participating in extracurricular activities with the likelihood they’ll engage in risky or problematic behaviors.
[Quick refresher: a meta-analysis is when researchers choose a large number of peer-reviewed journal publications and pool the data. They then apply statistical analyses which allow them to identify major trends like those mentioned in the bullet points above.]
However, various individual studies confirm the general theme presented by the gigantic 1995 meta-study: teens involved in extracurricular activities – i.e. hobbies – are less likely to participate in risky or problematic behaviors than teens who aren’t involved in extracurricular activities. Before we leave the big picture data to discuss the flipside – why hobbies are good for teens – we need to mention three interesting wrinkles researchers found in the numbers.
Three Curious Facts About Extracurricular Activities
- Sports. Participation in varsity school sports increases the likelihood a teenager will engage in both typical underage drinking and binge drinking.
- Arts. Participation in band, orchestra, chorus, or drama decreases the likelihood a teenager will engage in all problem behaviors, including dropping out of school, smoking, using illicit drugs, and binge drinking.
- Drinking. Participation in extracurricular activities of any sort does not reduce the likelihood that teens will engage in typical (non-binge) underage drinking.
Now that we’ve presented the facts about what happens when teenagers don’t have hobbies, we’ll move on to the discussion you’ve been waiting for: why hobbies are good for teenagers.
Teens and Hobbies: Productive Downtime
Hobbies give teenagers a chance to meet new people, discover new passions, develop skills outside of school, and do something all kids (yes, teens are part kid) should do: have fun. You don’t need peer-reviewed scientific studies to tell you that. But you might need a little reminder about adolescent development to drive home the importance of hobbies. Two of the most important things that happen during the teen years are identity formation and differentiation. Identity formation is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the process of becoming an individual with an entire set of personal wants, needs, skills, and preferences. Differentiation is part of identity formation, but – and this is crucial – differentiation is special. It’s the formation of an identity outside and apart from parents and family.
That’s where hobbies come in.
Hobbies are a great way for teens to form an identity outside their family. And hobbies that take place after school hours can be even better. They also give teenagers a chance to forge their own path outside of the watchful eye of parents and teachers. While in school, teachers act as an extension of the family. That’s the law of the land: both common law dating back centuries and the U.S. Supreme court holding that school officials can act in loco parentis, or in the place of the parents.
But things like sports and band are different: it’s common knowledge that figures like sports coaches and band directors – while they’re coaching or directing a band – are neither teachers nor parents. They help teens learn and grow in new and different ways, under a unique set of rules and norms – all while teaching them skills they don’t learn at home or in class.
In addition to facilitating basic psychological needs, hobbies benefit teens on many levels. Here’s a partial list (we’ve already mentioned a couple).
Hobbies for Teens: Ten Benefits
Hobbies help teens:
1. Discover Passions
A teenager might not know they love (insert anything: art, sports, computer coding, cooking) until they give it a shot.
2. Develop Skills
Teens can make great leaps forward when they focus on something they choose and spend time doing it on their terms.
3. Meet New People
Playing sports, learning a musical instrument, or joining a club gets kids out there meeting people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
4. Build Self-Esteem
When a teenager succeeds at something related to their hobby, such as learning a new song, scoring a goal, or writing a poem, it builds their confidence, their sense of self-worth, and increases their overall mental and emotional well-being.
5. Feel a Sense of Achievement
This is like self-esteem but it’s not the same thing. Self-esteem is general. This is specific. A teenager who takes a liking to carpentry, for instance, might build a table, a chair, a deck, or even a clubhouse, then step back and say, “Wow. I did that.” That’s a special feeling everyone should experience, especially teens.
6. Manage Time
Participating in hobbies teaches teens how to use their time wisely. Instead of spending all afternoon on the couch, they learn to allocate time toward their hobbies because they want to, not because they have to. They find out how to fit their hobby-time in with homework, family commitments, and social time – and that’s not always easy.
7. Find Out Who They Are
Most adults know developing an identity takes trial and error: you try one thing, you don’t like it, so you try another. The teenage years are the perfect time to start this process.
8. Regulate Emotions
Developing a skill takes time and patience. That means learning how to deal with emotions like anger and frustration. Time devoted to a hobby inevitably means managing the ups and downs one encounters along the way. This skill translates directly into almost every aspect of adult life.
9. Handle Adversity
While pursuing hobbies, things don’t always go perfectly. In sports, for instance, losing happens. Teenagers who understand how to rise above the bad and look toward the good get a head start on life. As adults know, adversity happens. The sooner an individual learns to deal with it, the better.
10. Learn the Value of Hard Work
While we don’t necessarily agree that all the good things in life come only from hard work, we do agree that without hard work, it’s tough to accomplish most things of significant value. When a teen chooses a hobby, they’ll have to spend time working at it in order to become proficient. And if the hobby is a sport or a fine art, they’re lucky: they get to spend a lifetime perfecting their craft. In the teenage years, this type of effort lays the foundation for achievement throughout adulthood.
Start Early, Practice Often, Enjoy the Rewards
Some hobbies are just fun. And that’s what’s great about them. They’re no big deal. They’re not school, they’re not work, they’re not family: they’re just something fun to do to pass the time. And that’s one hundred percent okay. Everyone needs a way to while away the hours, relieve stress, and have a good time while doing so. That’s the amazing thing about hobbies: they can be just that – relatively inconsequential pursuits that make you feel good – but they can also be much more. They can be a template for accomplishment, achievement, and success. They can teach a teenager valuable life lessons that resonate across the decades and enrich life on physical, emotional, and psychological levels. When you look at hobbies that way, it’s a no-brainer: you can’t afford not to have one.
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Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.