Volunteering is on the decline among teens, according to a recent study by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute. Researchers say many factors contribute, including busier school and extracurricular schedules, families relocating more frequently and the rise in social media and online communities. It may be hard to find time to get involved, but teens who volunteer get big benefits like transferable life and job skills, increases in empathy and self-esteem, and a sense of purpose that protects their mental health. Here are five ways volunteering can make your teen’s life more meaningful:


Volunteering increases teens’ self-esteem.

Teens who spend time helping strangers get a big boost in self-esteem and self-confidence, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescence. Teens who agreed with statements like \”I help people I don\’t know, even if it\’s not easy for me,\” and \”I voluntarily help my neighbors,\” also scored higher on questions related to self-esteem. Researchers say when teens go outside their comfort zone to help someone they don’t know, it boosts both altruism and self-assuredness. The study’s author Laura Padilla-Walker says, “Helping a stranger is more challenging than assisting a friend, and when teens take this risk, they feel more competent.” 


Volunteering strengthens college applications.

Does volunteering really make a difference on college applications? In a recent survey, 58% of college admissions personnel said Yes. They agreed that “a student’s community service experience has a positive impact on his or her acceptance to our higher education institution.” Fifty-three percent said community service is a deciding factor between equally qualified students. But admissions officers aren’t just interested in what teens have done– they also want to know what teens have learned and how volunteering has impacted their worldview. The most valued volunteer experiences are those that showcase a teen’s initiative, leadership skills, capacity for teamwork, and personal growth.


Volunteering helps teens discover their purpose.

Having a sense of purpose, and even searching for purpose, protects teens’ mental health by helping them feel more hopeful, positive and satisfied with their lives. Researcher Kendall Cotton Bronk says teens most often start to develop a sense of purpose when at least one of three ingredients is present: an important life event, serving others in a meaningful way, or changes in life circumstances. Volunteering can open up all these opportunities and more. It encourages exploration, introduces teens to unfamiliar places, people, and viewpoints, and empowers them to take action. Teens who are making a difference are also developing their personal values and beliefs and figuring out what motivates them: all factors that help them discover their purpose. 


Volunteering teaches teens real-world skills.

Leadership. Time management. Critical thinking. Problem solving. Volunteering teaches teens transferable skills that prepare them for college, jobs and other adult-level responsibilities. Teens can try out different careers, volunteer with organizations and individuals in a variety of fields, and get to know their own interests, likes and dislikes. Volunteering is also a great way for teens to meet potential mentors, start building their networks and make connections in the community. And as teens learn practical skills and acquire experience, they grow in both competence and confidence.


Volunteering increases empathy.

Ever heard of Selfie Syndrome? According to Michele Borba, researcher and author of Unselfie, teens today are 40% less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Too much virtual reality can lead teens to become more isolated and self-focused. Borba says empathy is the antidote, and it can be taught and nurtured through volunteering. Teens who volunteer learn critical prosocial skills like helping, sharing, and resolving conflict. Immersed in realities that may be very different from their own, they learn to look at the world through the eyes of others. And Dr. Borba says that increasing empathy isn’t just beneficial to society: “A healthy sense of empathy is a key predictor of which kids will thrive and succeed in the future.” 

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