Teen Employment May Not Always Be a Boon for At-Risk Youth


young woman smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee

While we may think that it makes intuitive sense to encourage at-risk youth to seek employment, our findings in recent work funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggest that the opposite could be true.

Employment can build character for many teens, especially as they balance work and school, learn how to manage their paychecks, and are accountable to their employers and coworkers. However, not all teens reap these benefits—and in fact, for some teens, employment can lead to unwanted habits and behaviors.

Our study of teens with a first-time alcohol or drug offense showed that when teens worked a greater number of hours during the school year, they were at greater risk for alcohol-related negative consequences and had greater contact with co-workers who drink or use drugs. Other studies, such as a recent study by RAND's Rajeev Ramchand, have also shown that teens who work during the school year are also more likely to start smoking compared to teens who do not work.

Parents and employers play a critical role. They can help ensure that teens are working fewer hours and in a safe and sober environment that provides adult mentoring and learning opportunities. For example parents can be involved by asking their teens about their coworkers and helping them balance school and work responsibilities. Employers can limit the number of hours teens work and provide training in new skills. For all teens, and especially those who have already experienced problems related to alcohol and drug use, it is essential to monitor the quality of work experiences and keep in mind that some work environments might increase risk for substance use.

The authors are behavioral scientists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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