All Work and No Play?

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 All Work and No Play?


The vast majority of students draw an explicit connection between kids being bored and kids getting into trouble. Half say that they them selves are some times or often bored. And while most are involved in activities, many youngsters seem to be at a loss for productive things to do during their leisure hours. The majority say that when they get together with friends, they typically hang out without any thing special planned. Most complain that in their community “there’s not much for kids my age to do other than go to school or just hang out.” While most young people believe their own town could provide more options, they are more likely to point to lack of motivation—not lack of alternatives—as the main reason more kids don’t participate in organized activities

All Work and No Play? offers a nice dose of good news for anyone concerned about the lives and prospects of today’s youngsters. Most students tell us that they have access to at least some organized out-of-school activities, and the vast majority of those who participate consider them interesting, enjoyable and satisfying both intellectually and emotionally.

But side by side with this upbeat message is a much less reassuring one. Naturally, there are some times during the day that are unstructured, hours when there is no particular place to be, nothing specific planned to do. For adolescents left to their own devices, today’s communities can present a combustible mix of boredom and temptation. Both the focus group and survey findings indicate that when teenagers have too little to do, their free time weighs heavily on their hands. For many youngsters—black or white, urban or suburban, rich or poor—drugs, alcohol or sex seem to be no more than a conversation or phone call away.

What Do Parents Know and When Do They Know It?

Today’s parents often voice anxiety and even fear about the sea of risks and temptations adolescents are exposed to. A recent Public Agenda study for State Farm, for example, found that about 8 in 10 parents (79%) say they are worried about protecting their child from drugs and alcohol, with more than half (55%) saying they “worry a lot” about this.4 In the current study, more than 8 in10 parents (83%) say these are dangerous times to raise kids.

In focus groups, parents worried aloud about their fear that drugs of choice today are so much more dangerous than in their day. One mother who had recently relocated to suburban Arizona said, “The drug issue here—I don’t know if we were just really sheltered in Nebraska, but certainly when I was growing up, and when my 25-year-old was a teenager there, the drugs of choice were beer and marijuana. Here they’re beer, marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and all that more scary stuff.”

But most parents surveyed here also seem to regard their own neighborhoods and communities as relatively safe havens. The vast majority of parents (91%) say their neighborhood is “generally the kind of place where it’s safe for your child to be outside and have fun.” More than 8 in 10 (81%) say their neighborhood is “the kind of place where people really watch out for each other’s kids.”

Unfortunately, this genial picture is not the same one the youngsters depict. For many of today’s adolescents, the dangers, risks and temptations of modern teenage life lie extremely close at hand. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol or casual sex, many American youngsters seem to know some-one their own age who has done it. And it may be more than a passing acquaintance with a couple of trouble makers at school. More than 6 in 10 youngsters (63%) agree that “my parents would be very upset if they knew some of the things my friends have done.”

In the Oregon focus group, which included both middle and high school students, participants laughed at the naïveté of the moderator when she suggested that most kids aren’t having sex or doing drugs. According to one young man, the experimentation starts early. “I think more freshmen get in trouble than more seniors, as far as stuff like that,” he said. Another participant chimed in, “Because they’re trying to prove them-selves.” Still, the group did seem shocked at the extent of sexual activity among the junior high set. A sixth grader told the group: “I used to be best friends with this girl. She was totally fine…then this year, she just totally changed. She stopped doing everything she used to do and just changed…like, not doing good things…she had sex.”

Just Ask the Right People

All Work and No Play? confirms once again what other researchers have repeatedly shown—that using and abusing drugs and alcohol are all too common adolescent activities. A recent Robert Wood Johnson/Partnership for a Drug-Free America survey showed that over half of teens in grades 7 through 12 say someone has tried to sell or give them drugs.5 In this study, 26% of youngsters overall say that they “see people their age using drugs or alcohol” every day or al most every day, although the same proportion (26%) say that they never see this kind of behavior. Not surprisingly, high school students are considerably more likely than those in middle school to say they see peers using drugs or alcohol so frequently (35% vs. 13%).

“Right now,” one Arizona teen told us, “I basically know maybe five or six people who actually do drugs or some thing like that. I’ll go down to [the local mall], and I’ll see people walking around with cigarettes. I rarely ever see any fights or any thing, but just basically drugs are the main problem. Sometimes I’ll see a few people walking around with some alcohol and stuff like that…. I rarely ever see security guards or any police officers.” Another girl confirmed that the mall was the place to go for drugs: “Basically, you can go down [there] and just ask the right people, and you can get it.”

Kids in Oregon offered a similar assessment. “It’s so easy to get to,” said one girl. Another boy agreed: “Yeah, it’s so easy to get to it. Like, if they wanted to take the hero in, they could take it because it’s so easy to get it.” Another boy added this less-than-comforting reassurance: “Some kids, they kind of learned a little bit about how serious they can get, but most of them do the weed and the crack, because you find them all over the place.” Alcohol, too, the youngsters said, was easily available.

Boredom Creeps In

And in the midst of this milieu of temptation are plenty of bored, sometimes alienated kids. In this study, half of the youngsters surveyed (50%) say they are bored sometimes or often. Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) say a lot or some of the kids at school complain about being bored. Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) say that when they get together with friends, it’s usually to hangout without anything specific to do; only 26% say they usually get together with friends to do something specific.

Of course, lack of organized activities or even boredom doesn’t always lead adolescents into risky or illegal behavior, but youngsters themselves accept the connection. More than three-quarters (77%) agree that “a lot of kids get into trouble when they’re bored and have nothing to do,” with 4 in 10 (40%) saying that they agree strongly. In focus groups, youngsters often spoke about the trajectory from boredom to bad behavior.

“I think people do stupid stuff when they are bored,” one Colorado teen told us. “That’s how I got into trouble, just being stupid. We were really bored and just had to make a game out of stuff. We got in trouble for breaking and entering. It wasn’t a bad thing. It was over on [name of road]. There are all these mansions that are unbuilt [sic]. We were playing hide-and-go-seek in there. We caused a lot of problems.” Another said, “I started leaning towards that area, but I got out of it really quick. I’ve had friends that got into a lot of trouble. They weren’t into school activities. They wouldn’t do anything. They started doing drugs and stuff. I think it is just because you are trying to find stuff to do. Sometimes you just can’t find stuff.”

Idle Hands?

While the majority of students see an explicit connection between boredom and trouble, their thinking about it is not necessarily simplistic, nor do they absolve adolescents themselves of blame. One Arizona youngster suggested that upbringing and personality produce essentially different types of adolescents, some involved and staying out of trouble, others unmotivated, bored and getting into it. “People that are involved a lot in school aren’t people that do those types of things, typically. There’s some exceptions, but in general I think that…people that do those types of things, I don’t know if they’re bored, but I just don’t think they’re all that busy in their lives.”

And in focus groups, kids who were active sometimes voiced a disdain with hanging out, describing it as better in small doses and perhaps better in the abstract than in the reality. A Portland youngster said: “I’d rather have the plan[ned] thing, because playing basketball is fun, and other stuff, sports. I’d like that. But hanging out, all you’re doing is talking, and then you talk, talk, talk, and then you have nothing else to talk about and it’s all over.”

At the same time, several youngsters also pointed out that being active is no guarantee of good judgment or good behavior—top school athletes who drink to near oblivion was one specific example that came up in the focus groups. A Texas student told us, “I know of a couple of people that are in sports and stuff and they go out and drink all the time, and they do drugs all the time.” Overall, a little less than half of youngsters say that the main reason kids get into trouble is boredom (46%), vs. 39% who say the main reason is parents not paying enough attention. Just over 1 in 10 (11%) say it’s because kids don’t know right from wrong.

Why Don’t More Kids Join Stuff?

It is not entirely clear from this study whether youngsters who are bored and at loose ends actually lack good options or whether they just don’t take advantage of them. A large majority of youngsters themselves (71%) believe that when kids don’t participate in organized activities after school or on weekends, it’s because they are just not interested or motivated. Far smaller proportions point to other reasons such as most things being too expensive (29%), most things being too faraway (28%) or that there is nothing right for their age (15%). As we point out in Finding 3, low-income and minority families report having fewer choices, more trouble covering fees, more transportation problems and less positive views of the quality of programs and activities available where they live.

Leisure Time Void

Of course, as any parent of an adolescent might tell you, teenagers’ complaints about boredom may need to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, even among those who are involved in three or more organized activities during the course of the school year, almost half (48%) say they are bored and have nothing to do at least some of the time. And, as we reported earlier, the vast majority of kids are involved in some type of activity, so offerings are available to most who want to take part. Still, the findings do suggest that there is something of a void when it comes to leisure time and having things to do with friends when youngsters are not involved in an organized or structured activity.

More than 1 in 3 students surveyed (36%) say that when they do have free time to do whatever they choose, it usually ends up being wasted time (although a majority [57%] say they use their free time productively). More than half (54%) indicate their communities leave much to be desired, saying that “there’s not much for kids my age to do other than go to school or just hang out.” In the same vein, more than 7 in 10 (72%) say their neighborhood could realistically be doing much more when it comes to having enough things for kids their age to do. Less than half (46%) say there’s a community center near home “where kids your age can go in the evenings to hang out and do things.” Ironically, only 23% of youngsters who have a community center nearby use it regularly, but more than 6 in 10 (62%) of those who don’t have one handy think they would use it if they did.

The Teen Gap

In the focus groups, both parents and students also suggested that there is something of a “teen gap” in their communities—plentiful organized activities for young children or middle school students, but nothing suitable for the age and interests of older teens. In Texas, one mother of teenagers commented, “They want a place to hang. They don’t want to hang at Mom and Dad’s house. It doesn’t matter that we’ve got a video room and a pool table and all the comforts of home, and Mom will buy the pizza for them. They want to go some-where else and hang and chitchat with their friends and have some music and whatnot.” According to one young man we interviewed, the deli is the place in his neighborhood where all the kids congregate when they have nothing to do. About the nearby community center that is available to them, this is what he had to say: “What usually happens at the community center is little kids’ karate and old people’s aerobics.” There’s nothing for people his age.

Summertime Blues?

As long as there have been school days, there have been youngsters looking forward to summer vacation. But there is evidence in the survey that for some youngsters and their parents, finding ways to keep busy and engaged during the summer is especially challenging. While almost 6 in 10 students (58%) are generally satisfied with the number of activities and things they can choose to do during the summer, more than 4 in 10 (41%) say they “really don’t have enough good choices.” And almost half of youngsters (47%) point to the summer months as the hardest time to find interesting things to do (33% point instead to after-school hours and 14% to week-ends). In fact, at the time this survey was conducted in June, as much as 43% of students said their summer plans were “still up in the air” (although 56% said their plans were set).

Parents, for their part, are especially concerned about summer. By an overwhelming margin, they pick summer as the hardest time to make sure their child has things to do (58%)—the next closest is 14% for after-school hours and 13% for the weekend. Not only are most parents concerned that they won’t be able to afford the things their child wants to do (52%), but large numbers also express concern that boredom will set in (50%) and that there won’t be enough activities available to capture their child’s interest (44%). Almost 4 in 10 (38%) are concerned that their child will fall behind on academics—a factor that perhaps contributes to the substantial number of students (56%) who would be interested in a summer program to help them keep up with schoolwork.

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