Young adults who are involved in their communities through voting, volunteering, grow up to be adults with better health, education, and income. A new study found a pattern of positive associations of voting and volunteering with these important aspects of adult development, but a mix of positive and negative outcomes in adulthood for activism as a form of civic engagement.
‘Volunteering and voting are associated with better mental health and fewer risky health behaviors but activism is linked to substance use and unhealthy eating habits.’Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.
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"Engaging in civic life is worthwhile for many reasons," suggests Parissa J. Ballard, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine, who led the study.
"It can build community, fulfill social needs, change policies, and ensure a healthy democracy. Our study suggests that civic engagement is also generally good for the people involved, although there are some exceptions to the pattern."
The study used nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health to estimate how civic engagement was associated with outcomes among 9,471 adolescents and young adults (ages 18 to 26).
Outcomes examined included socioeconomic status (e.g., educational attainment, personal earnings, household income) as well as mental and physical health (e.g., symptoms of depression, risky health behaviors, metabolic markers).
The research team looked at three types of civic engagement - voting, volunteering, and activism. All three were associated positively with subsequent income and education level. Volunteering and voting were associated with better mental health and fewer risky health behaviors (such as substance use and unhealthy eating habits), but not physical health.
"Adolescents and young adults should take advantage of meaningful opportunities for civic engagement," notes Lindsay Till Hoyt, assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University, who co-authored the study.
"Many types of civic engagement may be positive for young people by contributing to their educational and income trajectories. It remains to be seen why volunteering and voting were related over time to positive mental health and health behavior, while activism was related to more risky health behaviors in adulthood. One possibility is that youth who engage in activism may feel frustrated when things are slow to change."