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U.S. Teens Working Hard at Loafing Around

While adolescents today work less and have more leisure time than previous generations, how do they invest these valuable hours?
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How are today's adolescents spending their time? Well, they probably aren't working.

A recently published study suggests that not only are U.S. adolescents (aged 15-17) spending fewer hours per day in paid employment (and getting paid less in real terms than their 1977 counterparts), they also invest less time in schoolwork, housework or engaging in organizational activities like clubs and youth groups.

This research in the journal Youth and Society seems to contradict the prevailing notion that today's teens are stressed and overloaded with schoolwork, organized sports, hobbies, standardized test preparation and extracurricular activities in an effort to compile a sterling résumé that will impress college admissions offices. Adolescents, it seems, may have more free time than previously thought.

This new data comes from a study by the University of Utah's Cathleen D. Zick, who compared time diaries and time-use surveys from 1977-1978 and 2003-2005 to examine, in six broad categories, where adolescents invest their time. These categories include personal care, housework, paid work, schoolwork, organizational activities and leisure.

Her findings suggests that, although the median income of two-parent, two-child families has "substantially" fallen from 1977-1978, and while teens' average real wage is approximately $2 per hour lower, leisure time for today's youth has risen considerably while paid work time has tailed off.

While the decline in paid work time is likely welcomed by adolescents, if that extra time is spent only in leisure activities —especially "passive" leisure activities like watching TV or movies, socializing or talking on the phone — it simply becomes a waste of time. Although the study doesn't draw conclusions, it doesn't seem too far a stretch to link the rise of adolescent leisure time with the growing epidemic of teen obesity.

Zick's research notes that while leisure time for adolescents increased compared to their counterparts in 1977, time spent on housework, schoolwork and attending organizational activities decreased. In 2003-2005 boys, on average, spent more than an hour less each day in paid work and 15 minutes less on housework and schoolwork — while leisure time increased by more than an hour and a half. Two-thirds of this leisure time is spent engaging in passive activities (which — the Wii aside — doesn't include physical activities such as sports).

Girls' paid work time has decreased since 1977-1978 by slightly more than a half-hour while leisure time has risen by almost an hour per day. Girls, while spending 75 percent of their leisure time on passive activities, are also more likely than boys to participate in mentally challenging activities such as playing an instrument or reading for pleasure.

While relaxation and socializing is a healthy, and necessary, part of adolescent's creative and independent growth, it's still discouraging to see that 36 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys spend all of their leisure exclusively on passive activities, which is 4.5 hours a day.

That's four-and-a-half hours a day where those percentages of adolescents don't play sports, spend time reading for pleasure, engage in hobbies, play an instrument, write or exercise.

Maybe they could, you know, get a job.