Rural Teens Who Volunteer Help Others Have Lower Levels of Substance Use

posted Dec 1, 2011, 9:21 AM by Jared Libby   [ updated Jan 5, 2013, 8:35 AM by Maria Geueke ]
Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 report the highest rates of substance use and dependence, according to the National Survey on Drug Use & Health. A new study from the University of Missouri found that rural adolescents who engage in pro-social behaviors, such as volunteering and helping others, are less likely to use substances as young adults. 

Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, examined data from surveys given to a group of rural youths from junior high school to young adulthood. Carlo found that pro-social behaviors serve as protective factors against adolescents engaging in risky behaviors. Thus, teens who engage in more pro-social behaviors are less likely to get drunk or use marijuana as young adults. 

"Pro-social behaviors are good for society and communities, but also they are a marker of moral development," Carlo said. "Parents want their kids to be kind, selfless, considerate and respectful. We now have evidence that these pro-social behaviors make adolescents less likely to break moral codes and engage in illegal activities like getting drunk and smoking marijuana." 

The study focused on rural youths because previous research indicates they may be more apt to use illicit substances earlier, putting them at risk for developing addiction problems as adults. Rural communities tend to be more spread out, making it difficult for adolescents to get transportation to events and activities. In addition, rural communities often have less access to recreation centers, spaces for meetings, volunteers to run programs and funding for organized activities.

"There is a tendency for youths to take part in risky behaviors if they are not engaged in positive, structured activities," Carlo said. "Many rural communities have suffered from the economic downturn and are unable to offer opportunities for youth activities. Financial stress can also affect the psychological health of parents making them less cognizant of how children spend their time." 

Carlo says the research has important implications for substance use prevention and intervention programs aimed at teens. "Research shows that prevention programs are more effective and economical," Carlo said. "If we can develop programs that foster pro-social behaviors, we know the programs will decrease the likelihood that adolescents will use substances in adulthood. 

The study, "The Longitudinal Relationships Between Rural Adolescents' Pro-social Behaviors and Young Adult
Substance Use," was published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.