Of all the organized activities teens participate in, faith-based youth groups provide the highest rates of personal and interpersonal growth experiences, according to a new University of Illinois study published in the September issue of Developmental Psychology.
Religious youth groups also stand out from the classroom, part-time jobs, and hanging out with friends as contexts in which such growth occurs, the study of over 2,000 eleventh graders reported.
"Faith-based youth groups give teens rich opportunities for identity development, learning to regulate their emotions, and developing positive relationships with peers and meaningful connections with adults," said Reed W. Larson, the Pampered Chef, Ltd., Endowed Chair of Family Resiliency at the U of I.
The teens in the study rated faith-based youth groups higher than sports, performance and fine arts groups, academic clubs, service groups, and community-oriented activities such as scouting, said the researcher.
"Youth reported frequent personal and social growth experiences across these activities, but they reported them most often in religious youth groups," he said.
For example, in the study, 66 percent of students in faith-based activities reported "This activity got me to thinking about who I am," compared to 33 percent in other organized activities, he said.
Forty percent of students in faith-based groups said they "got to know people in the community," compared to 20 percent of students in other organized activities. And 46 percent of teens in faith-based groups reported "This activity improved my relationship with my parents" versus 21 percent of students in other activities, he said.
Why are growth experiences so frequent in faith-based youth groups? "We think it is because these groups--whether at church, synagogue, or mosque--provide a positive belief system that addresses the issues that teens struggle with.
"Faith-based groups give teens the opportunity for self-exploration, discussing values, and figuring out where they fit in the world. This doesn't happen as often in other settings," he said.
The belief system provided by such groups acts as a "glue" that connects teens to their peers and adults in a positive way, said Larson.
"Although scholars tend to ignore the spiritual dimension of teenagers' lives, research suggests that religion is an important part of teens' experiences," he added.
The statistics come from Larson's survey of 2,280 eleventh graders in 19 diverse schools, in which Larson and collaborator David M. Hansen used laptop computers to ask the teens about their learning experiences in extracurricular activities. The study also asked teens how often they had such experiences in the classroom, at part-time jobs, and while hanging out with friends.
The six types of growth experiences surveyed were identity work, initiative development, emotional regulation, teamwork and social skills, positive relationships with peers, and positive relationships with adults.
Negative experiences, such as stress, inappropriate adult behavior, peer pressure and influence, social exclusion, and negative group dynamics, were also assessed.
"Other types of activities had high rankings in some of the personal and interpersonal skill categories but not across as broad a spectrum as faith-based activities," Hansen said.
For example, students in organized sports reported high rates of initiative experiences; 61 percent said that they had "learned to push myself" compared to 36 percent in other activities. These students also reported high rates of learning about regulating their emotions. But youth in sports also reported higher levels of stress.
Performance and fine arts groups ranked high in initiative development, while academic clubs and organizations scored significantly lower than other activities in four of the six categories.
All types of organized activities ranked higher in the growth experiences surveyed than the youths' school classes.
"Schools have to place so much emphasis now on developing cognitive skills that they're less able to provide some of these other types of learning experiences," Larson said.
"But these types of personal and interpersonal growth are very important to raising a family and being a contributing member of the community. Having emotional intelligence, being able to work in a team, and being able to manage your emotions in a group setting are skills that employers are looking for," he said.
Yet even working part-time didn't provide these experiences as much as faith-based activities, and 21 percent of working students said their jobs "stressed them out."
"Hanging out with friends" also provided learning experiences across the spectrum, but it too was associated with more negative experiences," said Larson. "For example, 18 percent of teens reported of their time with friends: 'Youth in this activity got me into drinking alcohol or using drugs.'"
Larson and Hansen from the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois and Giovanni Moneta of London Metropolitan University co-authored the article. The study was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation.