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Portraits of American Teens’ Leisure Time Use

A new CIRCLE paper—with a bit of pop culture flair—explores how young people use their time outside of school, and what it means for their academic and civic development.

Today we are releasing CIRCLE Working Paper #80: “Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Neville – Portraits of American Teenagers’ Extracurricular Involvement, and Implications for Educational Interventions.”

The ways American teenagers use their leisure time have evolved dramatically in the past few decades. These changes are not all good or bad for civic education, but they fundamentally shift the environments in which young people learn to be citizens. It is therefore important to understand these changing patterns. This new paper by CIRCLE Deputy Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg takes a look at adolescent time-use trends in the past decades, with a particular focus on students’ choice of extracurricular activities. Kawashima-Ginsberg’s work is innovative, in that she was able to identify six separate “clusters” that describe not just a teenager’s extracurricular involvement, but other important traits like educational attainment, self-regard, and socioeconomic status.

To provide additional context and a familiar frame of reference, each cluster is represented by a character from the Harry Potter series:

  • Harry Potter, himself, is like the Leaders, a small number of students who join student government and engage in volunteering or community organizations. Leaders tend to say that they enjoy school, and are among the most academically competent and ambitious.
  • Hermione Granger represents the Brains, students who focus on academically-oriented activities such as academic clubs and school newspapers. This group is most likely to volunteer in the community and least likely to spend time on “unstructured” activities like visiting friends.
  • Fred and George Weasley are the Slackers. Students in this group spend little time on organized activities; instead, many of them spend their time on paid work and on social activities with friends. Most of them do not volunteer in the community, and they tend to report negative academic behaviors.
  • Ron Weasley is one of the Athletes, the largest and most male-dominated group. They spend time playing sports or doing other physical activities, through school clubs and outside of school. They also tend to be social, are generally happy, and enjoy life.
  • Luna Lovegood represents the Artists. Teens in this group focus on a variety of artistic endeavors and are unlikely to spend time on other types of activities. They tend to value independence and adventure; artists have independent minds and do not seem to worry about what others think.
  • Neville Longbottom is like many Invisibles, the least engaged of all students. They do not participate in school-sponsored clubs or social activities outside of school.  They show significant signs of low self-esteem and possibly general dissatisfaction with life, as well as low GPA and low academic ambitions.

The paper discusses several factors that may affect how teenagers are spending their out-of-school time, with particular attention to socioeconomic level. The least engaged students, like the Slackers and Invisibles, tend to come from the poorest families. This may affect not only the financial resources available for extracurricular activities, but also the ways in which parents view and organize their children’s time use.

Kawashima-Ginsberg also focuses on the ways that targeted outreach can potentially help students like the Invisibles. Much like Neville, who eventually finds his footing in life and becomes a confident young man, providing appropriate opportunities for these teens may aid in their development as students and citizens.

The Social Class Divide

This variations in time use, and the “clusters” of like-minded students that it creates, can partially be attributed to personal preference. However, it also reflects troubling gaps based on widening social disparities.

The study’s findings reflect the growing gap in the resources that families have to spend on extracurricular activities. Lower-income families are increasingly burdened by the cost associated extracurricular activities while wealthy families spend more and more, without a sizable dent in the family’s household income. As a result, a wealthy family today spends 8.5 times as much money as a poor family does on extracurricular activities annually. The cluster analysis bears this out, as students in the Slackers/Weasley Twins and Invisibles/Neville cliques are the most likely to come from working-class families, and their parents tend to have the lowest educational attainment.

For these families, organized extracurricular activities are often simply unaffordable, especially given the widening income gap. As Kawashima-Ginsberg discusses, however, that is far from the only reason that students from working-class backgrounds tend to be more disengaged. These young people are also more likely to live in communities and attend schools that do not offer the amount or range of activities that youth in middle or upper-class neighborhoods enjoy. Their families may also view non-structured differently; not as an opportunity to acquire skills or build a college resume, but as cherished leisure time to be enjoyed before having to face the responsibilities of adulthood.

Kawashima-Ginsberg carefully articulates how the dynamic may advantage and disadvantage both groups. While those in organized activities may learn how to navigate and trust institutions, they may not have the opportunity to organize themselves (i.e. collective action). Those youth who participate in more informal activities may learn how to interact in a group and handle conflict, but miss opportunities to develop relationships and trust in institutions and adults.