Decreases in risk behaviors for students with very high levels of participation in out-of-school time activities.

We have reported extensively over the past few years of the benefits that come with participation in afterschool and extracurricular activities. High school students in Vermont are generally more likely to earn good grades, feel connected with their communities, and engage in healthy physical activities as they participate in more activities outside the school day. They are also less likely to engage in aggressive behavior such as carrying weapons and bullying, use and abuse drugs and alcohol, and attempt suicide. These findings are based data from the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) as completed by high school students in 2015, 2017, and 2019.

We also know from these data that students who participate in very high levels of extracurricular programming, defined as 20 or more hours per week, generally do not experience the same benefits and decreases in risk behaviors. For example, in 2017, 20% of students who participated in 20 or more hours of weekly activities reported binge drinking, compared with students who participated in fewer hours, of whom up to 17% reported binge drinking. The chart below illustrates these findings.

Similarly in 2017, 10% of students who participated in 20 or more hours of activities reported driving under the influence at some point. This was the same percentage of among students who did not participate in any hours of extracurricular activities. Only about 5-6% of students who participated between 1 and 19 hours of programming reported driving under the influence. The chart below shows these outcomes for all three years.

Likewise, students with very high levels of extracurricular participation eliciting outcomes similar to students without any extracurricular program participation were seen for measures related to alcohol and substance use, riding and driving in vehicles while under the influence, aggressive behavior, and pregnancy prevention.

We don’t know for sure why exactly this is, but other researchers have observed similar effects. In 2002, Harvard researchers Marsh and Kleitman1 came up with the threshold model based on their own research on extracurricular activity participation. They noticed increasing benefits until and ‘inflection point,’ at which point there were diminishing returns for extremely high levels of participation. In 2012, Randall and Bohnert2 took these findings a step further and found that this phenomena of decreasing benefits at the 20+ hours level was mainly specific to males involved in sports and to students from lower-income families. They postulated that in sports, males are more intensely involved in the competitive aspects and therefore don’t experience the collateral benefits of camaraderie as much as females do. They also pointed to the overscheduling hypothesis, particularly for youth from lower-income families. For these youth, excessive hours of school and activities in addition to other pressures such as possible part-time jobs and caring for younger siblings may limit the extent to which they are able to be successful in other areas.

The main takeaway from the research at this point in time is that while the percentage of students who spend 20 or more weekly hours in extracurricular activities is relatively small (just 6.4% of Vermont high school students in 2019), for many students, this rate of participation is correlated with diminished positive effects. Researchers have noticed this and have some ideas as to why this, but there are not prevailing theories yet.

The good news is that these diminished benefits seem to be becoming less severe, at least here in Vermont. Between 2015 and 2019, there were significant decreases in the percentages of students who participated in very high levels of activities outside the school day and who engaged in each of several risky activities. The chart below provides a visual summary of such changes.

We can see from the chart that between 2015 and 2019, the percent of students with very high weekly activity participation and those that reported drinking alcohol decreased from 36% to 30%. Likewise, the percentage of such students who reported binge drinking decreased to 6% from 8% in 2017 and from 7% in 2015. The percentage of students who had very high weekly participation and also reported having ever used illegal drugs also decreased by a percentage point – from 8% in 2017 to 7% in 2019.
There were larger differences in areas related to aggressive behavior for these high participation groups. In 2015, 23% reported having been in a physical fight in the most recent year. By 2019, this percentage had fallen to 20%. Likewise, 11% of high school students in the high participation group reported carrying a weapon to school in the most recent month in 2015 and this percentage decreased to 5% in 2019.

There were decreases in a few other areas as well. Students in the high participation group that reported riding in a vehicle with someone who was driving under the influence decreased from 24% in 2015 to 18% in 2019. Similarly, students in the high participation group who reported driving under the influence themselves decreased from 10% in 2015 to 7% in 2019. Finally, among students in the high participation group who were also sexually active 10% reported not using any contraception in 2015, while 5% reported not using any pregnancy prevention methods in 2019.

These are promising findings. They reveal decreases in the percentages of students who engage in risky or unhealthy behaviors among those who participated in 20 or more weekly hours or programming outside the school day. Without a clear understanding for the reason that risk behaviors are more prevalent at this high level of participation in the first place, it is impossible to know for sure what the changes can be attributed to. Further analysis is needed for a deeper understanding, but we do know that these findings point to overall positive changes for the small percentage of youth that have very high levels of participation of activities outside the school day.

1Marsh, H.W., & Kleitman, S. (2002). Extracurricular School Activities: The Good, the Bad, and the Nonlinear. Harvard Educational Review, 72, 464-514.

2Randall, E.T., & Bohnert, A. (2012). Understanding threshold effects of organized activity involvement in adolescents: sex and family income as moderators. Journal of adolescence, 35 1, 107-18.