A new study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center chronicles the impacts of activism on young participants. The findings were released as students in North Carolina are taking part in nationwide protests against gun violence.

Principal investigator Parissa Ballard says past research has shown that taking part in civic activities can help people feel more connected and help build stronger communities. This study goes further.

“We wanted to know if civic engagement in adolescence could enhance people's health, education level and income as they become adults,” says Ballard.

Dr. Perissa Ballard led the study on civic engagement and its impact on youth. Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

More than 9,000 young people aged 18-27 were tracked for six years following their civic engagement in voting, volunteering or activism.

Ballard and her team then examined how those activities related to later outcomes regardless of participants' background characteristics, including levels of health and parental education. All three groups in the study showed greater potential for obtaining higher levels of education and income. It also finds volunteering and voting groups have positive mental and health behaviors.

But activist teens are more likely to be involved in risky behaviors like smoking and drinking later on in life. Ballard says it appears that young idealism may come with a cost.

“We know that things like volunteering generally are non-controversial. But activism is often really controversial, and I think can feel really frustrating and stressful,” says Ballard. “Especially because social issues and policies are usually pretty slow to change.”

Ballard recommends that parents and mentors of would-be activists talk with young people about what they expect to get out of their work, and help them manage expectations to include small wins as opposed to big, immediate changes.

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