Working more than 20 hours a week is a bad idea for teens – National Consumers League

These days, being a teenager isn’t easy. Teens’ overburdened schedules often include juggling afterschool activities, sports practice, and homework, which combined with working part time for extra spending money or to contribute to household expenses, leaves many teens feeling overworked, stressed, and stretched to the limit.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, close to a quarter of all U.S. high school students participate in the workforce.  Legislators are well aware of the hectic pace of adolescence, and most states place limits on the amount of hours teens can work, with 20 hours a week the standard limit. Despite the considerable evidence working over the 20 hour limit leads to slipping grades, increased dropout rates, and other behavioral problems, states like Missouri and Maine have recently introduced legislation that would repeal many child labor protections or increase the amount of hours teens are allowed to work.

Research has consistently shown that working over the standard 20 hour a week limit negatively affects teens in a variety of ways:

Academic & behavioral problems. Researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Virginia, and Temple University issued a recent report finding that working more than 20 hours a week during the school year leads to academic and behavior problems. [Source: Monahan, Lee & Steinberg, Child Development, January/February 2011.]

  • The more hours a student works, the more likely their grades are to be lower. [Source: Singh, Journal of Educational Research, 91.]
  • Low grades—even a small difference in sleep matters. Researchers from the College of the Holy Cross, and Brown University Medical School found that students who reported that they were getting C’s, D’s and F’s in school obtained about 25 minutes less sleep and went to bed about 40 minutes later than students who reported they were getting A’s and B’s. Even a little sleep makes a big difference! [Source: Wolfson & Carskadon, Child Development, 1998.]

Dropping out. A study published in the Sociology of Education demonstrates that working more than 20 hours each week leads to higher dropout rates [Source: D’Amico, Sociology of Education, 57]

  • Another study in the American Educational Research Journal (AERJ) reports that students who work between 1 and 15 hours per week are more likely to complete high school; however, students who work more than 15 hours each week are more likely to drop out.  [Source: Warren, LePore & Mare, AERJ, 37]

Sports & after school activities. Youth who work long hours may also be unable to take full advantage of valuable extra curricula and community activities that promote learning and school engagement [Source: McNeal 1995; Osgood 1999; Schoenhals et al. Sociology of Education, 83, 1998].

Youth work and college. Research suggests that high school student who don’t work at all or work more than 20 hours are less likely to go to college than students who work 1-20 hours. [Source: U.S. Department of Labor. Report on the Youth Labor Force. (2000).]

Lack of sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than one quarter of high school students fall asleep in class now. Four in 10 adolescents go to bed after 11:00 pm on school nights. “Almost all teen-agers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep,” observes  Cornell University psychologist James Maas, PhD, one of the nation’s leading sleep experts.

  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified adolescents and young adults (ages 12 to 25 years) as a population at high risk for problem sleepiness based on “evidence that the prevalence of problem sleepiness is high and increasing with particularly serious consequences.” (NIH, 1997) [source: National Sleep Foundation web site]
  • One of the major recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation’s research report Adolescent Sleep Needs and Patterns: “Child labor laws [are needed] to restrict the number of hours and the time of day that adolescents are permitted to work.”

Driving deaths. Sleepiness can contribute to injuries and deaths related to lapses in attention and delayed response times at critical moments, especially while driving. Drowsiness or fatigue has been identified as a principle cause in at least 100,000 police-reported traffic crashes each year, killing more than 1,500 Americans and injuring another 71,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, 1994). Young drivers age 25 or under are involved in more than one-half of fall-asleep crashes. [Source: National Sleep Foundation web site].

According to a report in Forbes, 49% of fatal crashes happen at night, with a fatality rate per mile of travel about three times as high as daytime hours. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatal crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers occurredfour times more at night than during the day (37 percent versus 9 percent). If Maine allows teens to work till 11:00 as proposed legislation would allow, the number of teens killed or injured in drunk-driving accidents will increase.

Workplace injuries. Each year, about 230,000 teens are injured at work. Longer and later hours will increase the likelihood of an injury because of the correlation between fatigue and injuries. [Source: NIOSH]

Workplace violence. According to the 2009 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 521 Americans were murdered in the work place. An estimated 2 million Americans are the victims of workplace violence each year. Teens tend to work in jobs that elevate their risk for workplace violence—service and retail jobs that involve exchanging money and dealing with the public. Working till 11:00 would increase the chances that teens will be working alone or closing up, exposing them to additional risk.

Work help teens gain valuable experience, teaches them much needed skills, and provides necessary spending money—but a few simple rules should be followed. First, teen workers should select a job that is not unusually dangerous (see NCL’s “Five Worst Teen Jobs” report for guidance in selecting the proper job). The student workweek should be limited to 20 hours or less and should not go past 10 p.m. on a school night. Students should never work alone or without supervision and should receive job safety training and discuss job safety with their employer and their parents. Safe and healthy youth work experiences don’t just happen–teens, parents, and employers must work together to make them happen.