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Teens and volunteering: Altruism or just peer pressure?

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Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Teens volunteering: Eighth-grade students huddle with City Year volunteers at Umana-Barnes Middle School in East Boston. City Year's national youth service program brings 17- to 24-year-old youths into service in their schools and communities in association with Americorps. File/2003

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Read the news, and you might think teenagers’ lives are all sexting and bullying and Facebook. Especially if you don’t have one in your household to prove you wrong.

But not so. According to a new study released yesterday by the social change website DoSomething.org, American teens are also spending their free time – some of it, at least – volunteering.
 
How much volunteering they actually do, though, and why they do it, reveals some interesting aspects to how young Americans are prioritizing their lives.

To start first, though, with the basics:

DoSomething.org’s “index on young people and volunteering,” during which researchers collected data from more than 4,300 internet-using 13- to 22-year-olds, found that more than half of young people (54.2 percent) volunteered in 2011. And it’s not just because these students had to volunteer for school: 63 percent did not have any requirement to do service work.

These numbers are higher than in other studies. Federal government data, for instance, show that only 22.5 percent of young adults volunteered in 2011. DoSomething.org's researchers say the discrepancy comes from different definitions: Most research has defined volunteering as “work done through an organization for which there is no pay.” The  DoSomething.org survey, on the other hand, described volunteering as work done for no pay for any group or organization, with friends, or by oneself. 

They say their terminology is far more accurate – “organizations,” they say, are terribly passé. These days kids are just as inclined to design their own, independent, volunteer activities, they say. But they also acknowledge that half of the young people they identified as “volunteers” actually volunteered less than every few months.

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