It's an American ethic as old as apple pie: Work hard when you're young, and you'll learn the values necessary for a lifetime of success.
But there's a modern corollary: Work too hard, and you're more likely to drop out of school and drift toward more temptations, such as alcohol or drugs.
That's why if you're a teen looking for work - or a parent whose child wants to work - it's wise to check out employment opportunities as closely as you would an internship or summer camp, researchers say. The right job can work wonders. The wrong job - or the right job worked over too many hours - can lead to bad behaviors.
"We believe that work is fine as long as it's not hazardous and not excessive," says Darlene Adkins, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington advocacy group. But thanks to the economy's continuing demand for workers, "there's a lot of pressure on kids to work more hours than even they want to work."
At the age of 18, Michael Stahl already knows a lot about balancing the many demands on teens. He has written a book, "Early to Rise: A Young Adult's Guide to Investing," and cofounded a Kansas City, Mo., company, GoFerretGo, that pairs up teen workers with employers. His advice on employment: "Everything is good in moderation."
As a teen employee, he worked at a golf club and also handed out samples of food at supermarkets. The jobs took about 10 to 15 hours out of his week.
"If you do any extracurricular activities in school, you are running out of hours in the day" by working longer, says the University of Pennsylvania freshman.
Such advice squares with the research collected in an important 1998 report by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. On the one hand, work is good. Researchers found that 17- to 19-year-olds were less likely to drop out if they had worked the previous year. Employed teens also tend to watch less television.
But work more than 20 hours a week, researchers add, and the benefits can quickly turn negative. For example, when 10th-graders put more than 20 hours into a job, there's evidence that they're more likely to be absent from school, especially among those working more than 30 hours.
Another study found that 16- to 19-year-olds who worked more hours than average during high school had lower levels of educational attainment by the time they reached 28 to 31.
"School is the most important thing for young people to be attending to outside of their families," says Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "To the extent that work is taking time and energy away from school, it can have a negative impact on young people."
These linkages aren't always clear-cut, points out Robert Lerman, director of the labor and social policy center at the Urban Institute. Among lowest-income teens, for instance, more work hours are actually linked with better academic performance.
Effects of 'premature affluence'
Even how much time children spend working is a matter of debate. Officially, only about 1 in 10 15-year-olds works, averaging 11.8 hours a week during the school year. By the time they've reached 17, 2 out of every 5 are putting in nearly 19 hours a week, according to the US Census Bureau.
But those estimates measure a specific point in time. And many experts believe that because children drop in and out of the workforce, the actual proportion of children working ismuch higher.
Still, don't assume that every youth job represents a good opportunity.
One of the key issues parents should address before a teenager accepts a job is where the earnings will go. Researchers say families should determine how much should be saved and how much can be spent.
Several studies suggest premature affluence from long work hours can have negative effects. Some researchers have found a link between adolescents who work more than 20 hours a week and the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and illegal drugs.
Another cause for concern: safety. State and federal laws are supposed to protect young workers from unduly long hours. But many of these laws hail from a bygone era when teens routinely dropped out at 16 to begin full-time employment. The primary federal law in this area, dating from 1938, contains no limits on the hours that 16- and 17-year-olds can work.
Federal law does restrict them to nonhazardous work and, for younger children, limits work on schooldays to three hours a day (eight hours during vacations). State regulations for the under-16 crowd vary from restrictive New York (18 hours per week during school days) to Idaho's wide-open stance (56 hours).
A related challenge: which hours students work. For instance, restaurants and stores - common employers of 15- to 17-year-olds - are extending hours and asking young workers to staff those late nights, sometimes alone. Yet these establishments remain targets for violent crime.
After a teenage restaurant worker and his friend were shot late at night in his district, Colorado state Rep. Don Lee began urging limits on late-night hours for young workers. Businesses opposed his original measures. But earlier this month, he submitted a compromise, which would limit teens' working hours unless their parents sign a waiver.
Parental guidance suggested
"The best environment for a teen worker is where there's a relationship between the parents, the teen, and the employer," Representative Lee says.
All told, some 70 minors are killed and 200,000 injured on the job every year. To prevent such problems, the Child Labor Coalition urges parents not only to meet with a child's employer, but also to visit the workplace often. Watch what jobs teens are asked to do, how well they're trained, and how safe the workplace looks.
Door-to-door sales represent another potentially dangerous occupation, state regulators warn. Unlike nonprofit groups such as the Girl Scouts, for-profit operations often take advantage of young workers, causing them to peddle goods late into the night in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
"Anymore, door to door is just darn dangerous," says Colleen Baker, director of the labor standards division of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
Working until 9 p.m. - at age 9
Almost two years ago, for example, Illinois authorities found a Chicago outfit hiring youths as young as 9 to sell candy bars. The children would be picked up after school, driven 20 miles or more, and then work as late as 9 p.m., often unsupervised, before being driven back home.
"Sometimes they were fed, sometimes they weren't," recalls Connie Knutti, manager of field enforcement for the Illinois Department of Labor. Eventually, the employer was arrested and fined for hiring underage workers.
Nevertheless, good teen jobs abound, researchers say, and not all of them are paid. "I see many of the benefits that come from work also flowing from many volunteer opportunities," says Professor Hamilton at Cornell. "Because they're not paid in volunteer activity, they often end up, oddly enough, doing more interesting work."
Parents may want to offer an allowance to make up for the pay a child forgoes, he adds. "Think about what they'll learn, not what they earn."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society