Edgar DeLeon still feels the sting of handing over his beloved baseball jersey to the high school coach.
Edgar traded his childhood game for a minimum-wage job.
To find time for his 30-hour-a-week job at a Chicago supermarket, Edgar also turned down membership in the National Honor Society and quit the International Culture Society.
“There are days when I think I can’t do it,” said Edgar, age 17. “But you have to make choices. The Honor Society - that was something big to me. But just the thought that I got in was enough. You have to ask yourself, ‘Are you willing to give things up?”’
Edgar’s sacrifice illustrates what a series of studies have shown: Too much work can deprive kids of rewarding teenage experiences. For some, it can be harmful. New research even has pinpointed where the danger begins.
Twenty hours a week is the magic number. Working less than that can give teenagers self-esteem and a sense of responsibility along with a paycheck. These youths tend to find time to work by cutting their television-watching.
But when they work more than 20 hours a week, teenagers start dropping out of after-school clubs and sports and devoting less time to schoolwork. But somehow, they still find time for drinking, smoking and sex.
Teenagers who are newly flush with cash often decide to use it to buy cigarettes or alcohol. Work also exposes them to older adults or teenagers out of school who may have more sexual experience.
“Too much work puts the center of kids’ lives outside of school,” said J. Richard Udry, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert in adolescent behavior.
Simple arithmetic explains why more than 20 hours of work is bad. Teenagers typically spend 35 hours a week in school and 10 hours on homework. Adding a 20-hour job amounts to a 65-hour workweek. For some kids, problems begin when work exceeds 10 hours a week.
“There’s only so many hours in your day,” said Teri Gimbel, guidance director at a high school in Tallahassee, Fla. “You can’t do it all. School must come first.”
Educators, sociologists and psychologists agree - and a series of studies since the 1970s bear out - that school and family should be the center of a teenager’s universe.
In the latest and most comprehensive of these studies, scientists surveyed 90,000 teenagers from 1994-96 to find out what makes some kids well-adjusted while others tumble into crime, drugs, bad grades and early pregnancy.
Overall, the $25 million study mandated by Congress found that whatever their social and economic status, teenagers who feel close to their parents and connected to school suffer less stress and are less likely to contemplate suicide, drink, smoke, do drugs, engage in violence or have early sexual experience.
While the researchers haven’t analyzed all the survey results, “one finding that leaped out at us is that kids who work for pay 20 hours a week or more end up in a higher-risk category,” said Michael Resnick, a University of Minnesota professor who helped conduct the study. “This finding was robust and powerful enough that it deserves attention.”
About a half-dozen states have recently changed child-labor laws to limit hours during the school year. A 1993 law in Washington state limits children ages 14 and 15 to three hours on school days and a total of 16 hours a week. Older teenagers can work no more than 20 hours a week.
In 1991, New York lawmakers limited 14- and 15-year-olds to 18 hours a week and older teenagers to 28 hours a week.
Of the almost 8 million 16- and 17-year-olds in the United States, more than 2.5 million worked in September, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show. The proportion of kids working has changed little over the past decade.
Researchers have known for about two decades that excessive work leads to poor academic performance and increased substance abuse. Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University professor, reached similar conclusions in the 1970s. He found that working kids use drugs and alcohol 33 percent more often than do kids who don’t work at all.
Steinberg’s studies tracked students over several years, enabling him to answer the chicken-or-egg question of whether alienation from school leads kids into work or if the work causes academic trouble and delinquent behavior.
“We have pretty good evidence that working more than 20 hours a week leads to these problems,” Steinberg said.
A 1994 study of 20,000 Washington state high school students found that about 31 percent of the students who worked more than 20 hours reported regular drug use, compared with less than 20 percent of the students who worked fewer than 20 hours.
Resnick and Udry attribute increased substance abuse to teenagers having more disposable income and exposure to adults.
For Edgar DeLeon, most of the money goes to necessities. “It’s just me and Mom now. I had to help around the house. Pay a little of the phone bill, buy some groceries.”
When he has money left over, he spends it on gasoline, food at school, movies and dates with his girlfriend.
“There’s always a couple in the crowd who buy cigarettes or get someone to buy them beer to throw a party,” Edgar said. “They get a job and then waste the money.”