The idea of helping others, also known as social action, service or volunteering, is often held up as a virtue of national importance to British identity. It is at the heart of treasured programmes such as the Scouts, the Guides, or the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, as well as new bodies such as the National Citizen Service (NCS) and the #iwill campaign.
But how do you encourage young people to form a habit of helping others that lasts throughout their lives? In new research, my colleagues and I found that the younger they started, the more likely they were to continue.
Helping others often brings benefits for individuals as well as broader society. It can develop desirable character qualities and life skills in the young people who take part. Research also shows that giving can often have a positive impact on well-being and mental health.
In a three-year study that surveyed more than 4,500 people between the ages of 16 and 20, we looked at which factors were associated with young people who have made a “habit of service”. We defined this as when a young person took part in service in the preceding 12 months and confirmed they would definitely or very likely continue participating in the next 12 months. Participants who had taken part in programmes such as the NCS, VInspired and Diana Award were invited to complete the survey.
We found that young people with a habit of service were more likely to have started social action at a younger age than those without that habit. Those who first got involved under the age of ten were more than twice as likely to have formed a habit of service than if they started when they were 16 to 18 years of age, as the chart below shows. They were also more likely to be involved in a wider range of activities such as volunteering, tutoring and helping to improve their local area and would participate in them more frequently.
Given the sustained interest in character education within the Department for Education – and the recent publication of a book by the former education minister Nicky Morgan on the topic – we were also interested how encouraging young people to make a habit of service relates to different types of character virtues.
Those with a habit of service identified themselves more closely with moral virtues such as compassion, honesty and integrity and civic virtues such as volunteering and citizenship than those who hadn’t developed a service ethic. They were also more likely to recognise the double benefit of undertaking service – that it helped develop their character as well as benefiting society more broadly.
We also found that, when young people had the opportunity to lead a social action project themselves and reflect on it afterwards, they were more likely to form a habit of volunteering. One of the most important factors in making a habit of this kind of activity was if the experiences were both challenging and enjoyable.
In line with many studies on volunteering, girls were more active participants and also more likely to have formed a habit of serving their community than boys. As were those young people who practised a religion. Parents and friends were also an important factor in whether a young person make a habit of service. Friends were a bigger influence than parents on the group of 16 to 20-year-olds we surveyed.
I hope that these findings will help those in the voluntary sector plan and deliver youth social action programmes which support young people to cultivate a habit of service. But the opportunities children and young people get to help others must also be meaningful to them, as well as contribute to broader societal flourishing.