The Health Benefits Of Scouts

Large group of girl scouts of all ages

Much has been written about the difference between today’s youth and the youngsters of past generations. They never go outside. They don’t play or hang out with their peers. They only communicate through electronic screens. The consequences of those changes have also been covered extensively – kids today are lonelier, more isolated, less likely to exercise or get outdoors, more prone to online bullying – and all of this has put them at greater risk for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

What about the converse? Can the opposite of those trends help young people stay mentally healthy? Can something like Scouting, which encourages groups of kids to interact in the real world, get outdoors and work together to accomplish things – and get some exercise to boot – foster mental wellness?

Not surprisingly, yes. In fact, research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, published in 2017, looked at nearly 10,000 men born in the U.K. in 1958 and found that participation in scouting was associated with better mental health at age 50. “This suggests that youth programmes [sic] that support resilience and social mobility through developing the potential for continued progressive self-education, … self-reliance, collaboration and activities in natural environments may be protective of mental health in adulthood,” the authors conclude.

“Joining groups like Scouting has the potential to offer young kids and teens opportunities to stay mentally healthy in multiple ways,” says Rebecca Schwartz-Mette, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Maine. “Scouting, for both girls and boys, involves a variety of activities, including the development of healthy peer relationships, self-confidence, service to others, community engagement, physical fitness and even financial literacy through sales.”

Many of these activities, especially positive peer relations, community engagement and physical activity, are linked with positive mental health outcomes. “So to the extent that Scouting intentionally offers these opportunities for kids, youth have an additional context, outside of school and family, in which to develop healthy habits,” she says.

Social Protection’ for Children

Scouting is a so-called “social protection unit,” like a religious community or a family unit, says David J. Miklowitz, director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program and of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Scouting can be particularly helpful, he says, because it is designed to be nonjudgmental. In fact, the venerable Boy Scouts of America changed its name to Scouts BSA on Wednesday and is now allowing girls to join the group. Back in February 2017, the organization said that it would accept transgender boys. It also established a Scoutreach division to encourage Scouting in more urban and rural areas to increase diversity outside its traditional suburban purview.

Scouting is paying more attention to mental health these days, Miklowitz says, through programs like SCOUTstrong, which encourages 30 minutes of exercise every day. Scouts BSA has also created the Mentally Awake program, with a web portal to provide adult leaders with “Scouting-relevant tools and resources for understanding and improving the emotional health (hearts) and mental health (minds) of youth in Scouting and preventing emotional and mental health problems.”

Any group activity can offer mental benefits that individual activities lack, Schwartz-Mette says. “I think the thing that is unique to Scouting or other activities that involve groups is that youth can learn group interaction skills that they may or may not have equivalent opportunities to develop in the context of pursuing individual hobbies or activities,” she says. In individual pursuits, the focus is on developing individual competencies, whereas in group activities such as Scouting, kids can hone individual skills while also learning how they fit into a broader social context like a peer group. “Navigating both individual skills and group functioning skills are major developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence. In this way, Scouting has built-in opportunities to do both,” she says.

Schwartz-Mette, who has researched teenage girls and their interactions, thinks that such groups may benefit girls in particular. “Girls tend to gravitate toward interacting in dyads, or friendship pairs, more so than boys, who tend to interact in groups more so than girls,” she says. “Additionally, girls’ self-confidence tends to decline as they head into adolescence, they also tend to participate in fewer athletic activities – which are largely group-based – over time and they may be more susceptible to relational and social forms of aggression in which they are isolated or ostracized from groups.” At adolescence, girls become increasingly vulnerable when compared to boys in terms of emotional adjustment problems such as depression, she adds. “So group activities may present girls with additional opportunities to interact that may help to foster more positive group relationships, bolster self-confidence and increase physical activity, all of which could contribute to more positive mental health outcomes,” she says.

Trained Leadership Is Critical

As with anything, there are potential drawbacks to Scouting or other group activities. “Peer rejection is one of the strongest predictors of mental health problems,” Miklowitz says, “and Scouting is not immune to that kind of thing.” A kid who is overweight, less physically fit or less socially adept can experience rejection or feel intimidated. And kids with already existing anxiety or depression, whether diagnosed or not, may become targets of bullying in such close quarters. Leaders who are attuned to such bullying and trained to intervene appropriately can stay on top of these issues. “The success of any activity, of course, depends on its leadership and how well the group is run,” Schwartz-Mette says.

Schwartz-Mette also thinks a potential drawback is the perception that Scouting is overly gender-biased and focused on activities that have traditionally been reserved for particular genders. “While historically this may have been so, recent policy changes for some Scouting organizations related to membership and leadership as well as the activities that are involved have been flexibly expanded so as not to exclude members or leaders who may identify as gender flexible or who identify as a gender not traditionally associated with a particular Scouting group,” she says. Additionally, the activities of traditionally “female” or “male” Scouting groups are growing increasingly indistinguishable from one another. “I think these developments are incredibly encouraging,” she says.

All told, the benefits of Scouting and other group-based activities are plentiful. “Anything that gets kids out of the house with kids their own age and is also teaching them things and potentially getting them exercising, that’s all good for kids’ mental health,” Miklowitz says. “All sorts of positive outcomes later in life are correlated with having a couple of friends in childhood.”

This blog was originally published on U.S. News & World Report