The positive impact of prosocial behaviours on mental health in children and adolescents

Content type
Event date

23 August 2023, 1:00 pm to 1:30 pm (AEST)


Karlee O'Donnell, Jasmine B. MacDonald




About this webinar

This webinar was held on Wednesday, 23 August 2023.

Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) is a major study following the development of 10,000 young people and their families from across Australia. The study is conducted in partnership between the Department of Social Services and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). The study began in 2004 with a representative sample of infants (0–1-year-olds) and children (4–5-year-olds) from urban and rural areas across all Australian states and territories.

A recent snapshot from the LSAC study examined the extent of Australian children’s involvement in prosocial behaviours, such as volunteering or sharing, and patterns of mental health symptoms in children and adolescents. The research examined how prosocial behaviours and mental health symptoms change with age and suggests that childhood prosocial behaviours are associated with positive adolescent mental health.

In this webinar, Dr Karlee O’Donnell, Senior Research Officer in the Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies team at AIFS will share some insights for child and family services and practitioners on how they can best use the snapshot’s findings.

This webinar will:

  • explore the relationship between prosocial behaviours and mental health symptoms
  • describe how childhood involvement in volunteering can buffer against poor mental health in adolescence
  • provide guidance for child and family services and practitioners on how to support children and young people to engage in prosocial behaviours.

Please note: This pre-recorded interview runs for 30-minutes. There will be no live facilitation, presenters or question time.

The content may be of particular interest to those working in areas relating to child and adolescent development, with carers and parents, or in areas related to mental health and wellness.

Audio transcript (edited)

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Welcome, everybody, to today’s webinar, The Positive Impact of Prosocial Behaviours on Mental Health in Children and Adolescents. My name is Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald and I'm a research fellow and a co-manager of the Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I’d like to start by acknowledging the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung and the Bunurong people of the Kulin nations, who are the traditional owners of the lands in Melbourne where I'm speaking to you from. I also pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to elders and First Nation peoples online with us today. Before I introduce my guest, I have a little housekeeping.

This is a pre-recorded interview, so we won’t be taking any questions from the audience today. The webinar will be available on the AIFS website in about two weeks. The best way to find out about when it’s available is through AIFS news, our newsletters, and AIFS website underneath the webinar banner. We also have a handout that accompanies today's webinar, so you'll be able to find that on the go-to webinar control panel under the handout section. It's useful in that it points to the LSAC website, a couple of the snapshots that are quite recent from the LSAC program, but also to the snapshot that we'll be talking about today. We also at the end of the webinar will have a short feedback survey. If you have a chance please hang around and fill that one out it's really useful for us to know what you thought of today's webinar, what was particularly useful, what we can improve, all of that stuff goes into our planning and development of future webinars. So, please take the time to fill that out if you can.

So, in our last webinar, I had a chat with Dr Lisa Mundy, the Program Lead of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. In the webinar, we introduced the study and provided an overview of how practitioners can use the data and research findings. Today I will be taking a deeper dive into one of the LSAC research snapshots. So, I'm joined today by Dr Karlee O’Donnell who is going to take us through that snapshot. Karlee is a senior research officer working primarily on research and analysis within the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Her background is developmental psychology with a focus on factors that undermine or enhance wellbeing during adolescence and young adulthood. So, I’ve actually wanted an excuse to collaborate with Karlee for about 18 months. Very stoked that we can make that happen today. Thanks for joining me, Karlee.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Thank you, Jasmine. Yes, I'm very stoked. Jasmine and I started at the same time, so went through our inductions together, so now we get to work together which is far more interesting than induction.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Agreed. Okay, so, Karlee, let’s dive in. Talk to us about the snapshot, what was the overall aim or focus of this one?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: So, this snapshot used data from LSAC, which if you didn’t tune in to the last webinar, I'll give you a brief overview of how they collect that data in LSAC. So, we follow two cohorts of Australian children. One cohort we followed since they were born, they’re our baby cohort, and the cohort we followed since they were about four or five, so they’re our kindergarten cohort. So, we have surveyed the children and their parents every two years since those ages, and they are now heading into their 20s or in their 20s. So, it’s quite a long study, it’s a really exciting study we have such rich data about these children’s lives. So, this specific study that I'm talking about today we are looking from the age of four to 17, so it’s quite a broad range of that data.

Basically, the study aimed to look at how the cultivation of prosocial behaviours is associated with mental health across childhood and adolescence. So, when I say prosocial behaviours, that's quite a stuffy academic term, for something that's quite inherent to all of us, which is those behaviours that are around sharing and supporting others, exhibiting kindness. In the children we see prosocial behaviours come out in places like volunteering to help out in the classroom or if a younger child is hurt or upset, tending to them and helping them through that experience. It’s really about sharing and helping. So, my personal view is that prosocial behaviours are really what bind us together as people. I personally think that they’re very cool and I was really happy to see the results that came out about how they’re related to mental health.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Yeah. I agree with everything you've said, and I think in particular to be able to focus on a strength aspect related to mental health in young people is really nice because we need to know when things aren’t going right or focus on some more serious topics. But to be able to have a really positive research story is nice.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yes, and it’s also very nice to talk about. So, that's a bit more positive. I think it's a really interesting point you just made there, Jasmine, about that we do focus on more serious, more clinical things in place of intervention and prosocial behaviours are something they’re not something that’s clinically defined. It is, like I said, something that's a bit apparent to us and something that binds us together as people. So, what I am talking about today, and you're listening to this webinar, and you and I chatting, I think it's really important that we take that lens that prosocial behaviours aren't something clinical. We're not talking about clinical levels of people-pleasing which we know aren't super great and can manifest in different contexts as well.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Yeah, that's a really nice point. So, we're looking prosocial behaviour and mental health. What aspect of mental health did you look at?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Mental health can be such a broad brush and a similar caveat with prosocial behaviours is when I'm talking about mental health in the context of this research, I'm not talking about clinical levels of mental health. We do not have strong clinical indicators of mental health. It wasn't that we went in and did clinical in two years with these children or psychological interviews with these children to figure out what they may be struggling with. We used a questionnaire called the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire. So, some people listening may be familiar with that, and we used a sub-scale of those questions. But what those questions kind of look like in reality is the manifesting of emotional secondary indication that something might be going on for that child that is potentially troubling for them.

So, we see that in having - one of the measures we had around this was children often complaining of sore stomachs, or having sore stomach, or having headaches which we see quite common is a physical manifestation of mental ill health among children or at least something going on emotionally for them. Children are often being worried, or excessively fearful, losing confidence in new situations, so indicators that hit a little bit more on those anxiety type feelings that children can experience, and then the other coin to that – well, not the other coin to it, they’re not the same coin, but near it is around those depressive symptoms, being quite sad and quite tearful.

So, that is quite broad, and that's why we do term it as emotional symptoms. The indicator itself talks about that if the children score quite highly in these different items that I'm talking, these different questions, that they have clinical levels of emotional symptoms. But that really is just, think of that more like a screening. So, clinical levels there would be well maybe you would refer that child on to a specific service to get help. So, it’s more of like a flagger or there's maybe something going on here for this child that's quite troubling.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Right, okay. So, one of the cool things about longitudinal data is being able to look across how prosocial behaviours are engaging in higher or lower levels of prosocial behaviours impact these emotional symptoms. But it also allows you to get a sense of, I guess normative developmental arcs or changes in both of them individually. So, before we talk about how they overlap, I was wondering if you could talk us through what are some of trends that we see in terms of prosocial behaviour over that developmental span that you’re collecting data?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yeah. Exactly right. It’s that really cool thing when we are taking two concepts and the longitudinal data, it’s yes, we can see how they interact, but what do they do independently? Because prosocial behaviours on their own and mental health on their own are such interesting important facets in children’s lives. So, in terms of prosocial behaviours what we found, which I was quite surprised about, so the authors of this report, the people on my research team that worked heavily in putting this report together, when they first presented the findings to me around prosocial behaviours, is that from about age four to 12, so start of childhood really, just coming out of those early years of development and then heading into the teen years, we see the prosocial behaviours steadily increase.

So, that's quite normative, that's what I would have expected, that as we grow up, as we go to school and they're in social settings, we learn to do things like share and be kind. Then what happened, in the data at least, is that at around age 13, start of those teen years, prosocial behaviours dropped. So, they weren't scarily low, where suddenly children or adolescents are no longer prosocial, but they did drop down. When we started to think about the data, we asked – this question is asked of parents, and that's the measure we’re using, is basically these different things around how prosocial is your kid, just to say it quite funnily. Which is not the measure, but just for the sake of brevity I think.

So, when asked the parents this, there’s more involvement in the child’s life in that four to 12 period. Then their social settings and I guess the parent’s potential exposure to their child’s social relationships drops a little bit in those adolescent years, or those teen years. Apart of it is, sort of with the fact that it’s parent rapport which is a little bit explaining potentially why we had that drop. But then another potential around that is children’s social networks or teenagers’ social networks become smaller and more deliberate. So, they’re not suddenly running around in the classroom and want to volunteer and sharing this and sharing that. They have a small, centred group of friends, so their opportunities or the times in which they engage in prosocial behaviours are very different and they look quite different in the context of teenage life.

So, a little bit of a surprising finding, but I think one that is quite understandable with the way that teenagers have their friendships.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: So, probably these behaviours, because it’s more of a focussed social network, that might be a bit separate from previously spending all time with family and parents. Hides it a little bit from parents reporting, but also maybe there could be an aspect as well of this stuff that a 13, 14 year old does that's prosocial and might not line up exactly with what their parents would want them to do as social. The values aspect of that. Interesting. But then after that dip at around 12, 13, do you see a bit of an increase again towards 17,18?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: It just stays pretty steady, I'm sure. Just have a quick look. Yeah, it stays steady. It doesn’t decline, it just stays steady, you hang it, that's how prosocial you are, kind of thing.


KARLEE O'DONNELL: Which is still pretty – I’m looking at the number now, it’s still a pretty good level of pro-sociality. I wouldn’t be concerned.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Nice. Then what about, so if we pop prosocial aside, what does it look like for those emotional or mental health indicators of the period of time?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yes, so prosocial, hanging over here now. With mental health we actually found, or the emotional symptoms, we found findings are quite common in this research which is that they increase over childhood and throughout adolescence. So, at around age four, 12% of children met those clinical levels of emotional symptoms. So, would be a flag for potentially having something going on emotionally. By age 13 this number is around 20% of our sample. Then by the time we get to age 17, it’s about one in four young people, which is on par with what we see in adult populations, or adult levels, particularly at the time that the data was collected, which was a pre-Covid time. I think it’s important to note that these children were 17 prior to the onset of COVID and that it does unfortunately become more poor mental health, or these clinical levels of emotional symptoms do become more prevalent as children and young people get older.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: So, when our powers combined across these variables, what do we find, how do they interact with each other?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: It was really interesting, and once again it was something that surprised me when I was first presented with these findings in the earlier work on this, is that in younger years prosocial behaviours are really helpful and are quite helpful in those really down, those emotional symptoms, and predicting reductions in emotional symptoms. But as children go older, the strength of that relationship, so the way that prosocial behaviours or being prosocial helped mental health, got a little bit smaller. So, it diminished a little bit as children got older. Now, if you think a little bit earlier, well their prosocial behaviours also go a little bit less as well, so there could be something around that, that perhaps we also just don’t have as much prosocial behaviours happening in those later childhood and teenage years.

But I think another part to this story is that it potentially just, not necessarily wears off, but other factors become important and can also impact mental health. I think it’s important to note, that still by the age of 13 prosocial behaviours, being prosocial is related to reductions in mental health. But after the young people start in their teenage years, that's no longer a significant relationship. So prosocial behaviours aren’t going to – being prosocial, children can be as prosocial as they want, it won’t, or at least in the data, significantly predict reductions in their mental health. Which I found quite interesting.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: I mean, social life, school, all the different things become more complex and complicated and there's more demands through that high schooling period. So, it’s interesting, it’s important to keep that stuff in mind in terms of the families that we work with. It seemed like from the snapshot a really tangible prosocial behaviour to sink our teeth into was the findings around volunteering. Can you unpack that for us?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yeah. So, the volunteering findings are really fun. They're one of my favourite things I ever get to talk about.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: I can see that on your face. I love it.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: I just love it. Because I just think they are something that, like you said, is quite tangible. So, I think just broadly what the finding was. So, I just said that we saw that prosocial behaviours stopped being something that significantly impact mental health, or reduction in mental ill health, or those emotional symptoms. But what I liked is that in this finding around volunteering is that if children volunteered by age 12 to 13, or have volunteered in the previous one to two years, so prior to turning 12 to 13, we saw that two years later, so in that really nitty-gritty time of teenagerhood, there's a likelihood of about a 28% reduction in mental health symptomology. So, they were about 28% less likely to experience those poor mental health symptoms and those clinical levels of emotional symptoms.

So, for me, that’s a really great finding because by age 12 about 50% of our sample had engaged in volunteering. So, when we scale that up, that’s thousands upon thousands of children that can potentially be helped, or their mental health can be impacted very positively by a behaviour that not only clearly gives something to the child, but gives something back to communities and individuals as well. So, that’s what makes me really excited about it, because it’s such a whole-scale community finding in a way.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Like faith in humanity. I love it.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yeah. The glue that binds us all.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Maybe this is something that’s tricky to unpack because there are so many factors, but what’s potentially happening here? Is it like by giving, you’re kind of building up those pillars in terms of social support and then having something to kind of be there to give back to you, like having more of a community or is it a bit tough to say?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yeah. No, I think you definitely touched on a lot of the really important things that are around that in what you just said. We didn’t unpack it in this research, so in the snapshot, which was really I think important to point out that we’re not the first to ever look into this and there are decades of research in this space. But volunteering and I think more broadly for young people, having a space to engage in an activity that is beyond their everyday. So, we see this when kids do sport or they might go and engage in drama class or do something along the arts. Having a space and an activity that they can engage in that’s outside the family home, that’s outside the school context, it does broaden their social net. It gives them additional role models to talk to, which for children from disadvantaged communities can sometimes be really important.

What it does is, from that aspect, it gives additional pillars of support, like you said. Then the other side, around volunteering, is that it just feels really nice to do something for a greater good, right? Particularly I think for a lot of people listening, and I certainly know this about you, Jas, and for myself, is the work that we do is for some sort of greater good and because we want to enact some positive change in people’s individual lives or in the system as a whole. But I think it’s those little initial steps for that, for a lot of our children around learning how it feels and what it’s like to give back and be able to enact a positive change too.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Yeah. Nice. Let's not act as though doing prosocial things is only to benefit other people, it makes us feel good too. I had a developmental psych lecturer, he used to say, "Scratch an altruist and see a hypocrite bleed.” Now, that’s a pretty cynical saying, but if we take it forward more broadly, it means like actually helping people feels good and that’s okay. He was a character. He had lots of interesting sayings.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: It sounds like he’s been a professor in psychology for a long time.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Maybe too long. Yes. So, I mean, we’re talking about volunteering behaviours before the age of 12 and as young as four, what does that look like? Because I know when I first had a look at this I was thinking, I don’t know, I don’t think we often think about children and volunteering as we do in terms of adolescents and adulthood. Like, what kinds of behaviours are young people or young children engaging in?

KARLEE O'DONNELL: So, the ones that we measured was formal volunteering spaces. So, once again kind of a stuffy way to say volunteering opportunities that are run by organisations and basically are led by an adult. So, there is somebody who’s there arranging it and putting it together. So, in our data, and I definitely recommend people to go and have a look at the supplementary material PDF that sits alongside the snapshot, which is not something that people will inherently go to. I understand, because supplementary material sounds boring. They’re not. They’re a lot of fun. Because what you’ll see there is this long list of all the volunteering activities that we measured and that we asked the children about. So, these are quite broad. So, I’m just having a quick look at the list now.

So, this could be something like volunteering at their local sporting club, so maybe coaching the younger levels or volunteering in a classroom, so this might be tutoring children who are a grade or two below. But as well as volunteering in spaces like animal welfare or taking part in Clean Up Australia. So, it’s quite broad when we’re talking about volunteering, and it can be quite accessible across childhood and across the different I guess age appropriateness. Clean Up Australia for example, most children can pick up rubbish. Most children can help Clean Up Australia. It is something that is pretty age appropriate across development, particularly with the right gloves and we’ll mask them up and we’ll get them in the appropriate PPE to pick up rubbish.

But there's things like that, that are a bit more age-appropriate. Obviously, something like volunteering at a welfare shelter is something that I think we need to associate a little bit more with older children and teenagers and young adults.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Like hospitals and things.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Yeah, definitely. I’m just looking at the list again, we have things like scouts, which once again you can start scouts during childhood, but something like volunteer firefighting or volunteer the younger – I don’t remember what it’s called. But anyway, teenagers having experience in the fire department or having experience with basically police, for example, or basically emergency services, that is something that is definitely more tailored towards the older people. But that doesn’t mean that young children, or younger children, can’t get exposure to that world as well. Things like community days and stuff like that, while it’s not volunteering, it doesn’t mean that they can’t start to understand that these spaces exist for them to potentially one day belong to.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: I like what I’m hearing. If I summarise what I’m hearing that I think is particularly useful for practitioners and the families they work with, is one, you already have this list of things or ideas, so that’s quite useful. If you’re sitting down with parents and thinking about all right, what might be useful, or a way for a young person, probably more adolescents, a young person to have independence and do something for themselves that they’re interested in. But for younger children, something a family can do together. Also, what I’m hearing is it doesn’t need to be too prescriptive, there’s lots of options and what’s nice about that is different practitioners have different scope of how they can work with families. But also, families have different availability of time and resources and we need to think about things, various aspects of accessibility and diversity.

So, yeah, I like that you’re not saying, ‘This is what you need to do by this age.” It could already be something the child’s involved in. So, they’re playing sport, maybe they can hang around after a game and be involved in the next one. I think that’s nice because it doesn’t put too much pressure on families and practitioners.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: No, exactly. You touched on such an important thing there and it’s something that every time I talk about this, I need to make sure it’s said, because I don’t want this to become another thing that parents and practitioners need to make sure children are doing. Just because volunteering, just because this is reduction in the data of mental health symptoms, just because volunteering is something that can help young people, doesn’t mean that we have to make sure that every family does it and push this extra pressure on parents and practitioners to make sure children are getting involved. That is not accessible for everyone. That does not make sense to everyone, particularly in the current economic times. So many parents don’t have the time.

So, not only are they potentially resource-poor, they're time resource poor, which is major, and practitioners as well. I'm time resource-poor. So, it’s something that we need to be aware of and just because we looked at these formal spaces where children can volunteer, it doesn’t mean you have to go and enrol your child in Clean Up Australia or get them to go and plant trees, as one of our colleagues did with her child recently, which is great. But they spent a day of their weekend doing that. Not every parent can spend a day of the weekend doing that. Parents that have to work shift work or children of multiple ages and need to shepherd one child to this sport and this other child to something else, and suddenly your Saturday’s taken up with driving.

I think it’s important to say that you can start small, it doesn’t have to be formal, this is kind of me saying it. It’s not necessarily in the data, but it doesn’t have to be formal work, I think it’s a bit of a common sense thing, that if we think about that it feels good to help, it’s good to get children involved in the community. We all have neighbours, maybe your child might go help out the neighbour. Maybe they’ll mow their grandparent’s lawn or maybe they’ll pull some weeds, or something like that to just get children and young people to learn those feelings and develop those feelings around what it is to help, what it means to help and how you can help diverse groups of people as well. The help that someone who’s older might need compared to your neighbour who’s maybe in their 30s or 40s, is going to look quite different. So, it gives that diversity of experiences.

So, yeah, you touched on a really important point there about accessibility and access and I just need to say again, this should not be something that needs to be added to parents to do list, because they’re long enough as it is.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Yeah, I think that's a really nice conclusion and summary of the points being made today. This has been really fun and interesting.


JASMINE B. MACDONALD: Who knows, maybe the adults watching will be a little be inspired to go and do some volunteering as well, whether or not they’re with young people. We’ll see. Amazing. Well, I think that's a good space to wrap up. I really appreciate you coming and having a chat with me and us collectively today, Karlee, thank you very much.

KARLEE O'DONNELL: Thank you, Jasmine.

JASMINE B. MACDONALD: I also want to shout out to the AIFS team behind the scenes and everybody who's been involved in putting this together. It's always a team effort, and we've got an awesome team, so thank you. We would like to thank the LSAC participants, because without their involvement in the study over a really long period of time and it being a big part of their life, we can’t have these insights that inform practice and future research without their participation, so thank you. And of course, thank you for coming along and joining us for the webinar today, our audience online. I really hope that you found it as interesting as I did and it’s helping you percolate some ideas for your practice or the families that you work with or within your own family context.

Just a couple of reminders of things: this webinar is going to be available on our website in about two weeks. So, remember, subscribe to AIFS news, so that you can get access to information about next webinars, resources, snapshots like this one, and to hear when the webinar recording is available. And remember the feedback survey. Please take time to share your thoughts, because we're always trying to create something that's useful for you. I get to have interesting conversations and that's fun, but if it's not useful to you, then all for naught.

A cool thing I get to do today is shout out for our next webinar which is being produced in partnership with the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect or NAPCAN, for National Child protection Week which is in a couple of weeks’ time. So, this webinar aims to build practitioner awareness and understanding of child emotional abuse. It'll also look at the importance of supporting parents as a way to prevent child abuse. So, we really hope you can join us for that webinar during what is a really important week. So, you can head to our website for information that upcoming webinar. Thanks again for joining us and thanks again, Karlee.

Related resources

Related resources

  • Prosocial behaviours and the positive impact on mental health 
    This snapshot examines the extent to which: (1) Australian children are involved in informal prosocial behaviours and whether this changes with age, (2) symptoms of poor mental health change with age and (3) during the childhood and adolescent years, engagement in prosocial behaviours and volunteering is associated with improved mental health. 
  • National Strategy for Volunteering 2023–2033    
    The National Strategy for Volunteering is the first National Strategy for Volunteering in a decade, providing a strategic framework for enabling safe, supported, and sustainable volunteering. The purpose of the National Strategy for Volunteering is to guide the actions needed to achieve a better future for volunteering. 


Karlee O’Donnell | Senior Research Officer, Research and Analysis, Family and Society

Dr Karlee O’Donnell is a Senior Research Officer working primarily on research and analysis within the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children team. Her background is in developmental psychology, with expertise on factors that undermine or enhance wellbeing during adolescence and young adulthood. Karlee is skilled in qualitative and quantitative data analysis, with speciality in longitudinal methods including multilevel modelling, cross-lagged panel models, and latent growth curve modelling.


Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald | Research Fellow, Child and Family Evidence

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald is a Research Fellow and co-manager of the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at AIFS. Jasmine has expertise in literature review methodologies and evidence synthesis, most recently developing practitioner resources in the areas of reproductive coercion and abuse and technology facilitated coercive control. Jasmine has practice experience in mental health and research expertise in trauma exposure and reactions. Jasmine has previously served as Methodological Consultant for the APS journal Australian Community Psychologist and held academic roles at Charles Sturt University (Wagga Wagga, NSW), Australian College of Applied Psychology (Sydney, NSW) and RMIT University (Melbourne, VIC).