The Myth of the “Overstressed American Teen”

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Remember that movie “Race to Nowhere” where students are bullwhipped by mountains of schoolwork, tests, and stress, while their teachers are burnt out from relentless curricular demands? We’re overloading our kids with meaningless honors and AP courses, over-scheduling them to a fare-thee-well, and one of the symptoms, if not the crisis itself, is the Common Core State Standards and  aligned assessments, monstrous offspring of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

This myth also figures into the opt-out impetus, which stems from a belief that public schools inflict meaningless tests onto fragile students.

Robert Pondiscio deconstructs this dogma today in U.S. News and World Report. He writes that this sort of slavish overindulgence in extracurricular activities and overly-rigorous coursework is limited to no more than 5% of schoolchildren. “Privileged outliers drive this narrative,” he says, citing research that shows that there was “very limited empirical support for the over-scheduling hypothesis.”

If American childhood has become a hothouse of overscheduling and stress, it’s not showing up in the data. Mahoney and his colleagues calculated just how much time kids spend at sports games and practices, faith-based activities, doing volunteer work, and meeting the demands of afterschool programs and other obligations. The average was about five hours per week. Many teens – about 40 percent – spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week. 

Where are all the exhausted superkids? A mere 6 percent of U.S. teens participate in 20 hours or more of organized activities in a week, and even those who overdo it end up better off than the completely disengaged. “At a national level, over-scheduling in organized activities seems to be overstated,” says Mahoney, a professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College. “Relatively few youth participate excessively in organized activities and even their adjustment is reliably more positive across broad array of outcomes, from childhood to young adulthood, than youth who are uninvolved,” he observes. When they revisited the data in 2012, Mahoney and his colleagues found the benefits of participation in organized activities had persisted into young adulthood “in terms of lower psychological distress, and higher educational attainment and civic engagement.”

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