The 'overstressed' student could be a myth

'The far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child'

New literature details the packed lives and lack of sleep that U.S. high schoolers face—but other research shows that only a limited percentage of the population falls into this group.

"Overloaded and Underprepared," a new book, finds that teens are sleep deprived and overscheduled, writes Frank Bruni in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. The trend is so extreme that a Silicon Valley high school hired sleep experts to teach students how to rest.

"That says everything about the way childhood has been transformed—at least among an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans—into an insanely programmed, status-obsessed, and sometimes spirit-sapping race," Bruni writes.

He points to the prevalence of anxiety and depression on college campuses, about bouts of suicide among co-eds, and the fear of failing.

He also cites a study in a recent Pediatrics that found about 55% of U.S. teens, ages 14 to 17, said they slept less than seven hours per night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that people that age sleep eight to 10 hours.

Mobile devices make the problem worse, he writes, but so does the pressure to reach perfection.

He argues students need "the wiggle room to find genuine passions, the freedom to discover true independence, the space to screw up and bounce back."

Survey: College freshmen are more stressed, depressed

But other research suggests this problem affects just a sliver of the population.

A 2006 study found that teens spend on average about five hours per week in extracurriculars like sports, volunteering, and afterschool programs. Only 6% were involved in these activities more than 20 hours per week—whereas about 40% had absolutely no organized activities on weekdays.

"If American childhood has become a hothouse of overscheduling and stress, it's not showing up in the data," argues Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News & World Report.

Six years later, the researchers caught up with the students and found those with extra activities benefited from "lower psychological distress, higher educational attainments, and civic engagement."

So while 19% of American students fail to graduate high school, "privileged outliers drive the narrative" of overstressed, overachieving youth, Pondiscio writes.

Less than 5% of 2014's graduating class took seven or more Advanced Placement courses throughout high school, he notes.

"The far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child, who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both," Pondiscio says. "It would be a shame if the concerns of the privileged few—however valid—became the new conventional wisdom" (Pondiscio, U.S. News & World Report, 7/31; Bruni, New York Times, 7/29).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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