Forget the notion of carefree youth. America’s teens are every bit as stressed as the adults around them — and sometimes even more — according to a new survey that offers a snapshot of adolescent angst.
Teens routinely say that their school-year stress levels are far higher than they think is healthy and their average reported stress exceeds that of adults, according to an annual survey published by the American Psychological Association.
The agency's Stress in America survey found that 30 percent of teens reported feeling sad or depressed because of stress and 31 percent felt overwhelmed. Another 36 percent said that stress makes them tired and 23 percent said they’ve skipped meals because of it.
On average, teens reported their stress level was 5.8 on 10-point scale, compared with 5.1 for adults.
“It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults,” said Norman B. Anderson, the APA’s chief executive and senior vice president. “In order to break this cycle of stress and unhealthy behaviors as a nation, we need to provide teens with better support and health education, at school and at home, at the community level and in their interactions with health care professionals.”
That’s no surprise to experts who work with teens. They say that the pressures of schoolwork, social life, sports or other activities — combined with a relentless media culture — mean that young people may be more tense than ever before.
“You have to be able to perform at a much higher level than in the past, when I was in high school,” said Dave Forrester, a counselor at Olympia High School in Olympia, Wash. “We have so many choices for kids. They need to grow up a little faster about what they want to do and how they’re going to do it.”
"What I’ve heard is without a doubt a huge increase in the number of our teens coming in with anxiety and depression."
An increased emphasis on make-or-break school testing and sharp focus as early as middle school on future college or career plans can be intense for some kids. Others find that the ordinary struggles of adolescence — friendship, romance, fitting in — are magnified by social media that doesn’t end when classes are over.
“It follows them home,” said Tim Conway, who directs the counseling department at Lakeland Regional High School in Wanaque, N.J. “There is no escape anymore.”
Stress seems to be getting worse for some teens, according to the survey. About 31 percent of kids said their stress level had increased in the past year, twice as many as those who said it went down. And 34 percent said they expected their stress level would rise in the coming year.
That makes sense to Bryce Goldsen, a junior at Bishop Blanchet, a Catholic high school near Seattle. He carries a near-4.0 grade point average, takes advanced placement history and language arts classes, plays varsity tennis, participates in mock trial events and sits on the city's local youth commission.
“Most of my stress comes from the pressure to perform well day in and day out,” he said.
Goldsen says he manages his stress well and uses it as a motivation to do even better. But Conway, the New Jersey counselor, said that growing numbers of kids crack under the pressure.
“What I’ve heard is without a doubt a huge increase in the number of our teens coming in with anxiety and depression,” he said.
"Most of my stress comes from the pressure to perform well day in and day out."
Across the country, Elaine Leader, executive director of Teen Line, a hotline housed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, reports a similar problem. Her 34-year-old nonprofit agency provides phone counseling and resources to stressed teens ages 13 through 19. Last year, they fielded more than 4,600 phone calls, 4,100 emails and 15,000 texts from California and beyond.
“I’ve seen a lot of stress, particularly in the past few years,” said Leader. “I think it’s gotten worse.”
Despite the growing pressure, most teens reported they don’t believe that stress is a problem in the agency’s Harris Interactive survey of 1,950 adults and 1,018 teens ages 13 to 17 conducted last August. About 54 percent of teens said that their stress level had slight or no impact on their body or physical health, versus 39 percent of adults, and 52 percent said it had little impact on their mental health, compared with 43 percent of adults who felt that way. The
Parents, counselors and other adults can help young people resist stress and learn to manage it better, said Forrester, the school counselor. They can set limits for reasonable sleep and screen time and point their teens toward stress-relieving activities, such as exercise.
They can help kids set realistic priorities for school and outside activities. “We talk to them about balance. How do you balance what you have on your plate?” he said. “Maybe you don’t need to do three sports.”
Of course, that means that the adults have to take stress seriously, too. The new survey found that 42 percent of adults said their stress level has increased, and 36 percent said it held steady for the past five years.
And when it comes to managing their stress, 1 in 10 adults said they don’t do anything about it at all.