New Data on Stress in our Children

Dr. Sam Goldstein

In the past few months, two important large surveys about youth today have been published.  The first, completed by the American Psychological Association, addressed stress in children.  The second, completed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, extended their previous work investigating children’s use of the media and electronic devices.  

When examined individually, each of these surveys provides important and alarming data about the state of affairs in our children.  Taken together, these two surveys raise significant questions about the complex challenges and issues facing our society in preparing the current generation of children to become functional adults.  In this article I will review these two important surveys and offer my opinion about the current needs of our youth.

The American Psychological Association’s Practice Directorate has undertaken an  ongoing public education campaign about a broad range of issues.  As such, APA has completed a number of surveys.  A nationally representative sample of over 1,500 adults was collected in the summer of 2009.  Additionally, a survey of over 1,200 young people between the ages of  eight and seventeen was collected as well.  These data suggest through the eyes of parents and youth that they are more stressed than ever before.  Even more alarming is the fact that most adults are only minimally aware of children’s stress levels and of the issues that stress them.  Such a gap could very well have long term adverse implications for children’s mental and physical health in their capacity to transition successfully and happily into adulthood. 

Children in this survey reported they worried about doing well in school, getting into college and their family’s finances.  This group also reported suffering from headaches, sleeplessness and nausea.  More than one in three children reported experiencing headaches in the previous month, yet only 13% of parents thought their child experienced headaches as the result of stress.  Forty-four percent of children in this study reported problems with sleep, yet only 13% of parents again thought their children were having trouble sleeping.  One fifth of these children reported they worry a great deal or a lot but only 3% of parents rated their children as experiencing a high level of stress and worry. In addition, almost 30% of children worried about their family’s financial difficulties but just 18% of parents thought this was a source of worry for their children.

It is not only the children that are stressed.  In this survey, 42% of adults indicated that their stress worsened in the past year.  A total of 24% reported they had extreme stress over the past month and 51% reported moderate stress.  About two thirds of adults reported they had been diagnosed by a physician with a chronic medical condition, most commonly high blood pressure or high cholesterol.  Seventy percent reported that a health care provider had recommended lifestyle or behavioral changes.  Among parents of eight to seventeen-year-olds, mothers reported higher levels of stress than fathers.  Mothers were also more likely to report lying awake at night, eating unhealthy foods, overeating or skipping a meal due to stress.  Overall, women reported more stress than men, including symptoms of irritability, anger and depression.  Yet, the highest sources of stress reported by parents were their concerns about their children doing well in school, relationships with siblings and peers, a pattern that was mirrored by youth themselves. 

With this foundation, now consider that the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the average youth now spends nearly every waking minute, except for time in school, using some type of electronic device such as telephones, computers or televisions.   This survey was based on a survey of more  than 2,000 students in grades three through twelve conducted between October, 2008 and May, 2009.  This is the third report since 1999 completed by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  During this period of time, media consumption by youth grew far more between 2004 and 2009 than between 1999 and 2004.  In part this has been due to the increased availability of sophisticated mobile technology.

Youth between eight and eighteen years of age are now spending seven and a half hours a day with screen based electronic devices compared to less than six and a half hours five years ago when this last study was conducted. This does not count the hour and a half that youth reported texting or the half hour they reported talking on their cell phones.  Many also reported multi-tasking such as surfing the internet while listening to music or texting a friend.  It is estimated that youth today pack an average of nearly eleven hours of media content into that seven and a half hour period.  On average, young people in this survey spent approximately two hours a day consuming media on a mobile phone.  They spent another hour on old content like television or music delivered through newer pathways like websites or itunes.  They spent more time listening to or watching media on their cell phones or playing games than talking on them.  Seven in ten of these youth reported having a television in their bedroom and about a third a computer with internet access.  Further, the use of media was limited in homes with rules such as no television watching during meals, in the bedroom or until homework is completed.  When I wrote about the last Kaiser Family Foundation survey in 2005, it appeared impossible to conceptualize that the amount of time youth spend with electronic devices could increase.  Further, those who consumed at least sixteen hours per day of media had mostly C grades or lower compared with 23% of those who typically consumed three hours a day or less. The heaviest media users were also more likely than the lightest users to report that they were bored or sad, got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were unhappy at school.  Interestingly, the heaviest media users reported spending a similar amount of time exercising as the light media users.  Nonetheless, this survey and others has established a link between screen time and obesity.

This survey could not definitively determine a cause and effect relationship between heavy media use by youth and other problems such as the stress related issues discussed earlier in this article.  It is also important to note that even as these data are reported, media use among youth continues to change with the introduction of sites such as Twitter.

What exactly is the relationship between increased media use and stress in our youth?  Does one feed off the other?  Are they bi-directional, meaning that as stress increases youth seek these kinds of activities in an effort to relieve stress but engaging in these activities may in fact only increase their daily problems and stress related experiences?  From my perspective there is a bi-directional and complex relationship, not just between stress and media use in our children but for all of the tasks and challenges facing our children today.  My colleague and I, Bob Brooks, wrote about this in our 2008 book, Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. Through our clinical and scientific work, we concluded that now more than ever the need to develop and harness self-discipline at an early age for our youth has taken on greater importance in a society filled with complex demands, distractions, challenges and stresses. We wrote that in our fast paced, seemingly chaotic world children capable of exercising self-discipline at young ages appeared to negotiate the maze of family, school, friends and community more successfully than those who struggle to control themselves.  We suggested that children with self-discipline have internalized a set of rules so that even when parents or caregivers are not present they act in thoughtful, reflective manners allowing them to manage and confront stresses as well as activities such as those related to the use of media.

I continue to believe that self-discipline is the vital component guiding an individual’s sense of responsibility for their behavior.  The data discussed in this article lays a further foundation of the importance of teaching our children to manage the rising tide of media, technology and stress in their lives. 

In 2005, Dr. Brooks and I edited an important scientific volume, Handbook of Resilience in Our Children.  We have just begun work on the second edition of this book.  We are pleased that our volume has been so well received.  In our concluding chapter we questioned how to go about predicting the future of today’s children.  What statistics should be examined?  What outcomes should be measured?  What formula should be computed?  Despite a large, increasing and valuable body of data, including the data discussed in this article, we still do not possess definitive or precise answers to these questions.  However, as we examine the increasing number of risks facing children and observe short and long-term research, it appears that now more than ever is the time for parents, medical, educational and mental health professionals to come together and recognize that our future depends on the success or failure of our efforts to prepare our children to become happy, healthy, functional and contributing members of society in their adult lives.  The complexity of our society and its distractions has increased the risks and vulnerabilities that fuel the statistics of adversity in youth today.  These data are a wake up call in our homes, classrooms and communities.  We must create a strength-based, positive psychology capable of helping children develop and harness the skills, behaviors and mindset necessary to make good choices and transition successfully and functionally into adult life.