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Do Teens See School Stress as a Health Risk?

Do Teens See School Stress as a Health Risk?

by Linda Lyons

Once we reach adulthood and have jobs, bills, spouses, and children to worry about, we may look back on our teenage years and marvel at our freedom from responsibility. But anyone who has raised a teenager knows that those years are not usually the freewheeling, happy-go-lucky time that many imagine. Teens live stressful lives, and how they handle different stressors can affect both their current and future health.

The most recent Gallup Youth Survey* asked teens how serious several health-related problems are among their teenaged friends, including "stress due to activities and homework." Nearly two-thirds of teens think this type of stress is a "very" (34%) or "somewhat" serious (30%) health problem. A third describe it as "not too" (23%), or "not at all" (11%) serious.

As Teens Age, Academic Stress Increases

There is little difference in the responses of boys and girls or whites and nonwhites to this question, but a discrepancy emerges by age group. Although 60% of younger teens -- those between the ages of 13 and 15 -- say their friends have a very or somewhat serious problem with stress related to activities and homework, that figure rises to 71% among 16- and 17-year-olds.

Not yet even in high school, Michael, a 13-year-old from Florida, says his eighth-grade friends are already somewhat stressed out from homework and extracurricular activities. "Eighth grade is really hard," he says, "and everyone does lots of sports."

That stress seems to heat up in the higher grades. Compare Michael's observations to those of Mary, a 17-year-old Pennsylvania high school senior. "Stress is very, very, very serious," she says, inventing a whole new response category to describe her friends' stress levels. "And it's mostly over grades and college acceptance." Mary thinks extracurricular activities, especially sports, alleviate rather than add to her stress by taking her mind off homework and grades. "Physical stress is a good thing," she says, "the endorphins kick in and it cleanses your mind."

One New Jersey health professional agrees that the rise in older teens' stress levels has much to do with getting into college (see "College Admissions: Teens Feel the Heat" in Related Items). Dr. John Cotton, a New Jersey pediatrician who monitors his patients through their last year of college, says he treats teenagers for stress all the time -- "Two already today, in fact," he says. "There are such high academic expectations for teens today, and so much demand on their time. Kids want to be successful in both their academic and social lives."

Cotton tries to put the college entrance process into perspective for his patients. "I tell them you don't have a whole lot of control over the procedure, and you've got to be able to roll with the punches. Have six favorite colleges -- not just one."

More Academic Stress

Homework and activity-related stress appears to be even more problematic the higher up the academic ladder teens climb. Seventy-five percent of teens who are enrolled in honors or advanced placement courses say homework- or activity-related stress is a serious problem among their friends, compared with 57% of teens who are not enrolled in AP or honors courses. Teens who take honors and advanced placement courses often end up socializing with their academic peers, so it's likely that they see the stress their friends are under and can relate it to their own.

Top Health Problems Among Teens

Among the nine health-related problems that Gallup asked teens about, stress from activities and homework is not viewed as serious a problem as substance abuse or depression. But heightened stress can also be a factor leading to these types of health problems. 

Stress merits consideration -- and action -- among parents, teachers, and health professionals. "Because stress is cumulative," Cotton says, "I try to use preventative measures so it doesn't reach the crisis point. I urge teens to eat properly, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and drink moderate amounts of caffeine to avoid any disruption in their sleep. At the first sign that the problem is beyond what I can help with, I don't hesitate to refer teens to a counselor or a psychiatrist for further treatment."

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 785 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 22 and March 9, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

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