Can you remember the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those months without early risings, homework, tests and structure? In just a few days school will end for another year for roughly 2 million North Carolina school age children and while they take some time off, we should go to class to learn whether they are facing too much pressure.
The youth pastor at one church recently proclaimed that Raleigh’s Broughton High School was “toxic” for many children, explaining that he hears traumatic stories of academic and social pressures. We have no way of knowing whether Broughton is more or less stressful than other schools, but we do know there is an uptick in teens exhibiting mental health symptoms like anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Some studies suggest they impact 1 in 5 adolescents, and the Center for Disease Control reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among those between the ages of 10 and 24 in North Carolina. Some 13.8 percent of them admitted they made a plan to commit suicide.
The stress begins early. We know many young families where parents divide up on school nights and weekends so that one can take a child to soccer practice while the other carts a child to dance, music, art or some other activity. Kids can’t unwind because their lives are so structured.
Young people frequently hear sermons about how every test matters in raising their GPA or getting them placed in AP courses. Parents hire tutors to help their children in subjects in which they are weak and our schools are complicit because, in our fervent desire to hold our schools accountable, we test students to death. Truth be known, those test results affect teachers and schools almost as much as students.
September of a student’s senior year begins the college application ritual. Students talk about their “reach” school, that elite college from which a degree would almost guarantee a good job. In the dozen or so applications the typical college-bound senior completes there will be one or two “early admission” applications, meaning that if accepted they pledge to enroll. Seniors hardly enjoy Christmas vacation because of anxiety waiting to get acceptance letters. We recently saw how this plays out among the rich and famous who had surrogates take SAT or ACT tests, falsified applications and paid large sums to ensure their children get accepted to the “right” school. It’s a major competition and the pressure is intense.
Social pressures are also increasing. In addition to normal comparisons with peers regarding looks, clothes, weight, wealth, and loves, Common Sense Media reports the average teen spends 9 hours a day with digital technology. Even “tweens,” age 8 to 12, report six hours with media each day. They may be friending, but in this impersonal world peers say hateful, hurtful, mocking and nasty things to one another, much as do adults.
Do the math. The typical school day is 6 ½ hours. There’s between 1 and 3 hours of homework per night for high schoolers. Factor in extracurricular activities, meals and the 9 hours of digital media and you easily see our young aren’t getting enough sleep and rest.
We ask again if our young people are under too much pressure? More importantly, what should we be doing about it?
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of "NC SPIN"on UNC-TV.