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Overscheduling kids' lives is directly associated with depression and anxiety, a new study finds

March 11, 2024
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This story was produced by The Hechinger Reporta nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

Overscheduling kids' lives is directly associated with depression and anxiety, a new study finds

Psychologists have long warned that children's lives are overscheduled, which undermines their ability to develop non-academic skills that they'll need in adulthood, from coping with setbacks to building strong relationships. Now a trio of economists say they've been able to calculate some of these psychological costs.

In a new data analysis published in the February 2024 issue of the Economics of Education Review, three economists from the University of Georgia and the Federal Reserve Board found that students are assigned so much homework and signed up for so many extracurricular activities that the "last hour" was no longer helping to build their academic skills. Instead, the activities were actually harming their mental well-being, making students more anxious, depressed, or angry. 

"We're not saying that all these activities are bad, but that the total is bad," Carolina Caetano, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia, told The Hechinger Report. Homework and scheduled activities, she said, were eating away at time for sleep and socializing, which are also important. 

The downsides of homework and scheduled activities were most pronounced during the high school years, when students are feeling pressure to earn high grades and load up on extracurriculars for their college applications, the researchers found.

Unfortunately, the researchers weren't able to put a precise number on how many hours is too much, and Caetano explained to me that the number might not be the same for everyone.

Parents who worry that their children might be overscheduled should ask themselves whether they feel their days are so busy that their children don't even have time for spontaneous play dates, Caetano said. "If you feel stretched, you're probably on the too-much side of this," she said.

Caetano and her research team analyzed the time diaries of 4,300 children and teens, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The diaries had been collected over the years, dating back to 1997, as part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a large nationally representative household survey overseen by the University of Michigan. Children, parents and survey workers kept track of a random weekday and a random weekend day for each child, allowing the researchers to see how children spent every minute.

The researchers described a wide assortment of activities intended to improve children's skills as "enrichment." Homework was the largest component, adding up to two-thirds of the total enrichment hours. The remainder of the enrichment time was occupied by reading (14 percent of the enrichment time), followed by before- and after-school programs (7 percent). In the diaries, relatively little time was spent being read to by parents, tutoring and other academic lessons, and on non-academic lessons, such as piano, soccer or driver's ed. On average, children spent 45 minutes a day on all of them, ranging from zero to four hours a day.

The researchers then compared time spent on these enrichment activities with academic test scores along with non-cognitive psychological measures, which were based on parent surveys of their children's behaviors, such as being withdrawn, anxious or angry. 

At first, there seemed to be a strong association between time spent on enrichment and academic skills and positive behaviors. That is, students who were more scheduled also had higher test scores and better behaviors. 

But scheduled students also tend to be wealthier. Their families have the resources for tutors, after-school activities, or nannies who enforce homework time. It's hard to tell how much the activities were responsible for boosting students' skills or whether these highly resourced children would have done just as well on the tests and non-cognitive measures without the activities. After adjusting for family income and other demographic characteristics, some of these benefits melted away. Still, some association between scheduled activities and academic skills remained. In other words, even between two children with the same demographics and family income, the one that was more scheduled and spent more time on homework scored higher.

However, these scheduled children of the same income and demographics still differ from each other in important ways. Some are more motivated or conscientious. Some have photographic memories or are hard-working. Some have a gift for math or music. The children who choose to do more homework and participate in after-school activities are exactly the ones who are more likely to score higher anyway. It's a thorny knot to disentangle how much the homework and scheduled activities are driving the improvement in skills.

In this study, the researchers used a new statistical technique for large datasets to disentangle it. And once they adjusted for the effects of the students' unobservable or inner differences, all the academic benefits melted away, and well-being turned negative. That is, the final or marginal hour of homework and activities didn't raise a student's test scores at all and lowered a child's non-cognitive behaviors.

The researchers also noticed a dilemma in the data. The psychological downsides of overscheduling hit before students' cognitive skills were maximized. There's a point where a child could still boost his academic skills by doing another hour of homework or tutoring, for example, but it would come at the expense of mental well-being. With more time spent on these activities, the academic returns eventually fall to zero, but by that time, there's been a considerable hit to well-being. 

A lot more research is needed to understand if some activities are harming students more than others. One question Caetano has concerns timing. She wonders what would happen if little kids were less scheduled in elementary school. Would they then have more resilience to deal with the time pressures in high school? 

The statistical techniques in this study are new and researchers debate about how and when to use them. Josh Goodman, an education economist at Boston University who was not involved in the study, commented that the causal claims between overscheduling and academic skills and mental well-being aren't "perfect," but called them "good enough."  He said on X (formerly Twitter) that "the paper raises some very uncomfortable questions (including about my own parenting decisions!)" 

Of course, parents aren't entirely to blame. Schools assign homework and their children's grades will suffer if it isn't done. College admissions departments value applicants with high grades and activities. Caetano sympathizes with parents who find it hard to individually push back against the current system.

It's similarly difficult for one school to unilaterally change homework policies when colleges could penalize their students. Indeed, schools that have tried reducing the pressure have sometimes felt the wrath of parents who are worried that less homework will cause their children to fall behind the competition. Ultimately, Caetano says that education policymakers on the state or federal level need to set policies to ratchet down the pressure for all.

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