Stressed Out Teens

Ask a teen how they are doing and they will nearly always answer ‘busy‘. For most teens, this is a true statement.  High school teens and college students alike are chronically tired and complain of stress.

How much of this round the clock activity and pressure is avoidable is different debate, one which has strong arguments on both sides of the fence.

An interesting series of essays among experts recently posited that some of the pressure, especially that due to homework and extracurricular activity, is unnecessary  (“Stress and the High School Student”, New York Times).

Others, say stress from over scheduling is a s myth, and that the activities are confined to upper middle class ‘hurried children’ who benefit greatly from having so much structured time (“For Some Busy Kids It’s All Good“, Washington Post,)

Regardless of the reasons why or outcomes, stress is a reality of teen life, and an important point of context for those wishing to understand or communicate with Millennials.

Stress is an everyday reality, not just associated with periods of final exams or papers.  I had an opportunity to interact with several teens over the Christmas break. They all described their lives as filled with sports, homework, extracurricular activities, SAT prep, church group, theatre and more. They report staying up until 1 AM on a regular basis, and having little time for watching television.

A  Generation of Sleep Deprived Walking Zombies?

In his book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Chap Clark describes the teens he met during his research as “observably tired, some to the point of near exhaustion“. (p 137)

“Instead of being a general laziness or a semi-bored listlessness (both of which have long been associated with this age), the tired I observed was like what I feel after staying up most of the night due to a delayed flight. Many students experience this zombie-like feeling on a daily basis. When I asked why they were so tired eh answers ranged from homework to work to a late practice….The busyness, fragmentation and stress level adolescents experience are relatively new, and they are increasing.”

Clark’s observations are supported by data from the National Sleep Foundation. “Teens tend to have irregular sleep patterns across the week — they typically stay up late and sleep in late on the weekends, which can affect their biological clocks and hurt the quality of their sleep. ” One study found only 15% of teens reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights. As a result “many teens suffer from treatable sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.”

Why the Worried Look?

An NSF poll tied lack of sleep to worry, not just over scheduling.  Most adolescents were likely to say they worried about things too much (58%) and/or felt stressed out/anxious (56%). Many of the adolescents surveyed also reported feeling hopeless about the future, or feeling unhappy, sad or depressed.

Chap Clark describes three ares of stress that take their toll on most students: “the pressure to succeed, the pressure to maintain stability at home while remaining loyal and connected to the peer group and the general pressure associated with relationships.” Of these, the pressure to succeed appears to be the most relentless..

“The pressure to succeed, whether in the classroom, on the athletic field, or in an endeavor that creates a sense of worth and accomplishment, represents an delusive, never quite good enough sense that students wear like a cloud. When students do something well, they believe it is only a step in the direction of adequate performance. I encountered few students who allowed themselves to do their best in a given arena and then let the chips fall where they may.”

An Uncertain Future

The performance stress high school students experience seems to accelerate in college.  We completed a series of in-depth interviews among college age students to learn more about how they think about the relationship of post-secondary education to their ultimate career goals. What we heard surprised us. They are sure that the relationship between a traditional college education and a ‘better life’ is no longer as strong as it was in the past. This makes the high cost of college, both in time and money, feel like an uncertain investment and is a great source of anxiety, both for them and their parents. Many parents are even pulling back their support, leading to further stress.

Stress Takes A Toll

For marketers, understanding the rising anxiety level of Millennials can provide a needed context for major and minor purchase decisions alike. Time savers, efficiency tools and programs that reduce life’s uncertainties will meet a ready audience. They especially need help developing a clear vision of what their adult lives will be like and how to achieve it. This ultimately may be the key to winning the hearts and minds of a stressed out generation of sleep-deprived young adults.