Age of Speed and Stress

The most recent “Stress in America” survey from American Psychological Association shows that stress factors increasingly affect American’s well-being. This stress comes from many factors and takes on many forms, and is often propelled by our culture that supports speed as a valuable attribute and schedules that are full. As compared to previous generations, we are a highly connected society who enjoy and rely on instant access to a deluge of information, news, and entertainment. There is a link between the stress that we experience and our overall physical and emotional health. Our doctor’s offices are filled with people suffering from conditions brought on by stress that include insomnia, migraines, hypertension, asthma and gastrointestinal trouble.

Where childhood was once seen as a time of freedom and play, it is now usually much more scheduled with young people being overbooked and stressed (Willard & Saltzman, 2010). As our culture speeds up, the effects of a fast-paced and stressed out culture can be seen in childhood as well. Childhood schedules are packed and pressure filled, mirroring the adults in their lives. This leaves little time for important and slower acts like unsupervised time with friends or even just daydreaming (Honore, 2005).

The increased speed and pressure affects children’s health as stress increases conditions like upset stomach, headache, insomnia, depression, and eating disorders (Honore, 2005). These affects follow youth into their teenage years. According to a 2014 survey from the APA, teens carry stress levels that rival adults and make them les likely to sleep well, exercise or eat healthy foods (2014).

Trends show a growing number of children, adolescents, and teens being diagnosed and treated for emotional and behavioral disorders. Depression and anxiety continue to be on the rise for youth and many of them are often treated with medication. Even more troubling, are the rising rates of youth suicide. According to a recent New York Times article, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of 2014, middle school students are just as likely to die from suicide as a traffic accident (Tavernise, 2016).

Dr. Marsha Levy-Warren, a clinical psychologist in New York who works with adolescents, elaborates her experience in this same article “It’s clear to me that the question of suicidal thoughts and behavior in this age group has certainly come up far more frequently in the last decade than it had in the previous decade. Cultural norms have changed tremendously from 20 years ago” (Tavernise, 2016). A few trends that contribute to the speed and stress apparent in childhood are the tendency to keep children overscheduled, pressure of highly-competitive sports, and digital interactions.

Overscheduled.

With many extra-curricular activities, children are not left with the time to do nothing, a time for them to just be. Psychiatrists and educators conclude that enrolling children in too many activities is a problem in the United States.  The ubiquitous terminology of “keeping up with the Joneses” no longer just relates to what each family has to show for themselves as far as cars and fancy homes. The new keeping up relates to the number of teams or activities children are committed to and how many accolades they have acquired. In addition, a lot of this scheduled time is adult-led which decreases the important time of time free play. Free play time allows children to practice having control and asserting themselves when adults are not present. Because children are often scheduled for events with teachers and coaches for a good portion of their day, they are not afforded this essential time.

Previous generations spent more time in outdoor sports and activities without adult supervision. Children were able to make their own decisions and solve problems and learn how to get along with their peers (Lahey, 2014). This is seen as incredible valuable for children in their healthy development that works to strengthen social bonds and build emotional maturity. In fact, studies have shown that the more “structured” time kids spend, the less self control they exhibited (Lahey, 2014).

Youth sports and pressure in childhood.

The pressures that children face can sometimes come from the sports activities that they take part in. Youth sports in the United States have changed in the recent decade to include more competition at travel league levels, and also off-season options. Where previous generations might have played one sport a season and changed the sport throughout the year, today’s children sometimes play on more than one team in a season. Sports schedules increase pressure on children by requiring more time and commitment.

There are of course many benefits to playing youth sports including exercise, team building, and time management skills, but there is a trend for this time to be out of balance and leading to more stress for children. In addition, the growing competitiveness in youth sports is sometimes linked to achievement that might assist with college acceptance and scholarships. This also increases the pressure on children, where sports might feel fun and playful for some, others might be pressured to achieve for the adults in a child’s life including parents, coaches, potential coaches in higher learning and others. In his book, Free to Learn, developmental psychologists Peter Gray explains that one reason for the rise in structured activities is “the ever-increasing focus on children’s performance, which can be measured, and decreasing concern for true learning, which is difficult of impossible to measure” (2013, p.9). Although his conversation revolves around education and schooling, the idea of measuring performance can be seen in sports and other extra-curricular activities.

Digital culture.

Children growing up in America today are very used to the digital world that surrounds them and that they interact with. Early learning games and instruction are provided by digital applications that can be used on kid-friendly devices like iPads, handheld smartphones, laptops, and watches. Popular culture supports integrating daily activities with digital devices starting as toddlers. These toddlers grow into children who quickly connect with social media application and platforms where their development in interacting with others is based on screens and digital technology. These digital technologies have changed much in the landscape of childhood that are being researched and addressed by doctors, psychologies, educators, parents and other professionals.