We’re Missing a Key Driver of Teen Anxiety

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Last week, Columbia University became the latest school to announce that it would no longer require SAT or ACT scores for undergraduate admissions. The school’s decision was “rooted in the belief that students are dynamic, multi-faceted individuals who cannot be defined by any single factor,” the college said in a defense of its policy change.

The SAT has faced heavy scrutiny for privileging rich families, which can pay for test-prep classes for their kids. Some believe that dropping the test is an ethical move toward equality in selective college admissions. Others argue that Columbia is replacing one metric skewed toward rich students with a bundle of metrics that are even more stratified by socioeconomic status, such as high GPAs, internships in Nicaragua, and expensive traveling soccer teams.

My concern is that this elite-college policy—carried out in the name of equity—might billow the embers of a teen-anxiety firestorm. After all, when a college makes one test the core of your application, you’ll cram for that test. When the same school says your assessment is based on an infinitude of talents, it’s a tacit suggestion that ambitious students spend 100 hours a week cultivating as many résumé-stuffers as possible.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the extraordinary rise of teen mental distress in the United States. I’ve studied the literature on social-media and smartphone use and considered the rise of loneliness among young people. But the Columbia news made me think I’ve overlooked a key factor that helps explain why adolescent distress is rising not only in the U.S. but also in many rich countries. It’s pressure-cooker schools.

A 2022 paper by Dirk Bethmann and Robert Rudolf, both professors at Korea University, points out a curious paradox: In the 21st century, rich countries are beset with sadder adolescents. This finding runs counter to one of the fundamental rules of economics. Global data strongly associate wealth and happiness for adults, because citizens of richer countries tend to have higher subjective well-being than those of poorer countries. But Bethmann and Rudolf found a “paradox of wealthy nations,” because advanced economies seem to manufacture happier adults and unhappier adolescents.

One explanation might go like this: Richer and more complex economies require more rigorous and intense education, putting more pressure on kids to be high-achieving perfectionists. Adolescents go through a kind of happiness slingshot, in which stress early on springs them toward greater wealth and well-being later in life. Bethmann and Rudolf wink at this notion, writing that although “a higher learning intensity tends to increase a student’s academic achievement,” it tends to reduce leisure time, sleep, and subjective well-being.

Bethmann and Rudolf also found that higher standardized-test scores and student assessments of academic competition were strongly correlated with teen anxiety. If you take two countries that are equivalent in almost every way—same GDP, inequality, life expectancy, air pollution—the nation with higher test scores and more student competition will have more anxious and depressed teens.

The Bethmann-Rudolf hypothesis echoes international evidence that has repeatedly uncovered a negative relationship between (1) a culture of obsessive student achievement and long schoolwork hours, and (2) student well-being:

  • After an education reform in Germany led to more instructional time, a 2018 study found that increased school hours “significantly reduced adolescents’ self-rated mental health status.”
  • A 2018 analysis of Taiwan “cram schools,” which often focus on helping students pass standardized tests, found that these programs reliably increase academic achievement at the cost of increasing rates of depression.
  • A 2018 study by Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren at the London School of Economics found that schools around the world with higher test scores and more homework typically see the same trade-off: higher achievement and lower well-being, possibly because of greater “parental-achievement pressure,” which encourages students to feel more competitive.
  • A 2022 study of seventh to 10th graders by Korean researchers found that students whose peers were randomly assigned private tutoring after school reported more depressive symptoms. One possible explanation is that teens without tutors became more worried about their relative academic success and spent more time on schoolwork to keep up.

Bethmann and Rudolf point out a deep irony of this trade-off. In the 20th century, reformers fought to reduce the workweek and rescue kids from the scourge of labor. In the 21st century, we’ve intensified the demands of the school week. In many OECD countries, teenagers study longer than the permitted legal working hours for adult employees. The legal maximum workweek in South Korea is 52 hours, Bethmann and Rudolf report in their paper, but roughly one in four 15-year-old students studies 60 hours or more a week. The hardest-working decile of students in several European countries also put in 60-hour weeks. And, as the authors note, anxiety rates in many Western countries are just going up and up.

Now, what about the U.S., specifically?

Forty years ago, the most anxious kids in America were those in low-income households. Beginning in the late 1990s, that flipped, according to the researcher Suniya Luthar. In a series of studies, she found that rich teens in high-achieving schools were the most anxious and depressed. One possibility she explored was that the most rigorous schools created an environment where kids worried too much about how they measured up to their peers in grades, activities, and college admissions.

“I have for years thought that one of the main causes of the increase in adolescent depression was an increase in school pressure,” Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist who studies adolescent behavior at Temple University, told me. “When I talk to kids and we talk about sources of stress, they mention school pressure more than likes on Instagram.”

Some parents might respond that a little school pressure at 17 is a fine price to pay for decades of higher salaries and career success. If that’s true, this phenomenon is classic delayed gratification: pain now, gain later.

“Maybe these problems will go away when these young people grow up,” Steinberg admitted. “But also, maybe they won’t go away. We know adolescence is the main time when chronic depression begins. And if school pressure is making some kids depressed and borderline suicidal, I find it hard to argue that it’ll be all right if they can afford a bigger house 20 years from now.”

Let me try to meet ambitious parents and teens halfway. My parents put academic achievement on a pedestal in our household. And so do I: I think hard work, thoughtfulness, and cultures of excellence are values worth cherishing, and I want to pass down those values to my own kids. But I hope we can all acknowledge that sometimes this value system unhelpfully conflates intelligence with self-worth. Many parents may be worshipping healthy values in an unhealthy way.

Imagine, by analogy, that you’re a parent who is generally interested in your child being healthy—that is, eating the right foods and engaging in youth sports and playtime. You move to a neighborhood where the parents hold the same value—fitness is good—but they take it to extremes. At 5 a.m., every high schooler in the neighborhood participates in a grueling private HIIT class. Parents closely track their kids’ body-mass index and blood pressure. A while back, one parent entered their child in an international weight-lifting contest, it created a cascade of anxious mimicry, and now all the kids participate in international weight-lifting contests. Each month, one of the kids in the neighborhood is awarded Fittest Kid, and parents display these FK honors with living-room trophies and bumper stickers on their car. Over the years, the neighborhood has produced several bodybuilders and elite athletes, along with high rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. This has drawn the attention of researchers, who have concluded that the community has designed a culture of physical achievement that is both highly successful and indisputably crazy.

Yes, that example is kind of weird. But how different is it, really, from the way many status-obsessed parents and teens have come to treat academic excellence? A healthy virtue can be maximized to the point of toxicity.

The school-pressure hypothesis doesn’t rule out the role that social media and smartphones might play in the rise of teen anxiety. Teen distress is very likely the result of many different causal streams mingling together. For example, perhaps school intensity creates a culture of competition that raises the salience of status: “Am I doing enough to be more valuable than others?” Status anxiety carries over to social media, where precious leisure time is spent in virtual competitions for even more quantitative rewards—just another platform for being tested, where precisely counted “likes” stand in for grades. Meanwhile, the combination of school intensity and phone usage squeezes out offline leisure time, leading to fewer friends and hangouts, not to mention less sleep. All of this makes kids, especially those predisposed to anxiety and mental-health disorders, less capable of coping with the world’s chaos and more likely to tell a counselor that they can’t deal with existential stressors, such as climate change and school violence.

A good reason to scrutinize smartphone usage among teens is that it’s a very plausible contributor to youth distress. But pinning this whole thing on phones might lead us to overlook the other ways that modern life might be contributing to a more miserable childhood experience. “Sometimes I just think, my God,” Steinberg exclaimed at the end of our call. “Like, shouldn’t we care about giving kids a good experience of being a kid?”


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