In “America the Busy”, students are juggling more activities and obligations than ever before, but at what cost?
In a January 10 presentation at Scarsdale Middle School, sponsored by the Scarsdale Parent Teacher Council and CHILD, Dr. Lata McGinn addressed the negative impact of excessive schedules on children. As a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants (CBC), McGinn specializes in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety, depression, and related disorders.
Why are children so overworked? Rather than placing the blame solely on parents, in his Scarsdale presentation, McGinn argued that overtime is the result of a combination of factors, including sociocultural norms, legal structures and economic forces. She recognizes that “we are all part of the problem”.
According to McGinn, Americans are too busy to sleep, too busy to make friends, and too busy to date. She suggests that being busy makes Americans feel “important and valued” and noted that many strive to be “an ideal worker or student” as occupation is often a status symbol. Recently, Americans have been working harder than ever, as “experiencing leisure is linked to guilt,” she said.
McGinn said that many use the “time confetti” method of work, which they think increases their productivity, but in reality is very ineffective. In this method, leisure time is spread like confetti throughout the working day. However, this leads to “time contamination”, as this leisure time is not really enjoyable because there is constantly more work looming over you.
Referring to the US as “occupied America,” McGinn noted that Americans work longer hours than those in more advanced economies, but working longer hours is not making us more productive. As a comparison, McGinn pointed to Denmark, which she said was one of the world’s most competitive economies per capita, just behind the US. In contrast to America’s excessive working hours, McGinn said, Danes work on average just 37 hours a day week, has six weeks of vacation per year and a full year of paid maternity leave.
Notably, Denmark is ranked the happiest country in the world by the United Nations, compared to the US, which is ranked 11th. Danish values like pleasure and simplicity are “essential to the culture,” said McGinn. Specifically, she attributed Danish happiness to the adoption of a “Hygge” culture, which prioritizes leisure and spending time with family, friends and also alone.
While McGinn conceded that Denmark isn’t perfect, she noted that, in sharp contrast to Denmark, the United States is the “most anxious country in the world.” To support this assertion, she presented several startling statistics across the United States: the average high school student today experiences the same levels of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s, the average American mother has only 36 minutes of leisure a day, and one out of every five children has a mental disorder. She noted that American children today are more depressed than during the Great Depression and more anxious than during the height of the Cold War.
“Our kids are like burnt toast,” said McGinn. Why do children suffer so much? Overscheduling our kids can create burnout, which McGinn defined as being physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. Burnout often leads to decreased motivation, lower performance, and negative attitudes about oneself and life in general. According to McGinn, by age 13, three-quarters of children who had participated in organized activities for several years had permanently dropped out of those activities.
But she didn’t suggest that we eliminate all extracurricular activities, and she recognized that many activities can help you grow, develop, flourish, and prosper. While we want our children to thrive, she noted that the “balance is off.” Children have limited energy and stamina, and by overloading them with activities, we are depleting them. She also noted that overloading children with structured activities deprives them of unstructured free time, which can affect their creativity and sense of autonomy. Furthermore, she suggested that our obsession with keeping our children busy leaves them “no time to be bored,” which is essential, McGinn argued.
She also pointed out the damage wrought by the “Digital Age” of social media and its particular threat to the malleable minds of children. The addictive nature of social media and television decreases productivity and constantly occupies the minds of many. “When there are no restrictions,” said McGinn, “social media becomes your second family, more influential than your real family.”
McGinn recommended that parents carefully manage their children’s technology use. While she admits that completely eliminating children’s smartphone use is unrealistic, parents should have mindful and balanced conversations with their children. Small but impactful steps include implementing a no-screen policy during meals, turning off notifications and excluding specific apps to reduce reliance on them. Most importantly, teens shouldn’t sleep with their phones in their bedrooms, as the temptation can keep them awake, which can exacerbate their exhaustion.
Beyond technology, it’s imperative that “we get out of overtime and get that balance back,” McGinn said, adding that raising awareness and ownership can help realize that working longer hours or participating in more activities isn’t necessarily beneficial. This heightened awareness also applies to noticing how you are thinking and feeling during leisure time, crucial times that allow you to be serene and in the present moment.
McGinn concluded by asking the audience to conjure up an image of a seesaw to illustrate balance. She said it’s important to strike a balance between pleasure and mastery, alone time and social time, relaxation and enrichment, and structured time and unstructured time.
By adopting this sense of balance, we hope that America can transform itself from the most anxious country to, like Denmark, the happiest country.
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