Are Some Kids Overscheduled?

Experts debate pros, cons of highly programmed childhood

By Maureen Salamon
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- From sports practices to music lessons to community service, American kids always seem to have plenty to keep them busy. But whether they're actually too busy -- reaching a tipping point detrimental to their mental and physical health -- remains a topic of debate.

The subject of overscheduled children has been on scientists' radar for at least a decade, said Andrea Mata, a doctoral student at Kent State University whose recent study on highly involved children was scheduled for presentation Thursday at a symposium in Montreal run by the Society for Research in Child Development.

"I think it's a hot topic right now," Mata said. "There's definitely a mix of viewpoints. So I think a lot more research is needed to find out what's going on."

The SRCD symposium will examine which children and adolescents become overscheduled, what happens at high levels of extracurricular involvement, and how factors such as school grades and aggression levels are affected.

Between 70 percent and 83 percent of American children and teens claim to take part in at least one extracurricular pursuit, spending an average of five to nine hours per week in structured activities, according to the SRCD. Only 5 percent to 7 percent, however, devote more than 20 hours per week to these activities.

Jean Twenge, author of the book Generation Me and a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said data gathered between the 1950s and the 1990s indicated overscheduling rose during that period and then leveled off.

"Are kids really overscheduled? It's not the average experience, but that doesn't mean it's not a problem," Twenge said. "Parents worry about keeping up, but it's certain types of parents who worry about it."

Twenge said the ever-mounting competition for admission to the nation's top colleges compels some parents and kids to fill every spare hour with impressive-looking endeavors.

Mata's study followed 1,354 children from birth through age 15, dividing them into groups based on how involved they were outside of school and home. The 43 children in the highest activity level averaged 129 minutes per week of structured activities at kindergarten, which increased to 254 minutes weekly by fifth grade.

Highly involved children were more likely to be girls from more affluent families, Mata said, and their mothers had attained higher education levels. This group had higher grades and lower levels of delinquency, among other behavioral and academic measurements, compared to less-involved children, she said.

"We're looking at it in a much more positive way," Mata said. "These highly involved kids are highly adaptive and high-functioning."

Linda Balog, former executive director of the Child and Adolescent Stress Management Institute at State University of New York at Brockport, said parents should ask their children how they feel about their extracurricular pursuits and whether they feel overwhelmed and stressed.

"We see some kids forced into organized sports at early ages and then get so burned out that they opt not to play in high school," said Balog, an associate professor of health sciences who's teaching a course on child and adolescent stress.

"Sometimes parents live through their children -- a sort of surrogate self," she added. "I think we have to err on the side of backing off a bit . . . as opposed to everything being organized and structured."

Experts note that research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The Nemours Foundation talks about childhood stress.

SOURCES: Andrea Mata, doctoral student, Kent State University, Ohio; Jean Twenge, Ph.D., professor of psychology, San Diego State University; Linda Balog, Ph.D., associate professor, health sciences, State University of New York at Brockport; symposium, Society for Research in Child Development, Montreal, March 31, 2011

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