In “America the Busy,” students are juggling more activities and obligations than ever before, but at what cost?
In a presentation Jan. 10 at Scarsdale Middle School, sponsored by the Scarsdale Parent Teacher Council and CHILD, Dr. Lata McGinn addressed the negative impact of overscheduling on children. As a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants (CBC), McGinn specializes in cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety, depression and related disorders.
Why are children so overscheduled? Rather than placing blame solely on parents, in her presentation in Scarsdale McGinn argued that overscheduling is the result of a combination of factors, including socio-cultural norms, legal structures and economic forces. She acknowledges that “we’re 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 busyness is often a symbol of status. Recently, Americans have been working harder than ever as “experiencing leisure is tied to the feeling of guilt,” she said.
McGinn said that many use the work method of “time confetti,” which they think increases their productivity, but in reality is very ineffective. In this method, leisure time is sprinkled, like confetti, throughout working hours. Yet, this leads to “time contamination” as this leisure time is not actually enjoyable because there is constantly more work hanging over you.
Referring to the U.S. as “America the Busy,” McGinn noted that Americans work longer hours than those in most advanced economies, but working longer hours is not making us more productive. As a comparison, McGinn pointed to Denmark, which she said is one of the most competitive economies in the world per capita, just behind the U.S. In contrast to America’s excessive work schedule, McGinn said, the Danish work on average only 37 hours per week, have six weeks of vacation per year and one full year of paid maternity leave.
Notably, Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world by the United Nations, compared to the U.S., which is ranked at No. 11. Danish values such as pleasure and simplicity are “essential to the culture,” McGinn said. Specifically, she attributed Danish happiness to their embrace of a “Hygge” culture, which prioritizes leisure and spending time with family, friends, as well as alone.
While McGinn conceded that Denmark is not perfect, she noted that in sharp contrast to Denmark, America is the most “anxious country in the world.” To support that claim, she offered several staggering U.S. statistics: the average high school student today experiences the same levels of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient from the 1950s, the average American mother has only 36 minutes of leisure time a day, and one out of every five children has a mental disorder. She noted that today’s American children are more depressed than they were during the Great Depression and more anxious than they were during the height of the Cold War.
“Our children are like burnt toast,” McGinn said. Why are children suffering so much? Overscheduling our children 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-fourths of children who have participated for several years in organized activities have permanently given up those activities.
But she did not suggest we eliminate all extracurricular activities, and she acknowledged that many activities could help you grow, develop, flourish and prosper. While we want our children to thrive, she noted the “balance is off.” Children have limited energy and stamina, and by loading them up with activities, we are draining them. She also noted that overscheduling children with structured activities deprives them of unstructured free time, which may impact their creativity and sense of autonomy. Moreover, she suggested that our obsession with keeping our kids occupied leaves them “no time to be bored,” which is essential, McGinn argued.
She also pointed to harm caused by the “Digital Age” of social media, and its particular threat to children’s malleable minds. The addictive nature of social media and television decreases productivity and constantly occupies the mind of many. “When there are no restrictions,” said McGinn, “social media becomes the second family, more influential than your real family.”
McGinn recommended that parents thoughtfully manage their children’s use of technology. While she conceded that completely eliminating the use of children’s smartphones is unrealistic, parents should have mindful, balanced conversations with their children. Small, yet impactful steps include implementing a no-screen policy during meals, turning notifications off, and deleting specific apps to reduce dependence on them. Most importantly, teens should not sleep with their phones in their rooms as their temptation might keep them awake, which could exacerbate their exhaustion.
Beyond technology, it is imperative that “we get out of being overscheduled and get that balance back,” McGinn said, adding that increasing awareness and ownership can help one realize working longer hours or participating in more activities is not necessarily beneficial. This increased awareness also applies to noticing how you are thinking and feeling during leisure time, crucial moments that allow you to be serene and in the present moment.
McGinn concluded by asking the audience to conjure up the 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, hopefully America can transform from the most anxious country, to, like Denmark, the happiest country.
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