The Overscheduled Child, Really?

Soccer, piano, Spanish, cooking, drama, voice, hand-thrown pottery, earth science, French Impressionism, wilderness training…we’re all doing it all. Or making/allowing/requesting our children do it all. So much so that The American Association of Pediatrics recently issued a policy statement affirming the importance of free time, in other words, good old-fashioned play, thereby hinting at a national over-scheduling epidemic. Our youth are all busy, right?

Maybe not. Forty percent of school-aged kids don’t participate in any extracurricular activities according to Joseph Mahoney and his colleagues who conducted a large national survey you might have read about in Newsweek. So, yes, FORTY percent do none. Moreover, very few kids (approx. 5%) devote 20 or more hours per week. Most average about 5 hours. In fact, most spend considerably more time watching television, and to a lesser extent, playing video games, board games, make-believe, dress-up and the like.

So no national epidemic. Is it possible, far from doing harm, extracurricular might be doing good? Making kids smarter, happier, less likely to smoke, drink, and do drugs? Yes asserts Mahoney and crew. Great conjecture, but in reality, we can’t say for sure. This study doesn’t show, in fact, can’t show, that extracurricular activities (EC) create well-adjusted kids. It can only show a relationship exists between EC and performance. Maybe doing well leads to more extracurriculars. Kids who perform well choose to do (or can do) lots of stuff. Kids who are struggling, well, cannot or choose not to do EC. Maybe another factor (e.g., motivation), then, explains both things. In any case, a different research design (e.g., an experiment) is necessary to show the exact direction of the relationship.

But let’s say for the moment we knew children benefitted from EC. Pretend we have evidence of that causal relationship. Does this mean the more, the better? Mahoney suggests so. But his pattern of results doesn’t lend clear-cut evidence. Check out the graphs for yourself. Looks to me that the optimal level rests at a moderate level (5 – 10 hours). Also, notice the different results for Black and White kids. Compared to other Black kids, those doing the most (20+) talked the most with their parents, ate the most meals with them, were the most emotionally well-adjusted, and the least likely to smoke pot. But look at their busy White counterparts. They weren’t doing the best on any of the outcomes.

Brings me to another point. Mahoney didn’t just go out and recruit families for a study on EC. The 1,144 white and 981 black children were part of an ongoing nationally representative 5,000-family research project. On the positive side, Mahoney performed a valuable glimpse at what’s happening on the national level. But what’s needed, what might be more revealing about some of the above issues, is research focused on smaller populations, say, those forty percent not doing any organized after-school activities. It’s quite possible they could benefit from doing some. And Mahoney and crew argue that far from an "epidemic" - these kids NEED more valuable extracirricular activities. That may well be true.

On the flipside, there’s evidence of an epidemic among affluent households, namely some very busy and very stressed teens (see work by S. Luthar, e.g., her 2005 work – also look at her one-page review of the issue within the Mahoney report cited below). Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist, documents some of these issues in her recent book, The Price of Privilege.

This report reminds me of the difficulty in generalizing results across differing populations, in this case, the more affluent households and the less affluent. This issue is no different.

Read the full Mahoney article for free in the Social Policy Report on the Society for Research in Child Development website The SPR, a peer-reviewed journal, differs from many other peer-reviewed journals, its primary purpose is “to provide policymakers with objective reviews of research findings”. Most journals don’t cater to policy makers, their usual audience being academics.

Mahoney, J.L., Harris, A.L., Eccles, J.S. (2006). Organized Activity Participation, Positive Youth Development,
and the Over-Scheduling Hypothesis. Social Policy Report, 20(4), 1-30.


Bryan said...

As someone who actually sees and treats kids suffering the consequences of overscheduling, I was actually shocked when I read this. I can't speak to the science without reviewing the piece but I can't help but think that this is a contrarian shock phenomenon - something that just flies in the face of the norm and gathers attention?

Dr. Polly, Ph.D. said...

My first reaction to this study was also surprise, and yes, skepticism. I quetionned how so many children appeared to be, well, not busy. As it turns out they are doing other activities that weren't classified as "extracirricular" but may also keep them busy and don't appear to be "free time", meaning, not so much fun, like household chores and educational activities (e.g., homework, reading). These other categories combined with extracirricular activities account for about 12-13 hours. Some of the teenagers most likely also have jobs that aren't accounted for in this study. A related issue, the data were pulled from an ongoing study so the authors didn't create the survey - a limitation when getting at these issues. So there may be some things we might consider extracurricular that weren't counted as such.

Also, I think it's likely that there is a subset of kids who are overscheduled - spending many hours a week in extracurriculars and thus experiencing some negative consequences. There is a growing literature on the issue. It would have been interesting if Mahoney et al. took a closer look at the kids doing losts, say over 15 hours.

Can you give us a profile of these kids?