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High school seniors are not who they used to be — and that’s both good and bad news. Because while teens are using less alcohol and cigarettes than in the past, they’re also spending less time with friends and more time stressing out about their futures, resulting in the lowest levels of wellbeing in 30 years. That’s according to the results of a new survey conducted by the University of California Los Angeles.
“It’s wonderful that there are lower rates of alcohol and cigarette use. But what’s terrible is that teens are socializing less,” adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Parenting in response to UCLA’s annual CIRP Freshman Survey of more than 153,000 incoming college freshmen across the country. “Since it’s been harder and harder to get into college, we almost have this mass hysteria going on about it,” she notes. “There’s a culture now of high schools creating a rise in anxiety and depression by making students feel that getting into college is a life or death thing. They’re so panicked about it, and about disappointing their parents, that they have a lot less balance in their lives.”
But letting off steam at parties is just not a priority, the CIRP survey found, as 41.3 percent of those surveyed said they did not attend parties at all, and 61.4 percent said they spent less than an hour a week at parties (a number that stood at just 24.3 percent in 1987, by comparison). Simple hangout time with friends has also hit an all-time low, with just 18 percent of students spending at least 16 hours a week socializing with friends, compared to nearly 38 percent in 1987. At the same time, unsurprisingly, those same students are increasingly spending time on social media; since 2007, the percentage of students who spent six hours or more per week on social media increased from 18.9 percent to 27.2 percent.
“Teens today are not learning how to use their free time effectively or how to just take time for themselves,” says Greenberg, author of the book “Teenage as a Second Language.” She also notes that many of her young clients are “exhausted, sleep deprived, overbooked, and overscheduled,” and often have no idea what she’s talking about when she asks them about interests or hobbies. “Those who are happiest have lives that are peopled — and learning to become more socially facile is one of the best skills you can have,” she says.
The silver lining in the lack of partying, of course, are the numbers on alcohol and cigarette use, which are the lowest in three decades: While 74.2 percent of students in 1981 indicated they frequently or occasionally drank beer, the figure was just 33.5 percent in 2014; the percentage of hard-liquor consumers was at 38.7 percent, while in 1987 it was 67.8 percent. Just 1.7 percent of students reported smoking cigarettes frequently; in 1981, 9.2 percent did.
Those results jibe with other national findings, including those of the latest University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, which found alcohol and cigarette use at their lowest points since the survey began in 1975. That study credits as factors a rise in peer disapproval of binge drinking as well as declines in availability of cigarettes and alcohol.
Perhaps most troubling in the CIRP Survey, though, are the findings on emotional wellbeing, with students’ self-rated emotional health dropping to its lowest level ever at 50.7 percent. In addition, the percentage of students who “frequently” felt depressed rose to 9.5 percent. “Students who felt depressed more frequently reported behaviors reflecting disengagement,” such as being late to class, the study notes. “Previous research suggests that students with lower levels of emotional health wind up being less satisfied with college and struggle to develop a sense of belonging on campus, even after four years of college.”
Similarly, a 2013 study found that school pressures including several hours of homework a night were associated with increased stress levels, a lack of balance, and physical problems including ulcers, migraines, and weight loss. A 2014 Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association, meanwhile, discovered that more than a quarter of teens felt “extreme stress” during the school year, with 34 percent expecting their level of anxiety to increase in the coming year.
“What’s the sense in going to Cornell if you’re going to have a nervous breakdown?” Greenberg asks. She says the best ways for parents to help their kids focus on success while maintaining a sense of calm is by setting a good example. “Parents have to be the role models for balance,” she says. And if moms and dads are feeling sucked into college-prep pressures by other parents at school, she has a suggestion: “Disengage. The main thing should be your kid’s mental health.”