How After-School Programs Can Harm Teens' Mental Health

By   |  March 11, 2024

By Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

MONDAY, March 11, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Days clogged with numerous after-school activities are detrimental to the mental health of over-scheduled high school students, a new study finds.

Researchers also found that these "enrichment' activities -- tutoring, sports, school clubs and even homework -- are unlikely to benefit students academically.

Many folks think extra study time or tutoring will lead to better grades, but the new study shows many students are at their limit, said researcher Carolina Caetano, an assistant professor of economics with the University of Georgia College of Business.

“We found that the effect of those additional activities on cognitive skills, that last hour, is basically zero,” Caetano said in a university news release. “And what’s more surprising is that the last hour doing these activities is contributing negatively to the child’s non-cognitive skills.”

In other words, academic overload is causing high schoolers to lose out on social and emotional abilities -- well-being, emotional control, resilience and communication, Caetano said.

Caetano said it’s best to think of the relationship between enrichment activities and these social and emotional skills as a curve.

For a while, an additional hour of studying, tutoring or group activities will help students improve their academic performance.

But the more time a student spends on enrichment, the less time they have to relax, freely socialize or sleep – activities valuable for life skills and knowledge retention, Caetano said.

Lack of sleep and stress can cause students to lose whatever academic or social gains they might have gotten through enrichment activities, Caetano said.

Eventually, a schedule overloaded with academic enrichment can result in stressed-out kids suffering from anxiety and depression as a result of being overextended, Caetano said.

“You’re at the maximum of what you can acquire academically from that work,” Caetano said. “But on the curve for non-cognitive skills, you have gone past the maximum and gone into the descending part of the curve. You’re losing socio-emotional skills at that point.” 

For this study, researchers analyzed detailed data from 4,300 elementary, middle school and high school students.

The team found that elementary and middle schoolers were at the top of the curve, which means they’re facing negative returns from any additional enrichment activities.

“While they haven’t gone into a negative area yet, additional work is likely to harm them,” Caetano said.

High schoolers had the worst situation, because they’ve actually started to suffer negative returns from having too much on their plates, Caetano said.

The new study was published recently in the journal Economics of Education Review.

Opening student’s schedules and letting them enjoy more free time could help build the emotional regulation and resilience that will benefit them when the college crunch occurs, Caetano said.

“Non-cognitive skills are highly important, but people don’t always think of them because they’re hard to measure,” Caetano said. “They are important not only for future happiness, but professional success as well."

It’s important for children to hang out with other kids in an unrestricted manner to build their social and emotional skills, Caetano argued. In fact, it could prove more vital than that last little bit of learning.

Unfortunately, unless enough parents get on board, children provided more free time away from enrichment activities won’t have any other kids available for play.

“What we have here is a societal problem,” Caetano said. “There’s only so much that parents can do.”

The study doesn’t suggest how many enrichment hours are best. Caetano said parents are probably the best judges.

“I’d say that if you have signs that, as a family, you are overly stretched, you probably are in the negative returns side of the curve, and you should scale back,” Caetano said. “If whenever someone contacts you for a play date, you are always scheduled, then it’s very clear that you are overscheduled.”

More information

The University of Rochester Medical Center has more on overscheduled kids.

SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, March 7, 2024