Why Are American Teens So Stressed Out?

Why are American teens so stressed out? This is a question I’ve heard asked dozens of times, though in different iterations.

“Why are kids today such anxious messes?” Asked from teachers to students. “Why is applying to college such an awful process?” Asked from one senior to another in the hallway. “Why do I have so much homework?” Asked from a student to a teacher. “Why do you get so mad over bad grades, but not care about the good ones?” Asked from countless teenagers to countless parents. And finally, “Why do I worry so much?” Asked to myself, probably thousands of times over the last twelve years of education. Eventually, I got tired of asking the question, and decided to do something about it.

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With nothing to lose but my tenuous grasp on my own mental health, I did the craziest thing imaginable: I left my home and family and went abroad for a foreign exchange year in Europe. In the middle of high school. I set out on a mission: to figure out if I was imagining this epidemic of stress, or if there truly was something weird and excessive about the way that American teens feel stress. Living in the States (as I began to call them, a familiar term that I picked up to differentiate myself from my European friends) felt stifling. As an American, I attended a public high school that was one of the most stressful places that I hope to ever encounter.

My high school was one of the schools termed a ‘pressure cooker’ for students; an inescapable environment of repressed hormones, wasted potential, and endless streams of homework. I had been a straight-edged, straight-A student – one of the kids that teachers commended as ‘one of the good ones,’ a student who could handle the ridiculous amounts of work without complaint or psychological break. In Europe, I was if not the opposite, the closest to the opposite that I could be – I slacked on homework assignments, slept nine hours a night, went out with friends, and maintained a solid C average. In the States (hey, there I go again) that would have been unthinkable. A crime worse than murder, in the eyes of my peers and teachers.

In Europe, it was normal. I learned a lot abroad. I’m fluent in a language that I had barely heard spoken a year ago; I made friends that will last me a lifetime. But most importantly, perhaps, my little hypothesis – a secret motivation for living abroad that I’d shared with no one – was proved correct. Americans really are much more stressed than the average European.

When my European friends were out at a party or a political meeting, my American friends would have been at home, slaving over a calculus problem or an AP review booklet. In the country where I lived, the average worker works about 37 hours a week, gets six fully paid weeks of vacation a year, and is entitled to a year of paid parental leave when they have a child. In contrast, the average American works 47 hours, gets a week of paid sick leave, and will get six weeks of maternity at the most. And it really shows: in studies of America vs. the rest of the world, Americans routinely show up as less happy, less fit, less family oriented, and less satisfied with their lives. And perhaps I’m biased, but I think that teeangers are at the forefront of this sad trend.

American teens seem to have a terrifying set of new needs and priorities that Europeans (and even the older generation of Americans) have no conception of. The pressure to get a 2400 on the SAT, a 4.0 GPA, and a flawless community service record is very real. I’ve seen it; you’ve seen it. I can hardly imagine an American teenager who doesn’t feel some measure of stress over the pressure to work hard, get into college, and somehow be a functional person besides.

I’ve been back from Europe for around three months now, after spending a lovely ten months there. I won’t pretend that I didn’t miss the US while living out of it. The diversity, equality, and innovation found in the States is something to be proud of. But, that has come at a cost. American teenagers are consistently more stressed and less hopeful about the future than ever before.

I want a better life for American teenagers. Increasingly, we’re encouraged (if not strong-armed) to go to college, regardless of our interests and financial ability. Only the very top students and the wealthiest students are coming out on top, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Before living in Europe, I had this idea that the American meritocratic system was a good way to live – after all, the best win, and isn’t that both fair and good for everyone? Now, I see the error in the way I was thinking – all Americans deserve a good life, and that starts with tackling the immense, undeserved stress that teens feel over college, student debt, and their own perceived academic shortcomings. I hope for a better future for us. Our generation deserves better than constantly worrying about what will become of us.

Now I’ll admit, I don’t know what that solution is – I have no idea how we, as teenagers, are supposed to address this societal problem. That’s why I want to start with saying this: it is a problem. American teenagers are over-stressed and over-worked, and that isn’t okay. We deserve better.