From sports practices to music lessons to community service, today's children always seem to have plenty to keep them busy. But whether they're actually too busy - reaching a tipping point detrimental to their mental and physical health - remains a topic of debate.
The subject of overscheduled children has been on scientists' radar for at least a decade, said Andrea Mata, a doctoral student at Kent State University.
"I think it's a hot topic right now," Mata said. "There's definitely a mix of viewpoints. So I think a lot more research is needed to find out what's going on."
The SRCD symposium will examine which children and adolescents become over-scheduled, what happens at high levels of extracurricular involvement, and how factors such as school grades and aggression levels are affected.
Between 70 and 83% of US children and teens claim to take part in at least one extracurricular pursuit, spending an average of five to nine hours per week in structured activities, according to the SRCD. Only 5 to 7%, however, devote more than 20 hours per week to these activities.
Never-ending competition to be the best
Jean Twenge, author of the book Generation Me and a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said data gathered between the 1950s and the 1990s indicated over-scheduling rose during that period and then levelled off.
"Are kids really over-scheduled? It's not the average experience, but that doesn't mean it's not a problem," Twenge said. "Parents worry about keeping up, but it's certain types of parents who worry about it."
Twenge said the ever-mounting competition for admission to the top colleges compels some parents and kids to fill every spare hour with impressive-looking endeavours.
Mata's study followed 1,354 children from birth through age 15, dividing them into groups based on how involved they were outside of school and home. The 43 children in the highest activity level averaged 129 minutes per week of structured activities at kindergarten, which increased to 254 minutes weekly by fifth grade.
Highly involved children were more likely to be girls from more affluent families, Mata said, and their mothers had attained higher education levels. This group had higher grades and lower levels of delinquency, among other behavioural and academic measurements, compared to less-involved children, she said.
"We're looking at it in a much more positive way," Mata said. "These highly involved kids are highly adaptive and high-functioning."
Parents should take cues from kids
Linda Balog, former executive director of the Child and Adolescent Stress Management Institute at State University of New York at Brockport, said parents should ask their children how they feel about their extracurricular pursuits and whether they feel overwhelmed and stressed.
"We see some kids forced into organised sports at early ages and then get so burned out that they opt not to play in high school," said Balog, an associate professor of health sciences who's teaching a course on child and adolescent stress.
"Sometimes parents live through their children -- a sort of surrogate self," she added. "I think we have to err on the side of backing off a bit . . . as opposed to everything being organised and structured."
Experts note that research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.
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