Just a few more minutes!

The September 26 issue of USA Today included an opinion piece by Vicki Abeles entitled “Students Without a Childhood.” Abeles leads her piece by sharing that her middle-school-aged son Zak has trouble sleeping, often waking up in the middle of the night wondering whether or not he has finished everything on his to-do list. Interestingly, she then goes on to explain that Zak is, by design, “not the classically overscheduled child.” Zak’s only activities, Abeles says, are school, jazz band and homework. That would indicate that there may well be more to Zak’s troubles than the level of his activity, but I’ll return to that shortly.

Abeles uses Zak’s situation to segue into her assertion that the collective “we”–by which I assume she means parents, teachers, coaches and American culture in general–are causing harm to our children “by overpacking their schedules in the name of productivity, achievement and competition.” Let’s ignore for the moment that her son is not one of those children, because that is not the point I want to get at. Let’s instead examine some of the claims that Abeles makes about this “overpacking.”

First, she states that studies indicate that children in America “spend half as much time playing outdoors as they did in the 1980s.” I do not doubt that that is true, though Abeles does not cite any specific studies and I have not researched that myself. I do doubt, though, her implication that the decline in outdoor recreation is due to overpacking children’s schedules. In the 1980s very few children had access to a home computer and VCRs were just becoming common. Atari was the only gaming system for much of the decade, with Nintendo bursting onto the scene mid-decade along with the far-less-popular Sega. Extremely few people had cellular phones in the 1980s and those that did had to be strong enough to haul around the brick-like devices (that could do nothing but make and receive calls, of course). None of those cell phone users were children. So yes, children in the 1980s probably did spend twice as much time outside as they do now, but that’s because many of them are now spending their time inside, fastened to their cornucopia of digital entertainment devices.

Abeles then suggests that the “frantic pace of modern life has even trickled down to kindergarten, where students are already bringing home piles of homework.” According to on article in US News in February 2014, kindergarten through fifth grade teachers assign about 2.9 hours of homework per week. Given the range in grades included in that figure, though, it is impossible to say that kindergarten students are getting too much work. After all, the oft-cited rule of thumb that a reasonable among of homework for students is ten minutes per night per grade level would mean fifty minutes per week for 5-day kindergarteners and five hours per week for fifth graders. A January 2010 article from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, fifteen to twenty minutes per day for four days is appropriate for kindergarten students. That would mean up to an hour and twenty minutes per week. So I am not sure “piles of homework” are the norm for most American kindergarten students. There is also evidence that the amount of homework is not, on average, out of line for older students, either. According to “Changing Times of American Youth, 1981-2003,” by F. Thomas Juster, Hiromi Ono and Frank P. Stafford at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the average American child between ages 6 and 8 spent 2 hours and 33 minutes per week “studying” in 2002-03, while students ages 9-11 spent 3 hours 36 minutes. Assuming “studying” and “homework” are synonymous, the US News report would indicate that the amount of time spent on homework by elementary students is holding, if not declining, over the past ten years.

Immediately after her suggestion that the “frantic pace of modern life” has led to kindergarten students being inundated with “piles of homework” Abeles suggests that it is no wonder that “young people nationwide suffer from alarming rates of anxiety, sleep loss and depression.” No wonder, indeed…but not because their homework loads.

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that teenagers spend an average of 7.5 hours per day consuming media which, according to the Washington Post, includes “watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games.” I would suggest that that figure has only gone up since 2010. Way back in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a three-page handout for parents entitled “Understanding the Impact of Media on Children and Teens.” Some of the side-effects of excessive media use that were warned about included poor school performance, frequent nightmares and increased eating of unhealthy foods. PEDIATRICS, a publican of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published online on March 28, 2011 a study under the title “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families.” The study reported that “a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones.” And while the study touted some benefits of this expanded digital familiarity, it also warned of dangers, including cyber bullying, sexting and “Facebook depression.” This is “defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression” and adolescents suffering from it “are at risk for social isolation.”

In November 2013 the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health warned, “Studies find that high levels of media use are associated with academic problems, problems with sleep, unhealthy eating, and more.” It also reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics “recommends that adolescents have less than two hours of screen time per day.” in November 2013, Rachel Ehmke, a senior writer for the Child Mind Institute, wrote “Teens and Social Media” in which she reported, “…experts worry that the social media and floods of text messages that have become so integral to teenage life are promoting anxiety and lowering self-esteem in the young people who use them the most.” Ehmke also wrote, “When they’re not doing their homework (and when they are) they’re online and on their phones, texting, sharing, trolling, scrolling, you name it.” Maybe, just maybe, the fact that so many teens are “multitasking” while doing their homework has something to do with the amount of time it takes them to get their work done?

Abeles ends her column with a plea: “These many concerns drive me to ask my fellow parents, teachers and administrators to help me give Zak back the time he needs to learn, grow and interact. The crazy demands schools place on our children’s time need to be scaled back–for their long-term health and emotional balance as much as for the optimum development of our children’s minds and the meaning they find in life.” The problem, again, is that Abeles never really connects Zak’s struggles with anything that schools are doing. I do not know how much time Zak spends on digital media and I do not know if he has learning challenges that make school work difficult for him. What I do know is that Abeles’ headline asserts clearly that schools are at fault for the overscheduling and “crazy demands” that are stressing out “our kids.” Her column fails to prove her assertion, though–citing some studies as well as anecdotal evidence, but failing to demonstrate that schools are demanding anything that is harming students. Maybe there are some other culprits Abeles should consider, as well. In fact, maybe she should have done her homework, because I suspect she would find that, more often than not, students are giving their childhood away for “just a few more minutes” of digital connectivity.

A parent, not a pill

Given how common the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are these days, and the seeming haste with which physicians will prescribe stimulants to treat the disorders, you may find it interesting, as I did, that the Wall Street Journal reported in July that those prescriptions do not improve the academic performance of the children who take them. In fact, they may even have the opposite effect.

According to the article, “Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are sometimes called ‘cognitive enhancers’ because they have been shown in a number of studies to improve attention, concentration and even certain types of memory in the short-term. Similar drugs were given to World War II soldiers to improve their ability to stay alert while scanning radars for enemy aircraft.”

The study the WSJ was reporting on, however, indicates that over the long run there is really no significant difference in achievement scores, grade point averages or being retained in school among students who take the ADHD medication and the students who do not.

That would be disappointing and even troubling all by itself, but the study went further. Not only do students on the medication not perform any better, but “boys who took ADHD drugs actually performed worse in school than those with a similar number of symptoms who didn’t.” A separate report, a working paper published on the web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, indicates that girls on the medication report suffering from more emotional problems than girls who do not use the drugs.

Given the number of students taking these medications–2.7 million of them as of 2007–this is serious news. While the prescriptions have been flowing in increasing numbers there have been other voices arguing that the medical community really has no idea what the long term effect of ADHD medication will be on the children who take it. And the belief that these medications help improve focus and academic performance has led to them being popular among students taking important tests or trying to improve their grades–even students who do not have a prescription for them. There is such a demand for these drugs on the “black market” that estimates are that as much as 15% to 20% of all ADHD medication winds up in the hands of someone without a prescription for it.

The WSJ article also points out that what ADHD medications do seem to do effectively is improve classroom behavior. Students on the medication are more likely to sit still and less likely to interrupt the teacher than those students diagnosed with ADHD who do not take the drugs. More specifically, “The medicine may help with focus, but it doesn’t help with deciding what to focus on.” In other words, the ADHD medications are effectively behavioral modification drugs.

I can remember attending an educators’ conference years ago, when ADD diagnoses were just coming into vogue, at which the head of a large educators’ organization suggested that ADD might be more accurately spelled BRAT. The comment received the chuckle the speaker was going for, but in the years since then the diagnosis became so common, and the medication so prevalent, that there was surely a growing number of people who believed that the “disorder” is real and the treatment effective.

I have worked with enough children and talked to enough people to know that there are legitimate cases of chemical imbalances and other challenges that make focusing and remembering difficult, and perhaps there are times when treatment with medication is warranted. At the same time, I can say with just as much conviction that I have worked with enough children and talked to enough people to know that there are times when children who were unsuccessful on the medication become much more successful when they are in environments with structure and discipline, when they are held accountable, and when they have adults who encourage them in their work.

I can recall another professional conference at which I heard an expert in the field of working with troubled youth say that while there may be a case for medication in some instances, the best treatment for children who seem incapable of focusing or applying themselves appropriately is “consistent, loving discipline over time.” I would have to echo that with a hearty amen, since that is what all children need, regardless of whether they have any diagnosis. Not coincidentally, that is exactly what the Bible prescribes for raising children, too.

I am not a mental health professional, and I am not going to jump on a soap box and say all ADHD medications should be eliminated or all children should be taken off of these drugs. I will say this, though: no physician or parent should ever use drugs just to get a child to behave or sit still. There seems to be significant evidence questioning the merit of using these medications in order to accomplish improved academic performance, and that means physicians and parents alike should think long and hard before putting children on these drugs–especially when there seems to be a link between the medication and emotional problems. If a child has trouble focusing, listening, learning or obeying it may not be a medical problem. It may not take a pill, but it will take a parent.