Sunday, April 22, 2007

Are rich kids more stressed?

The Seattle Times writes (and Melissa blogs  at SaveSeattleSchools) about an upcoming study on anxiety among affluent kids, by Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  The study was paid for by a Department of Health grant to the Mercer Island Communities That Care, an initiative to reduce teen drinking and drug use in a project coordinated by Suzanne Tedesko on the Mercer Island City staff.  From the Times:

Results of a communitywide survey Luthar did on Mercer Island replicated many of her earlier findings on affluent youth and substance abuse. It showed a steep jump between junior high and high school in the percentage of students who used alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. A lack of contact with their parents contributed to distress among youth, according to the report.

Mercer Island High School students were far more likely to display anxiety, depression, withdrawal, trouble sleeping, social problems and rule-breaking behavior than the norm, the survey said.

Luthar is speaking Monday night at 7pm at the High School and I'll try to attend.  (She's also presenting in Bellevue on Tuesday, but instead of free you have to pay $20 -- I wonder if it's the same talk?)

I'm skeptical of the idea that Mercer Island kids are more likely to do drugs because they're burned out from all that overscheduling from their hyper-competitive parents who think getting into Stanford is the only thing that matters.  Why would kids today, whether affluent or not, be any more "overscheduled" than farm kids or those in hungry hunter-gatherer communities?

Fortunately, it looks like Dr. Luthar has read Judith Rich Harris and Steven Pinker, whose thesis is that stress within families matters much less than peer group influences.  In other words, parents' overscheduling is pretty inconsequential compared to, say, those friends from the Rave party you let your daughter attend.

So does Mercer Island have a drug problem?  Nationally, about 45% have never touched the stuff according to The National Center On Addiction and Substance Abuse. That same 45% claim not to have any friends who use drugs either.  In fact only about 17% of kids are considered "high risk" -- have used drugs in the past 30 days.  In their 2004 paper The High Price of Affluence, Luthar along with Chris Sexton, report findings from an affluent community that shows 50% never do drugs -- hey, that's actually better than the national average, though slightly worse than the less affluent school that the study used.

One interesting part of their 2004 study divided the students into self-identified peer groups (Populars, Jocks, Intelligent, Theater, Preppies, Independent, Druggies, and more).  Turns out that Populars are more likely to do drugs, which to me explains why it can seem like there is more substance abuse than there really is.  Unfortunately the paper I saw only describes the high level of the study; I'd love to see the actual data and understand this peer group division better.

I'll wait to hear more from Dr. Luthar, but after some reading I'm inclined to think that if your Mercer Island kid is involved in high-risk behavior, you need to know he/she is part of a small minority of students -- it's not "normal" or "typical", whether they are overscheduled or not.

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