American Teens Are Even More Stressed Than Adults

02/11/2014 07:31 pm ET | Updated Feb 13, 2014

Last year, the American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey found that Millennials, aged 18-33, were the country's most-stressed generation. Now, the title belongs to an even younger demographic: American teenagers.

Even before the pressures of work and adulthood set in, for most young Americans, stress has already become a fact of daily life. And this sets the stage early for unhealthy behaviors and lifestyle choices that may increase the risk of developing stress-related health problems down the road.

American teenagers are now the most stressed-out age group in the U.S., according to APA's 2013 Stress In America survey. While adults rate their stress at a 5.1 on a 10-point scale, teens rate their stress levels at 5.8.

This year's report, conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of APA, consisted of 1,950 adults and 1,018 teens in the U.S. in August 2013. Here are some of the survey's biggest findings about teens and stress:

  • Teens report that their stress level during the school year (5.8/10) far exceeds what they believe to be a healthy level of stress (3.9/10).
  • 31 percent of teens report feeling overwhelmed as a result of stress, 30 percent say that they feel sad or depressed as a result of stress, and 36 percent report feeling tired or fatigued because of stress.
  • Only 16 percent of teens say their stress levels have declined in the past year, while 31 percent say their stress has increased in the past year.
  • Yet teens are more likely than adults to report that stress has no effect on their physical health (54 percent) or their mental health (52 percent).
  • 42 percent of teens say that they're either not doing enough to manage their stress or they're not sure if they're doing enough.

“It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults. It is even more concerning that they seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health,” APA CEO and Executive Vice President Norman B. Anderson, PhD, said in a statement. “In order to break this cycle of stress and unhealthy behaviors as a nation, we need to provide teens with better support and health education at school and home, at the community level and in their interactions with health care professionals.”

Teens' habits around sleep, exercise and technology (the average teen consumes an average of 7.5 hours of media per day) may play a role in contributing to higher stress levels. More than one in three teens says that stress has kept him up at night in the past month. But most teens aren't sleeping enough to begin with: The average teen sleeps 7.4 hours on a school night (far less than the 9-10 hours recommended by the CDC), the APA survey found. The survey also found that one in five teens reports exercising less than once a week or not at all, despite the proven stress-relieving benefits of physical activity.

The negative health effects of lack of sleep and too much screen time for teens could be significant. Teens who don't get enough sleep are four times as likely as well-rested teens to develop major depressive disorder, according to a recent University of Texas study, while teens who are already depressed are more likely to lose sleep. Teens who spend a lot of time on the Internet are also as likely to exhibit depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts as teens who misuse drugs and skip school, according to a recent Swedish study.

Parents, who may be a source of stress for teens -- research has suggested that adults pass stress down to their children -- can also be part of the solution.

“Parents and other adults can play a critical role in helping teens get a handle on stress by modeling healthy stress management behaviors,” Anderson said. “When spending time with teens, we can encourage them to exercise, eat well, get the sleep they need and seek support from health care professionals like psychologists to help them develop healthier coping mechanisms for stress sooner rather than later.”

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