Why are College Students More Stressed Today than Ever?

In my last post, I used data from the American Time Use Survey to compare the daily activities of American college students, high school students, and non-students. And as we saw, the data suggest that full-time college students generally lead a lifestyle that is more “balanced” between obligations and personal pleasures (a bad thing, assuming it’s preferable to have a less balanced lifestyle, where you devote more time to things you want to do than to things you feel you have to do).

Although, in general, more people devote time to things they want to do (e.g., socializing, leisure, and personal care) than to things they might feel they have to do (e.g., work and education), the percentage of people spending time on things they have to do is higher among college students (39.96%) than among non-students (36.93%) and high school students (34.55%).

Meanwhile, the percentage of people spending time on things they want to do is lower among college students (57.67%) than among non-students (60.85%) and high school students (63.17%).

All of this is consistent with recent findings suggesting that stress levels are at an all time high among American college students.

In fact since publishing my last post, a new report was released detailing the findings of the American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 survey.

The survey, which is conducted each year by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, provides one of the most comprehensive snapshots of current trends among recent high school graduates and new, incoming college freshmen.

And as reported by the New York Times, the findings from this latest survey suggest that the emotional health of American college students continues to decline:

The survey of more than 150,000 students nationwide, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year, a significant rise over the 6.1 percent reported five years ago. Those who “felt overwhelmed” by school work and other commitments rose to 34.6 percent from 27.1 percent.

Why has the emotional health of college students declined in recent years?

The most tempting explanation is that students are increasingly devoting more time to work and academics and less time to personal activities and socializing – things that might serve as a buffer against anxiety and depression. In fact, as the author of the New York Times piece points out, the latest National Norms survey provides some evidence suggesting this has been the case.

Other results indicated that students were spending more time on academics and socializing less – trends that would normally be lauded. But the lead author of the study, Kevin Eagan, cautioned that the shift could result in higher levels of stress.

So in this post, I want to further explore the daily activities of American college students by specifically focusing on how an average weekday for college students, high school students, and non-students has changed over the course of the last decade. To do this, I’ll again rely on data from the American Time Use Survey.

Figure 1 below shows the average number of hours per day people spent engaged in each of the 423 activities coded by the Labor Department between 2003 and 2013.

Figure 1: Average Number of Hours Per Day Spent on Each Activity by Non-Students, High School Students, & College Students (2003-2013)

While you’re welcome to explore these data by interacting with the graphic above, I’m mainly going to focus on the data displayed below in Figure 2, showing the average number of hours per day people spent engaged in each of the top 20 most common activities.

Figure 2: Average Number of Hours Per Day Spent on Each of the Top 20 Most Common Activities (2003-2013)

The first thing to point out, obviously, is that the average time spent on some activities has gone up over the past decade, whereas the average time spent on other activities has gone down.

For example, among full-time college students, the average number of hours per day spent on each of the following activities has generally increased since 2003 (as indicated by the value of the standardized slope, z slope, in parentheses):

  1. Playing games – from 0.20 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.43 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.81).
  2. Food & Drink Preparation – from 0.21 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.32 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.73).
  3. Computer use for leisure (excluding games) – from 0.21 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.33 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope= +0.68).
  4. Research/Homework for degree, certification, or licensure – from 1.42 hrs/day in 2003 to 2.02 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.56).
  5. Reading for personal interest – from 0.16 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.35 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.36).
  6. Sleeping – from 8.35 hrs/day in 2003 to 8.51 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.32).
  7. Washing, dressing, & grooming oneself – from 0.72 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.89 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.28).
  8. Interior Cleaning – from 0.18 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.27 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.19).
  9. Eating & Drinking – from 0.98 hrs/day in 2003 to 1.07 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.18).

Meanwhile, the average number of hours per day college students spent engaged in each of the following activities has generally decreased since 2003:

  1. Physical care for household children – from 0.11 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.09 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.60).
  2. Work, main job – from 2.33 hrs/day in 2003 to 1.81 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.51).
  3. Travel related to taking class – from 0.35 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.16 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.44).
  4. Shopping, except for groceries, food, & gas – from 0.26 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.25  hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.27).
  5. Television & movies (not religious) – from 1.83 hrs/day in 2003 to 1.57 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.27).
  6. Socializing and communicating with others – from 0.74 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.64 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.22).
  7. Travel related to shopping, except grocery shopping – from 0.18 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.21 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.19).*
  8. Relaxing, thinking – from 0.16 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.26 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.18).*
  9. Taking class for degree, certification, or licensure – from 1.79 hrs/day in 2003 to 1.25 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.17).
  10. Travel related to working – from 0.17 hrs/day in 2003 to 0.13 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.04).

*Even though students devoted more time to these activities in 2013 than in 2003, the linear trend over time is negative, as indicated by the value for the standardized slope in parentheses.

Consistent with the findings of the American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 survey, the numbers above show that college students do, in fact, spend more time on school work outside of the classroom today than a decade ago (z slope = +0.56). They also devote less time to socializing and communicating with others (z slope = -0.22).

But school work and socializing are merely two specific examples of ways that a person might choose to work and have fun, respectively. Furthermore, it’s hard to know what to make of the fact that college students spend less time socializing today than a decade ago because the same is true for almost everyone.

The average high school student spent 0.70 hrs/day socializing in 2003 compared to 0.57 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.32). The average non-students spent 0.55 hrs/day socializing in 2003 compared to 0.54 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.16).

To get a more complete picture of how people balance their day between work and fun, I grouped together 15 of the 20 activities shown in Figure 2 as follows:

“Fun” = [Computer Use for Leisure (Excluding Games) + Eating & Drinking + Playing Games + Reading For Personal Interest + Relaxing, Thinking + Socializing & Communicating With Others + Television & Movies (Not Religious) + Washing, Dressing, & Grooming Oneself]

“Work” = [Interior Cleaning + Physical Care for Household Children + Research/Homework For Class, Degree, Certification, or Licensure + Taking Class For Degree, Certification, or Licensure + Travel Related to Taking Class + Travel Related to Working + Work, Main Job]

Figure 3 below shows the total number of hours per day people spent engaged in fun-related activities vs. work-related activities, each year from 2003 to 2013.

Figure 3: Total Number of Hours Per Day Spent on “Fun” and “Work” (2003-2013)

Among the three populations being compared, college students generally devote the most hours/day to work (6.47 hrs/day) and the fewest hours/day to fun (5.07 hrs/day).

However, the amount of time college students devote to fun-related activities has actually increased during the last decade, from 5.03 hrs/day in 2003 to 5.55 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = +0.38).

Meanwhile, the amount of time college students devote to work-related activities has decreased, from 6.35 hrs/day in 2003 to 5.76 hrs/day in 2013 (z slope = -0.37).

What does all of this mean?

Well, if the emotional health of American college students has in fact declined in the past decade, as recent comprehensive reports and surveys suggest, then the reason is probably not because of a loss of work/life balance.

Although the average American college student devotes more time each day to work (and less time to fun) than the average American high school student and non-student, work/life balance among college students has actually improved a bit in the last 10 years.

Perhaps then a portion of the increasing distress experienced by today’s college students (e.g., feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork) results not from actually having a poor work/life balance, but rather from perceiving to have a poor work/life balance.

If so, then counselors at U.S. colleges and universities should help students to adopt a more realistic perception of their workload, perhaps even incorporating mindfulness training to encourage students to realize and appreciate the time they spend away from work and other demanding obligations each day.

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