For all of the benefits that extracurricular activities can bring to teens, packing too many in often gets a bad rap. Schedules filled with sports, music, and other activities — often on top of heavy academic loads — can leave little time to spend with family, be with friends, or simply reflect.
But how much time is too much to spend in extracurricular pursuits? A survey of more than 8,800 high school students by Stanford and Villanova University researchers sheds some light on the question. The researchers found that beyond 15 to 20 hours per week of extracurriculars, kids' schedules began to take a toll. Compared to kids who were less involved, those who spent more hours than that in extracurriculars reported more stress, stomach ailments, depression, and other physical and emotional symptoms.
It's worth noting that the kids surveyed went to high-achieving schools, where pressure to be involved may be higher than at other schools. Yet the vast majority of survey respondents who participated in extracurriculars — 87 percent — said they did so because they genuinely enjoyed it. Levels of enjoyment for kids who were highly involved were around the same as for those who spent fewer hours in activities.
As that suggests, the optimal amount of time to spend in activities may vary by the kid. For many, a lighter schedule may be more appropriate, said study coauthor Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University and cofounder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that works with schools and families to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.
"It's important to think about how much is too much for your individual kids," she said. If they seem overwhelmed or aren't enjoying their schedules — or if they're losing out on sleep — it may be time to pull back.
The study, which was presented before the American Education Research Association in 2013 and is now under review for publication, is one of the few to explore links between extracurricular involvement and physical and mental health. Previous studies on activity participation have found weak associations between the number of hours spent in activities and emotional and adjustment difficulties. Research out of Columbia University's Teachers College, for instance, showed that pressure and criticism from adults has a much stronger link to depression, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviors in middle and high school kids, particularly those from affluent families. Parents aren't the only source of these pressures, the researchers noted; coaches and other school faculty may also set hard-to-meet standards.
Whether teens spend five hours a week or 15 on extracurricular activities, it's important that they take steps to limit their stress and find balance, Pope said. Along with sleep, they should make room for unstructured time with family and friends, ideally every day. To help prevent these important things from being neglected, she recommends that kids try recording how they spend their hours during the day.
"We know the protective value of family time [for teens] against things such as drug use and delinquency, but kids often can't take that time if they're getting back late from drama or soccer practice and have to do hours of homework," she said. By seeing where their time is going each day, kids "can see if something is out of whack, and then make adjustments to achieve a healthier balance."