The Price of Privilege?

In a popular story for the Atlantic this month, Hanna Rosin investigates a culture of hyper-achievement and its connection to a string of teenage suicides in Silicon Valley. There seems to be a large market for this type of story. For instance, the relatively unknown San Francisco Magazine got over fifty thousand shares for an article on the same topic, and a Times Magazine piece about a girl who committed suicide her first year at the University of Pennsylvania also got a lot of attention.

The overburdened, over-programmed overstressed teenager has been a long running cliche, perhaps originating with David Brooks’ The Organization Kid written way back in 2001. While there is merit to addressing the downsides of hypercompetitiveness at elite high schools, it’s a slippery slope that easily gets overstated. In particular, Hanna Rosin seems to love addressing plight of ordinary privileged groups. (Before elite high schoolers it was “the end of men“) These type of stories beg for broader context.

For one, the link between teenage suicide and academic stress is tenuous. While Rosin frames her whole piece around suicide and academic related stress,  she concludes that “the link between teenage alienation and the decision to die never much clarified.” She notes that adolescent suicide is down dramatically since the 90s. I’d add that thoughts of suicide among high schoolers have also halved since 1990.

While teenage suicide is unacceptable at any level, it has only gone down as “hypercompetitiveness” has gone up. Kids overstressed by school is a problem, but not because it’s leading to a rash of suicides.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that almost all of the problems of hypercompetitiveness are self imposed. While helicopter parents can pressure their children, in my experience it seems that most of the pressure comes from kids themselves. Either way, it’s not a structural problem for public policy, it’s more of a problem of culture.

Finally, the problems of hypercompetitive kids in elite high schools pale in comparison to the kids that are less fortunate, whose problems are structural rather that self imposed. These kids that often attend schools where the competition is a race to the bottom, and must live with the consequences of an inadequate education are for life. While hypercompetitive kids in elite high schools may result in less happy childhoods, they’re still getting excellent educations and end up at excellent colleges. Long-term adverse effects of working too hard in highschool are basically nonexistent. The effect of going to a bad high school and then not going to college is a handicap for life.



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