How Harvard Students Got So Stressed

Kids these days are not alright. The erstwhile pillars of college — self-discovery, exploration, and growth — have given way to an anxious stasis in which students languish in their own fear of failure.
By Aden Barton

Thousands of students fill Harvard Yard during the annual September activities fair, where campus organizations set up booths to recruit new members.
Thousands of students fill Harvard Yard during the annual September activities fair, where campus organizations set up booths to recruit new members. By Julian J. Giordano

Concerns about “kids these days” are as old as Socrates. He once complained that children “no longer rise when elders enter the room” and so “are now tyrants.” The frequency of such complaints has rightly made many numb to claims of generational crises.

But years of writing about higher education (and of being a student) have convinced me that something is very amiss with recent college cohorts.

Unlike past generations, mine grew up with social media and increasingly heavy-handed parents. Plus, the ever-increasing intensity of college admissions and the postgraduate career search means many undergraduates, especially here at Harvard, spend their young adult lives attempting to cultivate a perfect CV.

Not coincidentally, my peers face unprecedented mental health struggles. The percentage of Harvard freshmen who have received mental health counseling has nearly tripled in the last 10 years.

By Aden Barton

I’ve come to believe that this generation of undergraduates is infected with a deep fear of not being considered successful. Or, in the words of professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, modern students are “too busy, and they’re too focused on optimizing for certain well-defined notions of success.”

From this fundamental insecurity springs risk-averse workaholics who are deathly afraid of any failure. This irreparably taints how they engage in everything from classes to clubs to socializing.

Screenagers These Days

One culprit for young adults’ increasing anxiety and stress is, indeed, the internet.

Technology has forever changed childhood. The average 17-year-old now spends nearly six hours a day on social media and far less time socializing in person.

A survey from the pandemic era found that Harvard College students make frequent use of these apps, too: 15 percent spend five to six hours daily on social media, and nearly 40 percent spend three to four hours.

Professor Howard E. Gardner ’65 told me that the amount of time students devote to social media “would have been inconceivable 30 years ago.”

The evidence is growing that this prolonged exposure to social media can have long-term negative effects. One recent economics study argued that the introduction of Facebook on college campuses in the mid-2000s causally reduced student mental health.

Now, a whopping 95.9 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s annual freshman survey say they have Instagram, an app that has also been linked to mental illness as users constantly compare themselves to others.

Former Dean of Freshmen and celebrated first-year adviser Thomas A. Dingman ’67 has already seen these deleterious effects on campus.

“There are students who are convinced that nobody else is dealing with the struggles that they’re encountering because the way that people curate their profiles online leads somebody to believe that everybody else is having more fun, working less hard, having more friends,” he said.

Parental Guidance Suggested

Changing parenting styles have also left kids with less time to independently roam and socialize. One paper from this year cited this decrease in freedom — a result of excessive parental oversight — as a “primary cause of the rise in mental disorders.”

These effects can arise from good intentions, but they remain adverse.

As parents increasingly strive “to remove all wrinkles in the pathway that students tread,” Dingman said, Harvard undergraduates become “less resilient and less familiar with overcoming some obstacles.”

Greg C. Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, wrote in an email that this overparenting, combined with modern catastrophizing about the state of society, “undermines young people’s internal locus of control, their sense of self-efficacy, their belief in their own resilience, and their hope for the future.”

High school extracurriculars surveyed members of the College Class of 2027 reported. By Crimson News Staff

For students attending elite universities, parental overinvolvement has likely consumed their entire lives.

Pre-college, parents pressure children to do well in college admissions, raising academic and extracurricular accomplishments as dimensions of insecurity. Just look at the panoply of activities many freshmen take on to win their spot here.

Once students arrive on campus, technology interacts with overparenting to ensure that students are never wholly separated from home. Whereas students used to be in touch with parents on a weekly basis, according to Dingman, many more are now in touch every day.

Some, like professor Lewis, believe incoming freshmen have relationships with their parents that are “too intimate.” He said that these relationships make it “hard for students to develop, again, their independent identity as an individual.”

Wendy D. Fischman, a project director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who conducted a study including 1,000 undergraduates around the country, told me that one of the most common words used by interviewed students was “mom” — indicating that modern undergraduates don’t ever fully leave home.

Profile of an Anxious Student

As a result of these trends, many students arrive on campus incredibly insecure and afraid of failure, having spent their lives comparing themselves to others on social media and being corralled by parents through the admissions rat race.

Such insecurities are so pronounced that many longtime Harvard affiliates have taken notice. Gardner, who has seen many generations of Harvard students, told me that the current crop is “more worried and uptight.”

Fischman noted that students repeatedly referenced a desire to be perfect, contributing to stress that occurs “daily, if not on the minute.”

Professor James T. Engell ’73, too, believes that students have “more anxiety about status” now.

In order to allay these anxieties, it seems many students approach college aiming not at learning or intrinsic fulfillment but at continuing to accumulate prestige and set themselves up for career success.

Modern students are “so transactional about their college experiences, so focused on building their own resumes, building a profile, having experiences that’ll lead to a job,” Fischman said.

Such priorities stand in stark contrast to the experience of older generations. Dingman said that when he was a student, “there was not the scramble to determine postgraduate directions.”

Similarly, Gardner, speaking of his and his friends’ perceptions of their futures after Harvard, said, “I think we all felt secure” — the opposite of how I would characterize my peers.

Stress and Extracurricular Excess

This acute need to be exceptional has transformed college from a time of contemplation and curiosity to one of manic overextension, during which worried students amass commitments in an attempt to stand out and land coveted postgraduate opportunities.

Engell told me that Harvard students are “here because they have succeeded already in the competition.” While they seek to continue this hard-won sense of success, he said, “at a certain point, not everyone is going to grab the brass ring.”

But that won’t stop them from trying.

“Students, on the whole, seem to be busier. They are more scheduled. They are more rushed. They are often involved in more activities, a greater number of activities. Their schedules are sliced and diced,” Engell said.

First-year adviser Dingman told me this “overscheduling” makes it hard to even find time to have advising meetings.

It would be one thing if such commitments came from a place of genuine passion, but Fischman’s research demonstrated that students’ extracurricular involvements were usually “more about collecting activities that they could put on their resume — much less about exploration and trying to discover real interests and passions,” she said.

Indeed, each year, swarms of freshmen apply to the Harvard College Consulting Club — despite likely not knowing what consulting was a month before — ostensibly because the club boasts a low acceptance rate and therefore signals prestige. I should know. I was one of many who joined for this exact reason.

This is one example of a broader phenomenon in which students’ extracurricular commitments often transition from service-oriented pursuits in high school to pre-professional clubs at Havard — probably because the hallmark of success has shifted from gaining admission to a prestigious college to securing a prestigious job.

The business and pre-professional orientation of Harvard student life has become so naturalized that many of my peers likely can’t imagine college without it. I certainly can’t.

But, speaking of his own time at Harvard, Dingman said his peers “were choosing their extracurricular activities largely around the things that would give them enjoyment and fun rather than position themselves for anything.”

The Unexplored and Unsocial Life

This frenetic and anxious lifestyle transforms classes from the heart of the student experience to a relatively unimportant part of college life. After all, an offer at Goldman Sachs likely won’t hinge on your GPA.

Indeed, data on student engagement indicate a long-term decline in study time.

I can relate. Most of the tasks on my to-do list are from various extracurricular commitments, not classes.

In addition to courses, social life falls by the wayside. Overworked, perpetually online students have less time to devote to socializing.

“To some degree, students hang out less than they used to,” professor Engell said. “They don’t sit and talk for long periods of time without looking at their phones or their laptops.”

Dingman concurred. “I don’t think they report the ​​same sort of casual interactions. In part, that’s because I think that they are looking at their extracurricular involvements as sort of pre-professional,” he said.

From 2010 to 2021, the share of Harvard seniors reporting drinking at least once a week fell by approximately 20 percentage points.

This trend may not seem like a serious problem, and drinking heavily isn’t the only way to have fun. But it reflects a broader decline in socialization and a rise in youth loneliness worth worrying about.

A Frame Shift

I’ve written articles on just about every concerning trend I could document on Harvard’s campus: the culture of non-fun, the decline of the humanities, increasing careerism, and atrophying free speech.

In each of these articles, I’ve too often leaned on institutional explanations, like the College administration’s apparent antipathy towards social life.

While I’m still usually skeptical of universal narratives, I’ve come to believe that all of these issues are, in part, symptomatic of the psychological and emotional problems my generation faces. Each can be understood as a case of risk-averse, prestige-hungry students taking the safe option, whether that be concentrating in Economics instead of English, accepting a job at Goldman Sachs instead of a nonprofit, or opting not to speak one’s mind for fear of backlash.

In short, kids these days are not alright. The erstwhile pillars of college — self-discovery, exploration, and growth — have given way to an anxious stasis in which students languish in their own fear of failure.

Aden Barton ’24, an Associate Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House.

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