Does Mindfulness Work for Teens?

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Mindfulness is a trend that really caught on in the last few years, particularly in skeptic and sciencey communities. It’s a form of meditation that encourages you to spend time focusing on the present — what you’re doing, how you’re feeling. It’s often used therapeutically to help calm down and avoid anxiety, because when you focus on what’s actually going on around you, you might be able to prevent yourself from overreacting to certain stimuli.

It got popular in the rational communities because it’s a form of meditation that is backed up by science, and it doesn’t require belief in anything supernatural. No gods, no spirits, no “chi” or “chakras” or other nonsense. Just you, breathing and thinking and being present. And yes, research has suggested that it really can work to decrease anxiety and depression when a person is properly trained in it and incorporates it into their everyday life.

But this week, I was surprised to see an article in Scientific American titled “Mindfulness Training for Teens Fails Important Test.” The subhead: “A large trial in schools showed no evidence of benefits, and hints it could even cause problems.” Were those other studies wrong? Are teens not able to be mindful? Well, let’s not get too worked up. I mean, be mindful.

The SciAm article buried the big issue here, so I’m going to say it upfront: the researchers didn’t study mindfulness the way that it is taught as a standard for adults. They specifically looked at a modified version that had been changed to fit teenagers’ school schedules, and the modified version is substantially different from what’s normally taught.

The standard version requires 22 hours of formal training plus daily 45-minute sessions. The modified version for teens had less than 8 hours of training, in substantially shorter sessions. While the teens were encouraged to continue meditating at home, compliance was terrible, with about a quarter of them doing it during the study and just over a tenth complying thereafter.

SciAm calls this a limitation, but I have to be honest here and say that it sounds more like a study that has hardly anything to do with mindfulness as it is practiced by adults. This study can only really comment on the effectiveness of this one heavily modified and curtailed program.

That said, that’s still an important study to be done since apparently this is a thing that schools are actually exposing their students to as a prescribed course to “fix” anxiety, depression, or body image problems. It’s worth wondering whether that specific program works, and the research is pretty damning, showing that not only did hundreds of students in a mindfulness course not show any improvement in those areas compared to students in a control group, but male students in the mindfulness program actually showed an increase in anxiety following the conclusion of the study.

So let’s get back to the headline: did a large study show no evidence of benefits in mindfulness training for teens? No, it didn’t. It showed no evidence of benefits in a specific classroom-based program. What this actually shows is that school administrators should be skeptical of incorporating that kind of training on a large scale, and that parents should explore programs that engage the student outside of school. Teens may get just as much out of a traditional mindfulness course as adults do, provided they go home and practice it every day. The question is whether or not teens will actually do that, considering that they’re, you know, teenagers. I wouldn’t even go home and do my homework when I was in high school….good luck getting me to sit quietly for 45 minutes every night thinking about my place in the universe.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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