Santa Clara County

Pressure to Succeed: Silicon Valley Teens Face Culture of High Expectations

If you walk into Mr. Randall's science classroom on a Wednesday during lunch, you may find students of the Science and Engineering Team shooting marshmallows from a pipe gun they engineered. Or, the team may be watching flames burst from a massive fire tub they created using pressure and propane.

The team experiments with science projects that are fun and relaxing, an intentional departure from the academic pressure they feel during the day.

"Silicon Valley, it's like the kids here are here to succeed for sure. People all around the world know that Silicon Valley is sort of the breeding ground for the best engineers, the best scientists in the world and my friends know they will be those engineers," said Paul Dennig, senior at Los Altos High school. "Having that sort of constant weight of, 'Oh, I really have to succeed sometimes,' that can really wear you down."

Growing up in the shadows of tech companies, many Silicon Valley teens feel an intense and unhealthy amount of pressure to succeed academically.

A growing number of youth in Santa Clara County have expressed the need for relief from emotional and mental challenges. In 2005, 9.6 percent of county youth ages 12-17 reported needing help for emotional or mental health problems, according to the California Health Interview Survey. By 2013-2014, over 22 percent of youth said they needed help.

The academic burden teens carry is heavy across Silicon Valley. The city of Palo Alto was researched by the CDC this year for two teen suicide clusters in the past seven years.

Palo Alto High School senior Carolyn Walworth wrote an essay about pressure and stress for a local newspaper, describing her peers as "lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred and discourages teamwork and genuine learning."

Experts say the overwhelming amount of pressure teens feel can be crippling to their adolescent development.

"The amount of workload that teens are carrying is unbelievable and they really get locked into a story about success -- I need to get certain grades, I need to get into a certain school that gets me into a certain job. The unspoken end point of that is then I'll be happy," said Dr. Sanno Zack, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford Children's Health. "[Their thoughts] become so future oriented there isn't the opportunity to be in life now, to be enjoying what's here right now."

School districts, parents, community leaders and students across the Valley are creating ways to ease the pressure teens feel.

The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District is working on a new homework policy to restrict the amount of homework hours students are given.

Students and teachers in the Palo Alto Unified School District created "Save The 2,008," a coalition committed to changing the stressful academic culture within schools in the district. 

An increased focus on emotional and mental well-being in schools across Silicon Valley is teaching teens a new lesson.

"You don't always have to succeed," said Dennig. "A lot of engineering is about failing and fixing your problems later."

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