Mindfulness interventions for teens actually decrease mindfulness, new study finds

A new preprint study suggests that school-based mindfulness programs, widely implemented in recent years, do not significantly benefit adolescents' mental health or well-being.

A new preprint study suggests that school-based mindfulness programs, widely implemented in recent years, do not significantly benefit adolescents’ mental health or well-being.

In the last two decades, mindfulness programs have become increasingly popular in schools across the United States and beyond.

Tens of thousands of students have learned mindfulness techniques like breath awareness, thought observation, and emotional monitoring as part of their regular curriculum.

The aim of these programs is to equip youth with skills to prevent mental disorders and enhance overall well-being.

But a new preprint study casts doubt on the effectiveness of universal school-based mindfulness interventions (uSBMI) for adolescents.

The study found no significant improvements across a range of mental health outcomes.

Reanalysis Focuses on Adolescent Outcomes

The preprint, written by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a re-examination of data from a 2022 meta-analysis conducted by Darren Dunning and colleagues.

The original meta-analysis synthesized results from randomized controlled trials of mindfulness interventions delivered to both children and adolescents in school settings.

But the current study’s authors noted a limitation in Dunning’s analysis — it did not separately examine the effects of uSBMI on adolescents.

This is a key distinction, as adolescence is a developmental period when the first symptoms of mental disorders often emerge.

Preventive interventions that work for younger children may be less effective for teens.

To address this gap, the researchers reanalyzed data from 22 trials that specifically evaluated uSBMI in adolescent populations.

The studies included a total of 16,558 participants with an average age of 14.2 years.

No Significant Benefits Found Across Multiple Measures

The reanalysis assessed uSBMI impacts on seven outcome domains: anxiety/stress, depression, executive functioning, mindfulness, negative behavior, social behavior, and well-being.

These outcomes were measured at two time points — immediately after the intervention and at the longest available follow-up (averaging 7 months).

Across 42 separate analyses examining different outcome categories, control group types, and time points, a remarkable 93% of results were statistically non-significant.

This means that adolescents who participated in uSBMI fared no better than their peers in control groups on almost all measures.

The few significant findings were inconsistent and hard to interpret.

Compared to passive controls, uSBMI actually reduced students’ self-reported mindfulness, with a small but statistically significant negative effect size (d = -0.10, p < .001).

When measured against active controls, uSBMI did show show some improvements in anxiety/stress and well-being.

But when all control groups were combined, uSBMI did not significantly impact any outcome.

Doubts Raised About Mindfulness as Universal Prevention Strategy

The study’s results raise important questions about the value of uSBMI as a universal prevention approach for adolescents.

The authors note several potential explanations for the lack of effects, including inadequate “dosage” of mindfulness training, challenges in preparing teachers to deliver the programs, and difficulty implementing the interventions in school settings.

On a broader level, the study challenges the rationale behind uSBMI and similar skill-building programs as a way to prevent mental disorders in teens.

“It is reasonable to wonder,” the paper’s authors write, “whether solving these issues through future research is worth the opportunity cost of lost investment in other programs or policies that could more reliably enhance adolescents’ long-term prospects.”

Time to Reconsider the Approach?

As rates of adolescent mental disorders continue to climb, there is an urgent need for effective prevention and early intervention strategies.

While school-based programs are intuitively appealing, the current study underscores the importance of rigorously evaluating their real-world impacts.

The authors emphasize that their analysis does not necessarily mean mindfulness training has no value for adolescents.

Yet existing universal programs delivered in school settings do not appear to generate meaningful improvements based on the best available evidence.

Moving forward, researchers and policymakers will need to weigh the opportunity costs of uSBMI against other initiatives that may more reliably support teen mental health.

As the study’s authors conclude, “our reanalysis of meta-analytic data suggest that it is time to reconsider [uSBMI’s] value as a public health prevention strategy for youth.”

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