Mindfulness is quite the buzz word these days. We hear it everywhere, it’s touted as a solution to many issues we face, and it’s something many of use believe we should practice. According to Fortune, meditation became a $1 billion industry in 2015.
It’s a powerful practice with many pieces of research to support claims that mindfulness can ease anxiety, increase psychological wellbeing, and support healthy hearts. However, a new study which will be published in the December 2017 issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy has found that mindfulness may not be as effective as we think in teenagers.
“We found no differences in outcomes between any of the groups at any time point.”
How the Study was Conducted
The study was conducted by Catherine Johnson, Christine Burke, Sally Brinkman, and Tracey Wade at the Flinders University School of Psychology in Australia. The authors sought to understand how mindfulness may impact the teenagers’ levels of depression, anxiety, psychological wellbeing, and healthy self-image. They also measured overall mindfulness using a 25-item assessment before and after the course.
The researchers worked with 555 adolescents at an average age of 13.44. The students came from four school, one private and two public. The children were split up into three groups for the study: mindfulness, mindfulness with parental involvement, and the control group. The researchers collected data 3-4 before the mindfulness intervention started, at the end of the mindfulness intervention, six months after the intervention, and twelve months after the intervention.
Participants took part in an adapated .be program from Mindfulness in Schools, aimed at adolescents ages 11-16. The intervention consisted of nine weekly lessons of 40-60 minutes. The group with parental involvement included a ten-minute guided meditation to do at home once a week with the teen.
The course consisted of a variety of mindfulness-based practices, including breath counting, mindfulness of daily activities, observing thoughts, and guided meditations on mindfulness of the body and a relaxation practice. Students were encouraged to practice regularly at home, and were offered guided audio files.
Johnson, et al. used six methods of encouraging practice:
- Emphasizing the potential to change the brain during the difficult period of adolescence
- Adding the mindfulness practice at the start of every lesson to create a familiar “anchoring”
- Quizzes each week with small candy rewards
- Addind pages to the homework manual to encourage the recording of activity
- Hanging posters in each classroom summarizing the steps of practice and illustrating mindfulness
- At conclusion of intervention, giving students laminated copies of key ideas and teachers instructions on reinforcing mindfulness with students in the future
In the group where parental involvement was encouraged, parents were invited to an hour long information session at the child’s school. This occurred before the beginning of the intervention, and explained mindfulness, current research, and the program. Parents were offered the opportunity to ask questions during this period. Parents were then given a weekly email with a ten minute YouTube video with key points of the current week’s lesson, a guided exercise, and an explanation of their child’s home practice for the week.
We encourage you to read the actual study yourself, but there were quite a few interesting findings. Let’s start with involvement. For parents and the ten minute YouTube video, involvement hovered around 38% for the first two weeks, but fell to only 9% by the final week of the course.
The control group showed higher rates of awareness, and the biggest differences were recorded at the post-intervention data collection. During the course, 24.4% of participants were meditating regularly, while only 7% practiced weekly at the twelve-month follow-up point.
Those that completed more homework during the course showed worse outcomes, which we personally find rather interesting! The only place where positive outcome was consistently found was in several facets of mindfulness being measured: Awareness of Internal Experiences; Awareness of External Experiences; Decentering and non-reactivity, Relativity, and Insight. Body image did not improve, and neither did levels of depression, anxiety, or general psychological wellbeing.
Another finding that we thought was interesting is related to the feedback forms filled out by about half of participants after the intervention. When rating from 0-10 how likely participants were to use mindfulness practices in the future, the average was 6.1. At the six month follow up, only 10.6% of people meditated regularly. At the twelve-month follow-up, 8.4% used their practice in their lives.
There are many interesting pieces in this study, including that a recent study on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy demonstrated improvement in psychological wellbeing in adolescents, but this one did not. We really encourage checking it out at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000579671730181X.
“Young people may also need greater scaffolding than adults to make connections between seemingly abstract tools and real life, especially if they are currently not distressed.”
The researchers believe that more research is required to continue investigating the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions. This comes a few months after the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science published a piece about the need for more formal and rigorous studies on mindfulness before we tout its benefits.
The researchers end their conclusion by stating:
“Further research is required to identify the optimal age, content and length of programs delivering mindfulness to adolescents.”
Okay, I know nobody has asked for them, but here are a few thoughts about this. First, I love that this piece of research clearly states the type of mindfulness practices being offered and included a fairly rigorous course of practice. Some studies about mindfulness don’t clearly state what practices are being used and involve relatively infrequent practice.
My personal experience with mindfulness has been a beautiful one, but this is purely anecdotal. I do help run One Mind Dharma, sell meditation CD’s, and teach meditation by donation at our meditation center. That is, I recognize that I am a (incredibly small) part of the aforementioned $1 billion meditation industry.
However, I must admit that meditation may not be for everyone. There is research like this that suggests there may be optimal times, lengths, and practices in order to make mindfulness effective. I myself was introduced to mindfulness and meditation at age 14, and did not find it useful for a few years after. I appreciate that this kind of research is being done, and one of the reasons I thought it was worth sharing is that it points toward a greater need for the scientific community to understand meditation and mindfulness.
I have experienced benefits of mindfulness and dharma, at least in my perspective. It is through mindfulness practice that I have grown from a lonely and broke 19-year old with anger problems, great suffering, felony charges, and a serious drug addiction into a young adult with a family, full-time job, and a much more peaceful experience of daily living. This study does not say that mindfulness is useless, even for teenagers.
Instead, this study may be a great foundation for us to understand if and when mindfulness is useful to adolescents and young adults. It’s my hopes that researchers like Johnson and her team continue to work to uncover what is useful, but I don’t plan on stopping my practice anytime soon either way!
I believe that scientific research about mindfulness can help people investigate a practice I have found to be useful. I’ve also seen it useful in the lives of others, including mentees in the Refuge Recovery program, students at the meditation center, and fellow members of my sangha. Sometimes a research-backed practice can reach people where religion and faith do not.
Although I think we need to investigate our own experience and see what is useful and what is not, a catalyst to begin practice can be useful. If this catalyst that encourages us to begin practice is reading a study, then great! This is one of the reasons I’m for research on mindfulness, and love reading studies like this that are pushing us toward a deeper understanding.
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