Probably. How much school is worth it?
I know, I know. It’s fashionable to hate on formal education in the rationalist community. Here’s an obligatory Twitter poll:
And there’s even some push-back in the funny article Why do you guys hate school so much?. However, let’s forgo the usual survey study wars, especially because the surveys on this seem to be particularly bad, and look at a measure everybody can agree maybe on: suicides. Does school make students kill themselves? Yes, says a new economist paper:
- Hansen, B., Sabia, J. J., & Schaller, J. (2022). In-Person Schooling and Youth Suicide: Evidence from School Calendars and Pandemic School Closures (No. w30795). National Bureau of Economic Research.
This study explores the effect of in-person schooling on youth suicide. We document three key findings. First, using data from the National Vital Statistics System from 1990-2019, we document the historical association between teen suicides and the school calendar. We show that suicides among 12-to-18-year-olds are highest during months of the school year and lowest during summer months (June through August) and also establish that areas with schools starting in early August experience increases in teen suicides in August, while areas with schools starting in September don’t see youth suicides rise until September. Second, we show that this seasonal pattern dramatically changed in 2020. Teen suicides plummeted in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S. and remained low throughout the summer before rising in Fall 2020 when many K-12 schools returned to in-person instruction. Third, using county-level variation in school reopenings in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021—proxied by anonymized SafeGraph smartphone data on elementary and secondary school foot traffic—we find that returning from online to in-person schooling was associated with a 12-to-18 percent increase teen suicides. This result is robust to controls for seasonal effects and general lockdown effects (proxied by restaurant and bar foot traffic), and survives falsification tests using suicides among young adults ages 19-to-25. Auxiliary analyses using Google Trends queries and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggests that bullying victimization may be an important mechanism.
To be fair, one can find an economist preprint that shows literally anything. That’s because they cheat so much with the statistics. Is this paper also guilty of this? It seems not. The idea of the paper is simple enough. We consider the COVID school closures as a natural experiment in less schooling, and check if the suicide rates changed during the lockdown months versus other years. This method of course assumes that nothing else changed that is relevant. That’s a hard assumption to grant. Maybe COVID made kids fearful? After all, the media was full of fear mongering for years on end, and probably many students lost their beloved grandmother. This effect, however, would go in the other direction, i.e., cause more suicides, not fewer.
But let’s first look at the long-term trends: