Children today have less independence. Is that fueling a mental health crisis?

November 24, 2023

The Washington Post

By Caitlin Gibson

October 24, 2023


For years, Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College, has been closely following two disturbing trends: the dwindling of independent activity and play afforded to children over the past half-century, and the accelerating rise in mental health disorders and suicides among youth during that same period.

There are familiar factors that surface in discussions of the youth mental health crisis in America, with screen use and social media often topping the list of concerns. But Gray suspects a deeper underlying issue: The landscape of childhood has transformed in ways that are profoundly affecting the way children develop — by limiting their ability to play independently, to roam beyond the supervision of adults, to learn from peers, and to build resilience and confidence.

Gray presented this argument as the lead author of a commentary published in the September issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, co-written by David Lancy, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at Utah State University, and David Bjorklund, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University.

The co-authors spoke with The Washington Post about their thesis and what it might mean for people — as a society and as individual parents within a community. The following is drawn from three separate interviews and is edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you come to focus on the decline of independent activity as a potential primary factor in the mental health crisis among children?

David Lancy: All three of us have been struck by the shrinkage in the amount of time children may spend on their own, the territory they may explore and discover on their own, the peers that they may associate with. In the United States and in Europe, you can see this shrinkage occurring, and it’s very well-documented.

Peter Gray: I began to look at research, which showed and documented that beginning as early as the 1960s until now, there has been a continuous, gradual but huge increase in anxiety, depression, and, most tragically, suicide among school-aged children and teens. Over that period of time, children have also been less and less free to do the things that make them happy and build the kind of character traits — of confidence, of internal locus of control, of agency — that allow them to feel like ‘the world is not too scary, because I can handle what life throws at me.’ This kind of attitude requires independent activity to develop, and we have been offering less and less of that activity.

Q: Why do you think this factor has generally been overlooked or under-researched?

David Bjorklund: We are focused on schooling so much and on safety so much, and not inappropriately so, but we’ve sort of gotten carried away. Children’s psychological well-being is really based on normal development, and we’ve been restricting it. And why is this so easy to miss? Well, education is so important, and we hate to think that we’ve done something wrong, like putting pressure on children to do better at school. It’s part of the demands of society. Keeping children safe is something that we are all concerned with, but we exaggerate the problem — a child gets kidnapped in Portland, Ore., and we hear about it that same night in Portland, Maine, and we are afraid there are predators out there. These changes to our behavior happen gradually. We just don’t recognize that this could be part of the problem.

Q: You emphasize the importance of understanding play as something that does not involve adult supervision. Is this something many parents aren’t quite grasping — that organized activities like soccer practice aren’t experienced by children as independent play, and don’t carry the same benefits as independent play?

PG: An old-fashioned pickup game of baseball or basketball — that’s play. But an adult-directed Little League game is not play by the definition of many play scholars. From an evolutionary perspective, the whole purpose of childhood is to provide the time and opportunity for children to develop the character traits, the confidence, the ability to be independent. But to develop those abilities, they need experience with being independent. Children like to do things on their own. That’s instinctive, but it’s almost being driven out of them these days as we do more and more for them, and allow them to do less and less.

DB: I don’t want to dismiss organized sports totally, there is a place for it. But it shouldn’t be a substitute for more free play.

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Q: Your paper notes that the decline of independent activity in childhood has been occurring over half a century, with kids in the ’80s already more restricted than their own parents were. Do you feel like this cycle has been intensifying?

DL: Every decade brings more intensive parenting. The amount of time that parents are spending parenting keeps growing — parents keep doing more and more supplementary education, investing much more time in child care. Parents are spending more and more time acting as teachers and coaches and entertainment directors.

DB: If you take a look at surveys of [millennials], and you ask ‘Are the kids more restricted than when you were a child?’ the answer is usually yes. The restriction has been gradual. My generation — we were much freer than our kids and certainly my grandkids now. I think people sort of wish they could give their kids more freedom, too, but it’s hard when no one else is doing it.

Q: Your commentary also looks at the role of academic pressure as a source of this restriction too — kids have more homework, more of their time is consumed by schooling. How is that impacting their freedom, and in turn, their mental health?

PG: School has become a far more powerful force than it used to be. This has been especially true since No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Parents have become more concerned in the last 20 years or so with getting their child into college, and if you’re middle-class or upper middle-class, getting into an elite college. Free play doesn’t go on a résumé, but being on a traveling sports team might. There is this view that children develop fast when they’re carefully guided and taught by adults and that what children do on their own is sort of a waste of time, but that is not how children have developed in the past. They develop primarily by interacting with other kids, learning from experience. Most people are not aware of how much children learn on their own — that they learn through exploring, and that the most important skills they learn, they learn in play with other children.

Q: A lot of people focus on screens and social media as a significant factor when we talk about teens and mental health, but you question that theory. Can you explain?

DL: To me, it is very dangerous, and it’s going to lead us down a blind alley, if we try to treat devices and screens as a sort of monolithic phenomenon and then try to measure the impact of this monolithic phenomenon. If you considered this as an anthropologist, just observing, eavesdropping on children in their use of screens — I think you would find a great diversity. And that’s one reason we haven’t found a smoking gun yet, because screens are used in so many different contexts, in so many different ways.

PG: Pediatricians and clinical psychologists who work with children, psychiatric social workers — they’re very oriented toward safety. They’re not thinking about how drastically we’ve changed children’s environment, and the fact that this rise of anxiety and depression — that preceded cellphones. It’s not just cellphones. It’s not just social media. Some people want to say ‘Well, you don’t see kids playing together because they’re all on their devices.’ But what some kids are saying is, ‘We’re on our devices because we’re not allowed to hang out together.’ Teenagers especially need lots of private time with other teenagers. They need to be with other people their age group, away from adults. That’s a big part of growing up.

Q: What can parents do to help give their children more independence, especially when some of these changes you’re describing seem systemic and culturally ingrained?

DB: It’s hard to fight against the whole community, but there are little things — letting children handle some of their own difficulties. Don’t come to their rescue immediately. Make them an important part of a household. Kids want to help, and when they do, the task almost takes longer to achieve, and we’re often reluctant to really let them get involved. Let them help, encourage them to help, maybe even require them to help now and then. Let them do things that are slightly risky: ‘Get off that fence, you’re going to fall!’ — Well, how far are they going to fall? It’s not probably going to be anything that’s going to break a bone. Let them get out and explore.

PG: I think the first thing for parents to do is to have a conversation with their children: ‘I’d like you to have more freedom. What are things that you don’t feel free to do right now?’ I think that’s the way to begin.

At a bigger level, I think parents have at least some influence with schools. There is a growing number of parents who are recognizing the anxiety and depression in their kids. If parents voice that this is a problem, people can have an effect on schools, and if schools change — that’s a big part of the problem, frankly.

I speak to many parents who say, ‘I would like my child to have more independence, but if I allow my child to walk to school, somebody is going to call the police.’ So get together with other parents, get to know the other parents in your neighborhood. Have some discussions, maybe read a book together or some articles, talk about the importance of independent play, and maybe as a group try to figure something out: ‘Maybe every Friday afternoon we’ll all send our kids outside at once, and one person will be out there for the purpose of safety, and the rest of us stay away.’ There are neighborhoods doing this, but it takes initiative.


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