What Has Caused the Long Decline in Kids’ Mental Health?

In his latest piece for Psychology Today, psychologist Peter Gray discusses his new article in Journal of Pediatrics that examines lack of independence during childhood as a possible cause of dramatic increases, over the years, in youth anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide. 

He writes: 

“I begin with two well-established facts:

“1. Over the past four or five decades there has been a gradual, but overall huge decline in the freedom of children and even teens to play, roam, and engage in any activities away from direct adult oversight and control. Long gone are the days when 5-year-olds walked by themselves or with friends to kindergarten, or kids of all ages could be seen playing in parks or vacant lots with no adults around, or 12-year-olds had paper routes or other responsible jobs they managed themselves. (For more on this, see here.)

“2. Over these same decades, there has been a gradual, but overall huge increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and actual suicides among children and teens. The rates of all of these are now roughly eight to ten times higher than they were half a century or more ago. . . . 

“For years, I have been arguing that this correlation, over time, between the decline in independent activity and the decline in mental health is one of cause and effect (e.g. here and here). Lack of freedom to behave independently and unsupervised causes mental anguish. Put another way, children’s and teens’ mental health depends on their being allowed increasing degrees of independent activity as they grow. . . . 

“Our article brings together dozens of research studies showing that free play and other forms of independent activity promote children’s happiness not only in the short run, because independence makes children happy, but also in the long run, because independent activities promote the growth of mental capacities for coping effectively with life’s inevitable stressors.”

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