Anxiety and depression among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States are at an all-time high. Sadly, in 2021, child and adolescent mental health has been declared a national emergency. Although a variety of causes are believed to contribute to this decline in mental health, a new study by three leading researchers specializing in child development suggests independent “child play.”
Results published in Journal of Pediatrics, suggest that the rise in mental health disorders is attributable to a decades-long decline in children and adolescents’ opportunities to play, walk around, and engage in activities independent of direct supervision and control by adults. Although well-intentioned, adults’ drive to guide and protect children and teens has denied them the independence they need for mental health, contributing to record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young adults.
“Parents today are regularly bombarded with messages about the dangers of unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school. But they hear little countervailing message that if children are to grow up well, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including That’s self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they’re reliable, responsible, and capable. They need to feel like they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the school world, said David F. Bjorklund, PhD, co-author and professor in the Department of Psychology. at Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at Florida Atlantic University.
The study also showed that children’s freedom to engage in activities that involve some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults has also declined over the decades. Risky play, such as climbing to the top of a tree, helps protect children from developing phobias and reduces future anxiety by boosting self-confidence to deal with emergencies.
Among the many limitations affecting independent activity in children identified today in the study is the increased time they spend at school and on home schooling. Between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the school year in the United States increased by five weeks. Homework, which was rare or non-existent in elementary school, is now common even in kindergarten. Furthermore, by 2014, the average time spent on recess (including any recess associated with the lunch period) for primary schools was only 26.9 minutes per day, and some schools had no recess at all.
“Play is a major category of independent activity, especially for young children,” said Bjorklund. “Research, as well as everyday observation, indicates that play is a direct source of children’s happiness.”
The researchers suggest that decades of increased time in school and pressure for achievement may have affected mental health not only through diminishing time and opportunity for independent activities but also because fear of academic failure, or fear of underachieving, is a direct source of distress. .
“Unlike other crises, such as the COVID pandemic, this decline in independent activity and, therefore, mental well-being in children crept up to us gradually, over decades, so many hardly noticed it,” Björklund said. “Moreover, unlike other health crises, this one is not the result of a highly contagious virus, but of good intentions that have been carried away – intentions to protect children and provide what many believe is better (interpreted as more) education, both in and out of schools.” the Actual “.
For the study, Bjorklund and co-authors Peter Gray, Ph.D., lead author and research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College; and David F. Lancey, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University, sum up the dramatic decline over decades in children’s opportunities for independent activity; significant declines over the same decades in young people’s mental health; the effects of independent activity on children’s happiness; And the effects of independent activity in building psychological resilience in the long term.
The article concludes by noting that concern for children’s safety and the value of adult guidance needs to be tempered by recognizing that, as children grow, they need increased opportunities to independently manage their own activities. The article suggests ways in which this can be achieved in today’s world and ways in which pediatricians, family physicians, and public policy makers can help promote such change.