Childhood anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are on the rise as opportunities for children to be independent have dwindled, according to a new article in The Journal of Pediatrics. The research, led by psychologist Peter Gray from Boston College, used data on adolescent independence from multiple decades and countries to investigate the high incidence of mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, among today’s youth.
Gray and his co-authors observed that children in the 1970s or earlier had far more freedom to roam, play, and engage in activities without adult supervision than children today. They argue that the decline in opportunities for children to participate in independent activities has contributed to the rise in mental disorders. Independent activities can promote mental health by providing immediate satisfaction and building mental resilience to cope with life’s stresses.
“Those of us old enough to have been children in the 1970s or earlier know from experience that children then had far more freedom to roam, play, and engage in various activities independently of adults than do children today. Research has confirmed that our memories are not distorted,” the authors write.
“Our thesis is that a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults. Such independent activities may promote mental well-being through both immediate effects, as a direct source of satisfaction, and long-term effects, by building mental characteristics that provide a foundation for dealing effectively with the stresses of life.”
The Decline of Independence and Its Toll on Kids’ Mental Health