Summary of Important Paper

Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence. Journal of Pediatrics. 260. 10.1016/j.jpeds.2023.02.004 by Peter Gray, David Lancy, David Bjorklund

This article brings together dozens of research studies that collectively provide multiple converging lines of evidence supporting the thesis posed by the article’s title. Here is a summary of those lines of evidence.

  • The decline in children’s mental health is not new; it has been occurring over many decades. Analyses of scores on standard clinical assessments given in unchanged form to quasi-normative groups of teens reveal an estimated 5- to 8-fold increase in anxiety and depressive disorders by current DSM criteria over the last half of the 20th century. Other studies, using other means, reveal a continued large increase in anxiety and depression during the first two decades of the 21st century. Likewise, according to CDC data, the suicide rate among children under age 15 increased 3.5-fold between 1950 and 2005 and by 2.4-fold between 2005 and 2020.</li>
  • Over the same decades in which children’s mental health has plummeted, opportunities for children to engage in activities outside the home, without direct adult control, have also plummeted. Evidence includes historians’ accounts of children’s activities over decades, surveys of parents about what their children are or are not allowed to do, retrospections by adults about what they were or were not allowed to do at specific ages, and analyses of changes in parenting advice in popular magazines. Such work shows that children’s freedoms to play independently, walk or bike independently any distance from home, and hold responsible part-time jobs have been declining for decades, with the steepest decline beginning in the 1980s but continuing ever since. Overall, the studies suggest that freedoms even 5- and 6-year-olds enjoyed in decades past, such as walking to school or biking to a nearby store without an adult, are commonly denied even to 12- and 13-year-olds today. Free neighborhood play, where children take responsibility for organization and problem solving, has largely been replaced by adult-directed formal sports.
  • Much research, with people of all ages, shows that a strong internal locus of control that is, a strong sense of being in control one’s own life and of ability to solve problems that arise) protects against anxiety and depression. Other research, involving a standard assessment of locus of control, has shown, not surprisingly, that as children have been increasingly denied opportunities to control their own activities their internal locus of control has weakened.
  • Much research, with people of all ages, shows that psychological health depends on satisfaction of three basic psychological needs—the needs for a sense of autonomy (freedom to choose one’s own activities), competence (being skilled at what one wants to do), and relatedness (having friends). Especially for young children, free play with other children is the primary means of satisfying these needs.
  • Correlational studies reveal that young children who have more time for independent activity score higher than others on tests of (a) executive functioning, (b) emotional control, (c) social ability, and (d) self-regulation. These are all characteristics that would be expected to contribute to psychological resilience and wellbeing.
  • Correlational studies likewise reveal that college students whose parents, by a standard assessment, engaged in a highly controlling style of parenting fare worse psychologically in college than those whose parents were less controlling.
  • In two retrospective studies, adults who reported lots of adventurous free play in their elementary school years were assessed as having more social success, greater ability to adapt to change, and better overall psychological health in adulthood than those who reported less such play.
  • Finally (as if research were needed for this), studies have shown that free play is an immediate source of happiness for children. As one famous play researcher (the late Brian Sutton Smith) used to say, “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

As a society, we have become blind to something that should be obvious: children need lots of opportunity to play and act independently, both for immediate happiness and to develop the inner resources required to deal emotionally as well as practically with the inevitable bumps in the road of life.