A new study shows adults’ good intentions to protect children deprives them of the independence needed for good mental health and wellbeing

Anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens in the United States are at an all-time high. Sadly, in 2021, child and adolescent mental health was declared a national emergency.

Although a variety of causes are thought to contribute to this decline in mental health, a new study by three prominent researchers specialising in child development points to independent ‘child’s play’.

The findings suggest that the rise in mental health disorders is attributed to a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam and engage in activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.

Although well-intended, adults’ drive to guide and protect children and teens has deprived them of the independence they need for mental health, contributing to record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people.

David F Bjorklund, co-author and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, said: “Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school.

“But they hear little of the countervailing messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable.

“They need to feel they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the world of school.”

See also: Young people suffer sharp decline in wellbeing at secondary school


Risky play


The study also showed that children’s freedom to engage in activities that involve some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults also has declined over the decades.

Risky play, such as climbing high into a tree, helps protect children from developing phobias and reduces future anxiety by boosting self-confidence to deal with emergencies.  

Among the many constraints that impact independent activity in children today and identified in the study, include the increased time they spend in school and on schoolwork at home.

Between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the school year in the US increased by five weeks. Homework, which was once rare or non-existent in elementary school, is now common even in kindergarten.

Moreover, by 2014, the average time spent in recess (including any recess associated with the lunch period) for elementary schools was just 26.9 minutes a day, and some schools had no recess at all.

Bjorkland said: “A major category of independent activity, especially for young children, is play. Research, as well as everyday observation, indicates that play is a direct source of children’s happiness.”


Impacted mental health


The researchers suggest the increase in school time and pressure to achieve over decades may have impacted mental health not just by detracting from time and opportunity for independent activities but also because fear of academic failure, or fear of insufficient achievement, is a direct source of distress.

Bjorkland added: “Unlike other crises, such as the Covid epidemic, this decline in independent activity, and hence, mental wellbeing in children has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it.

“Moreover, unlike other health crises, this one is not the result of a highly contagious virus, but rather the result of good intentions carried too far – intentions to protect children and provide what many believed to be better (interpreted as more) schooling, both in and out of actual schools.”  

For the study, Bjorklund and co-authors Peter Gray, lead author and a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, and David F Lancy, professor emeritus at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University, summarise the large decline over decades in children’s opportunities for independent activity; a large decline over the same decades in young people’s mental health; effects of independent activity on children’s happiness; and effects of independent activity in building long-term psychological resilience.

The article concludes by noting that concern for children’s safety and the value of adult guidance needs to be tempered by recognition that, as children grow, they need ever-increasing opportunities to manage their own activities independently.

The article suggests ways by which this can be accomplished in today’s world and ways that paediatricians, family doctors, and public policymakers can help promote such change.

The findings are published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Image: By 2014, the average time spent in recess (including any recess associated with the lunch period) for elementary schools was just 26.9 minutes a day, and some schools had no recess at all. © Florida Atlantic University.