Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental

From THE JOURNAL OF PEDIATRICS by Peter Gray, PhD, David F. Lancy, PhD, & David F. Bjorklund, PhD

It is no secret that rates of anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens in the US are at an all-time high. Recognizing this, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association issued, in 2021, a joint statement to the Biden administration that child and adolescent mental health be declared a “national emergency.”
Although most current discussions of the decline in youth mental health emphasize that which has occurred over the past 10-15 years, research indicates that the decline has been continuous over at least the last 5 or 6 decades.

Although a variety of causes of this decline have been proposed by researchers and practitioners (some discussed near the end of this Commentary), our focus herein is on a possible cause that we believe has been insufficiently researched, discussed, and taken into account by health practitioners and policy makers.

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.
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