Decline of Child Mental Health Due to All Work No Independent Play

Youth and Disability

Author: Florida Atlantic University
Published: 2023/03/12 - Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Contents: Summary - Definition - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Study shows adults' good intentions to protect children deprives them of the independence needed for mental wellbeing. The study also showed that children's freedom to engage in activities involving some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults 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.

Introduction

Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children's Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence - The Journal of Pediatrics.

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 specializing in child development points to independent "child's play."

Main Digest

Findings published in the Journal of Pediatrics 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.

"Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might occur 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," said David F. Bjorklund, Ph.D., co-author and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida Atlantic University's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

The study also showed that children's freedom to engage in activities involving some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults 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.

Continued below image.
The words Mental Health are spelled out on wooden scrabble tiles.
The words Mental Health are spelled out on wooden scrabble tiles.
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Among the many constraints that impact independent activity in children today identified in the study is the increased time they spend in school and schoolwork at home. Between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the school year in the U.S. increased by five weeks. Homework, once rare or nonexistent in elementary school, is 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.

"A major category of independent activity, especially for young children, is play," said Bjorklund. "Research and everyday observation indicate that play is a direct source of children's happiness."

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.

"Unlike other crises, such as the COVID epidemic, this decline in independent activity, and hence, mental well-being in children has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it," said Bjorklund. "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, Ph.D., lead author and a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College; and David F. Lancy, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University, summarize the large decline over decades in children's opportunities for independent activity:

The article concludes by noting that concern for children's safety and the value of adult guidance must be tempered by recognizing that children need ever-increasing opportunities to manage their activities independently as they grow. The article suggests how this can be accomplished today and how pediatricians, family doctors, and public policymakers can help promote such change.

Attribution/Source(s):

This peer reviewed publication was selected for publishing by the editors of Disabled World due to its significant relevance to the disability community. Originally authored by Florida Atlantic University, and published on 2023/03/12, the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or brevity. For further details or clarifications, Florida Atlantic University can be contacted at fau.edu. NOTE: Disabled World does not provide any warranties or endorsements related to this article.

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