Modern children deprived of independence, and it could be behind rise of early mental health problems

BOCA RATON, Fla. — All work and no play may have made Jack a dull boy, but new findings from Florida Atlantic University suggest modern children are dealing with all work and no independent play. The result? A serious uptick in anxiety and depression among young people in recent years.

Anxiety and depression rates among school-aged adolescents and teens in the U.S. have never been higher. The situation is so serious that in 2021 child and adolescent mental health was named a national emergency. While there are numerous factors contributing to today’s adolescent mental health crisis, this latest work out of Florida strongly suggests a lack of independent “child’s play” is a major part of the problem.

Study authors explain that this mental health crisis in children may be attributable to a decline over recent decades in opportunities for kids and teens to play, roam, and engage in activities independently. In other words, children need time without any direct oversight and control by adults.

While most parents will cringe at the thought of leaving their kids (or teens) alone for too long in any setting, the research team asserts that while parents and caregivers are no doubt well intentioned, too much supervision is depriving today’s youth of the independence they need to develop strong mental health, consequently contributing to record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide seen among young people nowadays.

Children playing outside in a group
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. (Credit: Florida Atlantic University)

“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,” says David F. Bjorklund, Ph.D., co-author and a professor in the Department of Psychology in Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, in a media release.

Children need freedom and the ability to take risks

Researchers also report that kids’ freedom to participate in activities involving a certain degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults and caregivers has declined significantly over the decades. For example, climbing a tree may be risky, but it also helps kids avoid developing phobias and reduces future anxiety by boosting self-confidence to deal with emergencies in the present.

So what exactly is stopping modern kids from engaging in independent play? The study revealed major upticks in both time spent in school and time spent on schoolwork at home among today’s adolescents. Between 1950 and 2010, the median length of the school year in the U.S. increased by five weeks. Meanwhile, by 2014, average time spent in recess among U.S. elementary schools was just 26.9 minutes daily. Some schools don’t even have recess anymore.

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

Besides just eating up time that could be spent on independent activities, the noted increase in school time over the decades may have also impacted mental health rates due to increased pressure to succeed, or in other words, a growing sense of fear in today’s youth of academic failure, which is a direct source of distress.

“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,” Prof. Bjorklund explains. “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.”

Scientists conclude that concern for children’s safety and adult guidance needs to be tempered by the undeniable recognition that, as children grow, they need more and more opportunities to manage their activities independently.

The study is published in The Journal of Pediatrics.