The Decline of Play & The Rise in Childhood Depression & Anxiety.

Studies over the years indicate that the rates of depression and anxiety, especially among our younger generations, are sad girl poor self image SMincreasing year after year. Today estimates reveal that high school and college students are 5 to 8 times more likely to meet the criteria for major depression and/or anxiety disorder.  Recently Dr. Gray, from Freedom to Learn, analyzed why this trend is increasing in his article published in Psychology Today, The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.  Dr. Gray reviewed recent evidence for the sharp generational rise in young people’s depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders from a newly released study by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University.

Twenge's study provided years of results collected from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) questionnaire used to assess a variety of mental disorders given to college students in the United States since 1938. Additionally, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory- Adolescents (MMPI-A) has been providing the questionnaire to high school students since 1951. These results are consistent with other studies which show dramatic increases in depression and anxiety since the 1950s.

Why has the mental health and happiness of youth steadily decreased since 1950?

Through Twenge’s study, Dr. Gray discusses four different findings through their research.

  1. The decline in young people's sense of personal control over their fate:
    Studies show that depression and anxiety correlate with people's sense of control or lack of control over their own lives.

  2. Shift towards extrinsic goals and away from intrinsic goals:
    Intrinsic goals which are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person vs. extrinsic goals which are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgment suggesting that goals of higher income, status, and good lucks are more highly regarded now that self-development. Twenge states; “To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others' judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state." This causes more anxiety to keep up with others as well as depression when individuals are not able to reach these high standards.

  3. The decline of free play:
    This is not the first study that has shown that the decline in free play is leading to a rise in depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The research here is no different. Dr. Gray suggests that children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, and develop/pursue their own interests. Thus, depriving children of opportunities to play on their own are prohibiting them from learning the skills they need in order to take control of their own lives. Dr. Gray goes on to say even though we think we are protecting them, we are in fact diminishing their joy, sense of self-control and love. This, in turn, increases the odds of anxiety, depression and other disorders.
  1. Coercive schooling deprives young people of personal control:
    Since 1950 free play in school has decreased and school-like activities (lessons, adult-directed sports) have increased. Children's lives are scheduled down to the minute more than ever. In these settings, adults are in control, not children. Studies show that children with highly scheduled lives and very little free time can lead to increased unhappiness and mental disorders. 

Play Attention provides resources that can help you learn how to integrate free play into your child’s life. Check out one of our blog posts, It’s Time to Play to learn more.