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What Has Caused the Long Decline in Kids’ Mental Health?

New review of evidence points to increased supervision, decreased independence.

Izzy Park/Unsplash free to use
Source: Izzy Park/Unsplash free to use

I begin with two well-established facts:

1. Over the past four or five decades there has been a gradual, but overall huge decline in the freedom of children and even teens to play, roam, and engage in any activities away from direct adult oversight and control. Long gone are the days when 5-year-olds walked by themselves or with friends to kindergarten, or kids of all ages could be seen playing in parks or vacant lots with no adults around, or 12-year-olds had paper routes or other responsible jobs they managed themselves. (For more on this, see here.)

2. Over these same decades, there has been a gradual, but overall huge increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and actual suicides among children and teens. The rates of all of these are now roughly eight to ten times higher than they were half a century or more ago.

As an illustration of the extent of this crisis, a 2019 survey by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) found that, over the previous year, 36.7 percent of U.S. high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 18.8 percent seriously considered suicide, 15.7 percent made a suicide plan, 8.9 percent attempted suicide one or more times, and 2.5 percent made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment (Bitsko et al., 2022). Note that this was before COVID.

In a new Journal of Pediatrics article, my co-authors and I contend that the first fact is a major cause of the second.

For years, I have been arguing that this correlation, over time, between the decline in independent activity and the decline in mental health is one of cause and effect (e.g. here and here). Lack of freedom to behave independently and unsupervised causes mental anguish. Put another way, children’s and teens’ mental health depends on their being allowed increasing degrees of independent activity as they grow.

Recently, along with colleagues David Lancy (an anthropologist who has studied children worldwide) and David Bjorklund (a developmental psychologist who has authored textbooks on children’s cognitive development), I created a summary of the various lines of evidence supporting this causal hypothesis and submitted it the Journal of Pediatrics. We submitted it there because we wanted pediatricians to become aware of children’s needs for independent activity, so they might talk with parents about those needs.

The article has now been accepted for publication, with the title "Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence." It will appear soon in print and is currently available (here) in pre-publication manuscript form.

Our article brings together dozens of research studies showing that free play and other forms of independent activity promote children’s happiness not only in the short run, because independence makes children happy, but also in the long run, because independent activities promote the growth of mental capacities for coping effectively with life’s inevitable stressors. Through independent activities, where they must solve their own problems, children acquire the courage, confidence, and competence they need to face the bumps in the road of life with equanimity and effective action rather than panic or the feelings of helplessness that underlie depression.

We suggest in the article that our current societal concern for children’s immediate safety has overwhelmed and flooded out our historical understanding that children need increasing amounts of independent activity as they grow, to develop the character traits they need for mental health.

Our hope is that our article will encourage parents and society in general to balance concern for safety with the needs of children and teens for independent, unsupervised, moderately risky activity. We suggest that parents and children think together about activities the child might engage in independently, such as outdoor neighborhood play, independent travel in the neighborhood or city, running errands for the family, or a part-time job.

Parents might get together with other parents to arrange times and places where their children can play together in the neighborhood, with an adult watching for safety if that is felt necessary, but with minimal or no adult intervention. Parents might ask their child or teen, “What would you like to do independently?” and follow that with a discussion about how to do that, or something close to it, safely. We also suggest ways that pediatricians, family doctors, and public policymakers can help to promote such changes, and we also refer to the nonprofit organization Let Grow as a resource for ideas about how to bring more childhood independence into homes, schools, and communities.

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You can also obtain a manuscript version of the article from me by going to my website (you will find a link at the bottom of the website homepage).

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