The Decline In Children’s Freedom And Rise In Mental Disorders

children_playVia Aeon Magazine, psychologist and researcher Peter Gray writes that children’s free time to play is an essential form of learning which is  now being denied them:

For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids unsupervised.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation.

I argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

33 Comments on "The Decline In Children’s Freedom And Rise In Mental Disorders"

  1. Ted Heistman | Oct 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm |

    Yeah this is bullshit. My housemate has an 11 year old grand daughter with 2 and a half hours of homework every night.

    • atlanticus | Oct 2, 2013 at 7:25 pm |

      “(…) and by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they
      were out of school and not doing homework. Parents’ fears led them, ever
      more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids

      How does your example counter the rest of the argument?

      • Ted Heistman | Oct 3, 2013 at 10:39 am |

        2.5 hours of homework is Bull shit not the article.

        • atlanticus | Oct 3, 2013 at 7:56 pm |

          OH! Hah, I was definitely reading it as “this article is bullshit”.

          I had like 3 hours of homework per night…and I turned out fine. *twitch*. Really worked out well for me, *twitch* since now I’m in an Ivy League school and all. O_O

          (HAH! “Ivy League”…my school gets sponsored by junk food companies…)

        • The Well Dressed Man | Oct 3, 2013 at 11:45 pm |

          Doesn’t seem like that much. At that age, you’re learning the study skills that will carry over into high school and beyond. That’s like an hour for math, an hour for reading assignments, and 30 minutes to work on a book report or science project. Maybe if I actually did my homework way back when I wouldn’t be studying 80+ hours a week now.

          • Ted Heistman | Oct 4, 2013 at 7:13 am |

            its too much for 6th grade.She also sings, plays an instrument, raises chickens and does horseback riding. When is the kid supposed to play? I guess you don’t buy the entire premise of the article.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Oct 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm |

            Maybe 2.5 hours is at the heavy end for that age, but it doesn’t seem extreme. As we start to grow up, hobbies like music and horseback riding begin taking the place of play. Obviously this doesn’t happen all at once. I agree that everybody, especially kids, needs unstructured time to be human, and the generation of kids raised by “helicopter parents” seem to be smothered by overscheduling. I just think that, if one isn’t wasting hours a day on “time sucks” like TV, video games, web surfing, and lengthy commutes, a couple hours a day of study is easily made available. Study is essential for anyone’s personal growth. Kids have such an ability to learn compared to adults, it seems like hours invested early would really pay off moving forward.

          • Ted Heistman | Oct 4, 2013 at 3:42 pm |

            well Its mostly busy work from what I have seen. She was homeschooling last year, and what her grandparents did was give her projects to work in which incorporated math and science, such as designing and building a chicken coop. She tested in 11th grade level in the California Achievement test.

            Now it appears to be 2.5 hours of read and regurgitate. I think public school is a step down from what she was doing.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Oct 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm |

            well that does sound like bs. students who are that far ahead of the curriculum can get seriously discouraged by the busywork. hopefully there are courses in her middle school next year that will be more challenging. if not, there are so many resources online. i wish there were open university sites and stuff like khan academy when i was a kid.

          • Ted Heistman | Oct 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm |

            I think the next big thing will be replacing school with something better and self directed. The biggest selling point of school, IMO is that it provides free daycare.

          • emperorreagan | Oct 4, 2013 at 8:57 am |

            There have been studies (one out of Duke in particular I think) that basically indicate homework does nothing to help student performance prior to middle school. In middle school, you start to see a correlation with performance with between 1-2 hours of homework per night. And in high school, you see those performance gains are much greater than in middle school, but flatline if you exceed 2 hours per night.

            Without reading any more research than I have in the past, I’d infer that working at the low end of the range (1 hour) would probably be good for developing study skills at the very beginning of middle school and you should vary in the 1-2 hour range through high school depending on the material.

            Also of note: students at the beginning of the 2000s were doing twice as much homework as those at the beginning of the 1980s. Academic performance has also generally declined (for example, the SATs “recentered” in the mid-90s because the verbal scores were embarrassingly low).

            I’m not meaning to imply that there’s correlation between the two: just that people have been throwing solutions at a problem without actually trying to figure out if there is any connection with academic performance.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Oct 4, 2013 at 3:27 pm |

            My perspective is of an adult who has struggled to develop the study skills needed to succeed in college. I started public school on a “gifted” accelerated track, but my working-class background cut me off from effective mentoring or guidance resources, and also from the ADHD diagnosis that didn’t happen until recently.

            Serious high school students are taking AP Chem, Calculus, and Physics courses. Perhaps some students can get by on a couple hours of homework a night, but the average student will devote a couple hours of study per day to each STEM class just to keep up.

          • are you all kidding me? work 7-9 hours a day and then come home and do another 2-3 or even 4? the school/external activity system had me completely on my arse by the time I was 13/14, and I wasn’t the kid that has to come home and work the evening in my family’s shop or whatever. By the time I was 18 I thought I was gonna go completely insane unless I escaped. I have no idea how many kids I’ve met as a result of playing online games who are depressed, tired and anxious, but it’s alot. I see the layings around them of the same traps I am now having to spend years unravelling.

            More attention needs to be paid to helping children cope and becoming more aware of the subtle injuries we inflict but lay beyond our perceptions. I think the most I got about stress management, training self insight and developing teacher-parent-child relations was some shitty leaflet and a a personal assessment test with no structured direction other than ‘oh, you’re all horrifically stressed. ho hum’.

          • The Well Dressed Man | Oct 5, 2013 at 9:36 am |

            That sounds about like my current undergrad schedule, except without “activities,” just math and science. I think its a bit much for kids, but a challenging university major is going to be over 20 hours a week in lecture/lab and at least another 40 hours of self study per week.

          • >I think its a bit much for kids

            this was essentially the point i was attempting to make except mine was the 5am wired on caffeine and lack of sleep version lol. i would also say that there’s an element of choice on whether to take a degree and complete it and it’s usually assumed you understand what you’re signing up for and are properly motivated to do it (not just because your parents think telling the neighbours that their child is the prime minister is so awesome it’s worth severing you from your soul). children don’t usually have any such luxury unless they were fucking blessed in the parent department.

            it seems like true will is being hijacked.

          • emperorreagan | Oct 4, 2013 at 11:31 pm |

            2 hours is, naturally, an average for performance flatline. The study from Duke I’m referring to is a meta-study. What students actually devote to study and what is actually effective are two different questions.

            If you’re cut off from effective mentoring/guidance and/or resources to deal with other challenges, do you think more homework helps? To me, that only would seem to help if it helps a teacher identify a problem and intervene – not in the merit of more volume of homework.

    • The Well Dressed Man | Oct 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm |

      Are you saying 2.5 hours of homework is too much or not enough?

  2. Lookinfor Buford | Oct 2, 2013 at 2:31 pm |

    Too many other factors in play to conclusively pin it on one.
    **Rise of Big Pharma? — telling them there’s something wrong with them
    **Rise of Big Media? — blaming and shaming the youth ev chance they’ve had since GenX
    Rise of Commercialism? — brainwashing them to reject what their soul tells them and go with the crowd.
    Rise of Atheism? — telling them there is nothing magic. at all.
    Rise of Divorce? — more futility and shame
    Rise of In your face, pathetic, adult, ideological battles? — pathetic
    Rise of Globalism? – the angry competition at the gates?
    Rise of Consciousness Raising? — indoctrination for everyone
    ** the media and big pharma get 2 stars IMO
    Who wouldn’t be depressed?

    • DeepCough | Oct 2, 2013 at 11:21 pm |

      Hey, it wasn’t atheists that were burning the Harry Potter books, man.

    • Atheism is good, it teaches you to be strong in yourself and to not blame your negative actions on the ol’Devil Man. And Divorce, say what? Divorce gives people the freedom to chose happiness over bitterness and allows conclusion in hopeless relationships. I will agree with you on Big Pharmaceutical and Big Media, the rest of it though seems pretty shallow and unthoughtful. Children learn much from their parents, whether it be destructive tendencies or positive ones, I think parents need to play more active roles in their children’s lives and get them involved in character building organizations such as food banks, candy striping and community gardening programs (to name a few options). Teach them how to care for others and it’ll teach them self worth, compassion and help them to understand our basic human nature, love.

  3. BuzzCoastin | Oct 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm |

    on the other hand
    every kid in China has been on a schedule of school & extracurricular studies
    that pales in comparison to the aMerkin version
    and it’s only deleterious effect has been
    they want to be just like Homelanders

    • Keith M. Padgett | Oct 5, 2013 at 1:35 am |

      you forget situational and social factors. The Chinese population has always had a large focus on learning and less play. The American shift to this is relatively recent. Also, test scores/grades =/= mental health. While the Chinese constantly out score America, who’s to say there aren’t also mental health issues in the Chinese youth as well?

  4. DeepCough | Oct 2, 2013 at 4:26 pm |

    “All those years we thought we were making progress: with our Skinner boxes and our electric shocks… what a waste of time. Until ADAM, you could no more domesticate a child than a boa constrictor…”

    ~Yi Suchong, Bioshock

  5. Gordon Klock | Oct 2, 2013 at 11:11 pm |

    I wish they would teach the way they do in Finland, kids decide for themselves what they want to learn,& when there was an international test on the nation who had the most knowledgeable students in math,science,history,etc,Finland’s kids blew all of the North & South American,African,Australian,Middle Eastern,all other European,& even the Asian nations away by a wide margin.
    Present knowledge as something interesting & useful, & not as some arbitrary thing to be pounded into one’s skull for semi-coherent reasons.

    • Ted Heistman | Oct 4, 2013 at 7:14 am |

      I had heard that about Finland.

    • I knew of an alternative school that taught like that. Its not all its cracke up to be. Kids need guidance and are actually looking for boundaries. That’s why they like to test them, to learn right from wrong. It isn’t authoritarian and tyranic to tell a kid what is right. Its just the degree that is the issue

      • Erin Tex | Oct 7, 2013 at 9:52 am |

        you should not tell a kid what is right, you should teach them how to tell right from wrong, then they will be able to tell on their own. will you always be there to tell them what is right? every moment? kids need to know how and why more than what.

      • @Erin Tex (cant reply to your post some reason)
        agreed, but it is important to give examples of what is right and wrong, too. kahlil Gibran had something to say related to yer comment.


        Your children are not your children.
        They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
        They come through you but not from you,
        And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

        You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
        For they have their own thoughts.
        You may house their bodies but not their souls,
        For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
        which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
        You may strive to be like them,
        but seek not to make them like you.
        For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

        You are the bows from which your children
        as living arrows are sent forth.
        The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
        and He bends you with His might
        that His arrows may go swift and far.
        Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
        For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
        so He loves also the bow that is stable.

  6. Charlie Primero | Oct 3, 2013 at 9:17 am |

    Elimination of free time is no accident. Go read the policy papers of the elite academics and social planners who designed modern schooling. They state very clearly that the long-term goal of their system is to destroy the free will and independence of the lower classes in order to produce easily managed meat robots to better serve the elite.

    Go learn how Martin Bormann’s brilliant system of corporate/state integration was ramped up to global scale after World War II via mergers, acquisitions, and capital asset reallocations. You are awash in his evil genius at this very moment.

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