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Anxiety and depression among children and teens in the US are at an all-time high. In fact, child and adolescent mental health was declared a national emergency in 2021. It wasn't always like this. So what could be the cause of the decline in the mental health of children and teens?
A new study suggests that the rise in mental health problems in school-aged children and teens is associated with a decline in opportunities for them to engage in independent play unsupervised by adults. The study was conducted by three renowned researchers specializing in child development.
Here's the thing. Several decades ago, before the world became this modern and woke, children had more freedom to play and interact with their environment, roam, climb trees, etc. They also had more time to make more meaningful contributions to their communities.
Risky play, like climbing trees, can help prevent phobia in kids and reduce their risk of developing anxiety in the future. Such risky yet playful activities can also build their self-confidence and capacity to deal with emergencies. When kids are less supervised and are allowed to take responsibility for their time and how they play, they tend to feel more trusted and responsible. All of that can hedge against feelings of hopelessness, depression, and anxiety as they grow into adulthood.
Now, let's take a look at the current situation.
Many constraints impact independent play in kids today, including increased time spent in school and doing homework. Even kindergarten and elementary school kids now spend hours (after school) on homework that they find less time to roam and play unsupervised. Between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the school year in the United States increased by five weeks. And the average time spent on recess in elementary school is less than 30 minutes a day, with some schools having no recess at all.
Furthermore, caring parents nowadays long to be involved in everything their child does — especially in how they play. This is basically to prevent them from harm.
It's good intentions from parents to try to keep their kids out of harm’s way and encourage them to be successful by studying hard. But it's good intentions taken too far, and we can see how it affects these kids' mental health, as indicated in the study.
Homework was once rare and even nonexistent in elementary school. Young children had more time to play independently and build mental and physical resilience, unlike now. Now, there's more pressure to protect our kids and for them to have academic excellence.
It's a crisis, but unlike others, such as Covid-19. It crept on us over the decades so we barely noticed it, and the mental well-being of young people slowly declined. And given that the decline in independent play was born out of good intentions for our kids, it was and is even more difficult to counter.
So what can we do?
As the researchers noted, we can counter this crisis by acknowledging that as children grow, there’s a need for them to have more opportunities to manage their own activities independently. One way to accomplish this would be for policymakers to recognize this cause and effect and make the right policies.
Such policies may have to address how much time children spend in school and doing homework. We also have to acknowledge that better schooling doesn't always mean "more" schooling.
Read the full research here.