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Loss of independence is fueling kids’ mental health crisis, according to expert

Emotional girl sitting in chair
Jamie Grill Atlas/Stocksy

Boston College professor and researcher Peter Gray recently collaborated with The Washington Post to share his opinion on why mental health conditions are spiking in kids. The answer is in one specific thing kids in the “olden days” had that our kids increasingly do not: independence.

Specifically, Gray calls out kids having less time spent engaging in independent activity and play, which doesn’t include things like organized sports and activities. As he watches increased mental health conditions and higher numbers of suicide attempts increase in children and teens, he can’t help but draw a connection between the two, he explains. Gray presented his findings in a summary in the Journal of Pediatrics, released in September, alongside other researchers.

The findings have three major aspects that parents can look at to help fight this trend, if they choose. Kids are losing not just their independence, but also:

  • Time they spend on their own

  • Territory they can explore and discover in

  • Peers they might associate with

It’s not a new concept—Gray says the trend started in the 1960s, and social media certainly hasn’t helped. This lack of control and “agency” over their own lives is making kids struggle with the feeling of being able to handle what the world throws their way, he explains.

One possible explanation is that schooling and safety have taken such a front seat to other skill-building activities, partially because social media scares us into thinking that things like kidnappings many states away are imminent threats to us.

One tangible thing to do to fight this trend is to consider giving your kids free nights where they aren’t engaged in organized sports and activities.

“Children like to do things on their own,” Gray says, adding that these types of sports aren’t included in the definition of play. And it’s not just about getting off their phones, he adds—this problem predated cell phones. Instead, he says kids connecting via phones is a result of them not being able to get together enough—and especially for teens to have some space from hovering adults. “That’s a big part of growing up,” he reminds.

A version of this story was originally published on Nov. 1, 2023. It has been updated.