Could helicopter parenting and declining free play be causing youth mental health crisis? – The Boston Globe

The nature of childhood itself was changing, he said. And profoundly changing.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as public attention has focused on the adolescent mental health crisis, experts and commentators have increasingly linked rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide to the rise of smartphones and social media. In recent years, Gray has become one of the leading proponents of an alternative theory that is gaining ground among experts. Could the demise of free-to-play, and not teenage obsessions with their phones, be the key factor driving the teen mental health crisis?

In a recent article, published in Journal of Pediatrics Late last year, Gray and his colleagues made their case based on a voluminous body of evidence spanning developmental psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and other fields. While it may be true that the prevalence of anxiety, depression and suicide among children and adolescents appears to have increased in tandem with the use of smartphones and social media, they concluded that mental health of adolescents and children has been in decline for at least five decades. This period coincides with the decrease in opportunities for children and adolescents to play, wander, and engage in other activities independent of direct adult supervision and control. they wrote

“Everything I know about play suggests that if you take play away from children, there will be negative consequences,” said Gray, the 2013 book Free to Learn. argued that free play is the primary means by which children develop resilience.

In 2019, nearly one in five children ages 3 to 17 in the United States had a diagnosed mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder, up 40 percent since 2009, according to an advisory from the Surgeon General of 2021. Between 2008 and 2020, suicide death rates among Americans aged 12 to 17 increased by 70 percent.

In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement declaring child and adolescent mental health a national emergency. Shortly thereafter, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a rare public health advisory, calling youth mental health the defining public health issue of our time.

But the surgeon general has blamed the crisis on social media and the amount of time children and teenagers spend online. These links are also one of the main findings The anxious generation, a bestseller recently published by NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In his book, Haidt, a longtime Gray collaborator, also laments the decline of play-based childhood. It narrates its replacement by a childhood based on the telephone and details what he calls big wiring, a state of affairs that interferes with the healthy social and neurological development of the nation’s children and fuels an epidemic of addiction, loneliness, fragmented attention, and mental illness.

Gray said he read the first copies of Haidts book and urged him, without success, to change his approach.

Gray argues that the screens may have actually helped to moderate the negative effects of the decline in free play on the mental well-being of young people. It suggests that the rise of collaborative online gaming in the early 2000s coincided with a temporary reversal in the rate of mental health problems among young people. (He believes the widespread adoption of standardized tests, the Common Core, and other changes in American schools caused the number to rise again).

My objection to the book is that it feeds everyone’s prejudices, Gray said. It doesn’t matter that he also says his work, because that’s not what people will pay attention to with this book. The first few chapters are all about social media. This is what will resonate. The book is sold through the screens.

Haidt did not respond to a request for comment.

Swings hung empty at Waites Mill Park in Millis. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a New York-based nonprofit that bills itself as a leader in the children’s independence movement, has been listening to Gray and Haidt debate the relative merits and demerits of video games for months. , and your opinion falls somewhere. between. But she, too, worries that Haidt’s message about gambling isn’t getting the attention it deserves in media coverage of the book.

You can’t take your phones away, he said. You have to give back to children what we have taken from their lives, which is the autonomy to be part of the world without constant supervision.

Skenazy, journalist based in New York and author of the book Children of the free field, gained national attention in 2009 when she wrote a viral column announcing that she had left her 9-year-old son alone at Bloomingdales and allowed him to ride the bus and subway home alone. He teamed up with Gray; Haidt, who had previously written about the psychological fragility of college students; and investor-turned-philanthropist and campus free speech advocate Dan Shuchman to form the nonprofit in 2017.

The organization has been working with schools across the country to form free play clubs that allow children to play uninhibited and phone-free before or after school. He has also been lobbying state lawmakers to pass laws aimed at promoting what he calls reasonable independence for children, protecting parents from negligence and criminal charges for allowing children to ride to school or nearby places by bicycle or walking, playing outdoors or staying alone at home for a reasonable amount of time. Since then, eight states, including Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Virginia, Illinois, Connecticut and Montana, have passed such laws.

In recent years, a growing body of evidence has emerged from scientific laboratories suggesting that free play is not only fun, but a crucial tool for normal development. An indication of its evolutionary importance is its universality. Scientists have observed play, which can be defined as a purposeless activity performed purely for fun, in dogs, cats, monkeys, crocodiles, bears, fish, even spiders and bumblebees. Play, they have shown, allows developing animals to experiment with new abilities, improvise and test their limits and abilities in a safe and secure environment. In humans, it allows children to use their imaginations, express their creativity, and learn to deal with and respond to the unexpected.

Peer play is also important for socialization. It’s how, according to Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, animals learn to behave like a card-carrying member of their species. Play may even be crucial in shaping the developing brain, strengthening neurons that are important and pruning unused ones. In a recent Canadian study, researchers showed that the brains of rats that were raised without play experienced much less pruning in areas of the brain essential for executive functions such as emotional regulation, sociability, motivation and processing cognitive In later years, they lacked impulse control and were unable to respond appropriately to potential mates.

Peter Gray photographed at home.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

To make the case for play clubs, Gray helped design a systematic research study led by Jessica Black, a professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, in New Hampshire elementary schools. Selected schools have pledged to set up a play club, offering an hour of free play to children kindergarten through fifth grade before or after school. Participating children will undergo a variety of psychological tests designed to measure psychological well-being and other metrics. Their results will be compared with a control group of schools without it.

Play is how children naturally develop, Gray said. It’s how they learn to push boundaries and deal with fear, to solve problems and deal with anger, and to get along with playmates. Take that away, and they simply won’t be ready for the stresses of life.

Adam Piore can be reached at

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