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The Decline of Play and Rise in Children's Mental Disorders

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Excerpts from Free to Learn

Video: How Children Learn Through Self-Directed Play and Exploration

Students of Soc.Stds(Couns) will find this useful in relation to Module 4 on Education.

Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children�۪s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults. This article documents these historical changes and contends that the decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people. Play functions as the major means by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.

The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents Peter Gray, Ph.D..

Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition). He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focus primarily on children's natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.

Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.

The most recent evidence for the sharp generational rise in young people's depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders comes from a just-released study headed by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University.[1] Twenge and her colleagues took advantage of the fact that the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a questionnaire used to assess a variety of mental disorders, has been given to large samples of college students throughout the United States going as far back as 1938, and the MMPI-A (the version used with younger adolescents) has been given to samples of high school students going as far back as 1951. The results are consistent with other studies, using a variety of indices, which also point to dramatic increases in anxiety and depression���in children as well as adolescents and young adults���over the last five or more decades.

We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s.

The question I want to address here is why?

The increased psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children's mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ���70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than with the way the world actually is.

One thing we know about anxiety and depression is that they correlate significantly with people's sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. You might think that the sense of personal control would have increased over the last several decades. Real progress has occurred in our ability to prevent and treat diseases; the old prejudices that limited people's options because of race, gender, or sexual orientationhave diminished; and the average person is wealthier than in decades past. Yet the data indicate that young people's belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades.

The standard measure of sense of control is a questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. The questionnaire consists of 23 pairs of statements. One statement in each pair represents belief in an Internal locus of control (control by the person) and the other represents belief in an External locus of control (control by circumstances outside of the person). The person taking the test must decide which statement in each pair is more true. One pair, for example, is the following:

In this case, choice (a) represents an External locus of control and (b) represents an Internal locus of control.

Many studies over the years have shown that people who score toward the Internal end of Rotter's scale fare better in life than do those who score toward the External end.[2] They are more likely to get good jobs that they enjoy, take care of their health, and play active roles in their communities���and they are less likely to become anxious or depressed.

In a research study published a few years ago, Twenge and her colleagues analyzed the results of many previous studies that used Rotter's Scale with young people from 1960 through 2002.[3] They found that over this period average scores shifted dramatically���for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students���away from the Internal toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter's scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.

It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of Externality (and decline of Internality) is causally related to the rise in anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: "Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it." When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: "There is no use trying; I'm doomed."

Twenge's own theory is that the generational increases in anxiety and depression are related to a shift from "intrinsic" to "extrinsic" goals.[1] Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one's own development as a person���such as becoming competent in endeavors of one's choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that have to do with material rewards and other people's judgments. They include goals of high income, status, and good looks. Twenge cites evidence that young people today are, on average, more oriented toward extrinsic goals and less oriented toward intrinsic goals than they were in the past. For example, a annual poll of college freshmen shows that most students today list "being well off financially" as more important to them than "developing a meaningful philosophy of life"���the reverse was true in the 1960s and 1970s.[4]

The shift toward extrinsic goals could well be related causally to the shift toward an External locus of control. We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. I can, through personal effort, quite definitely improve my competence, but that doesn't guarantee that I'll get rich. I can, through spiritualpractices or philosophical delving, find my own sense of meaning in life, but that doesn't guarantee that people will find me more attractive or lavish praise on me. To the extent that my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals I can control my emotional wellbeing. To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others' judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state.

Twenge suggests that the shift from intrinsic to extrinsic goals represents a general shift toward a culture of materialism, transmitted through television and other media. Young people are exposed from birth to advertisements and other messages implying that happiness depends on good looks, popularity, and material goods. My guess is that Twenge is at least partly correct on this, but I will suggest a further cause, which I think is even more significant and basic: My hypothesis is that the generational increases in Externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by the decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.

As I pointed out here and here���and as others have pointed out in recent popular books[5]���children's freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests. This has been the theme of many of my previous posts. (See, for example, the series of posts on "The Value of Play.") In fact, play, by definition, is activity controlled and directed by the players; and play, by definition, is directed toward intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals

By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.