Skip to main content

Between 1960 and 2000, anxiety and depression among young people in the U.S. increased between five- and eight-fold. Youth independence also declined in that period. Did one cause the other?

Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, is the lead author of a literature review on this question. He spoke with Harvard Public Health about his findings.

Why study this topic?

The paper addresses the fact that the decline in mental health among young people is not new; this has been going on now for decades.

We have here a correlation—a decline in mental health and also a decline in children’s independent activities—and so then the burden of the paper is, what is the evidence … that the decline of independent activity is a cause of the rise of mental health disorders among young people?

What did you find?

Several studies showed children who structured their own activities independently have higher social abilities, have greater ability to control their emotions, and greater problem-solving ability; others showed that young adults who were more closely managed by their parents while growing up have more psychological problems in college and are faring worse by a number of different measures. Still another line of evidence is that adults who reported the most adventurous independent play in their childhood are also, by various measures, doing the best as adults. They show greater flexibility, greater adaptability, greater resilience, more friends, and more capability to manage the stresses of life.

What would you like to see happen based on the study’s results?

I am working with Let Grow and the National Institute for Play to bring this evidence to the awareness of pediatricians, who have direct contact with parents. Our hope is that we can convince pediatricians and family practitioners to talk with parents about the value of independent play.

—Jina Moore Ngarambe

(Literature review in The Journal of Pediatrics, February 2023)

Have an idea for a Snapshot? Send it to

Filed under