Independence and Youth Mental Health: Study


Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Sep 5, 2023

by Katherine Johnson Martinko

“Parents need to think of their children not as helpless creatures that need protection … but as competent individuals.” Dr. David Bjorklund, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and researcher of children’s cognitive development, implores parents to reject an overly protective approach to child-raising in favour of building resilience and independence. And the best way to do this, he says, is through free and autonomous play.

Dr. Bjorklund spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from Boca Raton, Florida. In the video and podcast interview, they discuss a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics for which Bjorklund was a co-author. The study focuses on the value of independent play, and the key role it plays in optimizing child development.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. David Bjorklund is also an author and a researcher. His research focus includes cognitive development in children and evolutionary developmental psychology. Dr. Bjorklund joins us today from Boca Raton, Florida. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. Pleasure. Dr. Bjorklund,
You are the co author of a recent study that appeared in the Journal of Pediatrics focusing on the relationship between independent play or independent activities, and children’s mental health as a starting point, could you take us through the impetus for this study?
Ah, very good question. Well, there are three authors on the study, the lead author is Peter Gray. And Peter is a retired experimental psychologist from from Boston. And he’s got become very interested in educational issues and the role of play. David lancy, is another author, he’s and he is a anthropologist who studied children from an anthropological perspective. And I’m a developmental psychologist who has been interested in the topic of play. And as you said, evolutionary psychology, how our evolutionary past influences our behavior today, and how understanding something about our evolutionary past can help us better understand and maybe do something beneficial with development. And the three of us, the interests of the three of us have overlapped. So we have worked on other projects before. And one common interest we all have is the importance of play in, in development, which is often overlooked. And part of play in this was sort of Peter Gray’s main emphasis emphasis here is the independence it has play as something that children do on their own, they choose to play. And this is very important, not just for play sake, for the sake of play itself. But this gives them autonomy. And so the focus of this article was really autonomy, doing things on their own, at their own initiative, sometimes a little risky, and the effect it has on mental health, play being a very central part of it, but our three interests are overlapped on this. And we got the three of us together to to write this, this article focusing on the role of autonomy, independence, and the common ground is play the importance of play, but extends beyond that plays only one example. But a very important example of children experiencing and exercising autonomy and independence in their their actions, and the consequences it has the often surprisingly important consequences it has.
I’m struck by something you said there with respect to the fact that play is often overlooked. Why do you believe that is?
That’s what kids do, you know, and their kids. The real important stuff happens in adulthood. This is where, you know, the real stage of humanity exists in adults, we are the ones who who do the building who do the the meeting who raised children where, you know, adulthood is very important. And of course it is, but we often see the process of development in children is just got to go through it till they get to adulthood. And it turns out, that’s that’s not a very good way of looking at it. What happens during childhood is important in and of its own self, both for children while they’re doing it, but also for the adults they’re going to become. And as a result, we see in modern culture anyway, play being seen as frivolous. If you take a look at what has been happening in American schools, and this has been happening in European schools, Asian schools, all over the world as well, over the past 40 5060 years. Play has been de emphasized recess has been de emphasizing even when you want to give kids some recessed, let’s give them something that they can learn to do. We’ll give them some, some organized physical education activity. We’ll give them some math games. Why let them waste it on Play? And I think it’s understandable. You know, schools have to have a lot of responsibility for kids. We need to educate children in modern technological culture. And in doing so we’ve we’ve under emphasized play something fruitless something that if we can find something better for them to do, we should do it. And it turns out that’s just the wrong, wrong approach. Not that teaching the three R’s isn’t important. Of course it is. But so is the role of play. So is the role of free play in in children’s development, both in a school context, but especially outside the school context.
What can can you take us through Dr. Bjorklund, some of the key findings of your research?
Well, it started with a look at patterns of changes in independent activity over the past 50 or 60 years, mainly in the US, but also in other parts of the world, certainly Europe and parts of Asia. And when I grew up, when I was a child in the in the 50s, and 60s, had loving parents, you know, they wanted the best for me is all parents do. But I had an awful lot of freedom. I’m looking back on it. Once I became old enough to go out in the neighborhood on my own, which was probably six or seven years of age. There are other kids in the neighborhood, we played our own games, I discovered baseball, ah, ah, and we’d go down across the street across the brook. We’d mow the field so we could play baseball with our own rules. I was I rode my bike about a mile to school. Occasionally, when I was probably eight, nine or 10 years of age, I come home from school, change clothes, have a snack, out in the neighborhood came home at supper, what’s a little homework was done, maybe go out again, in the summertime, you’re back home when the street lights come on. I didn’t realize it but this was the golden age of play for children. A lot of autonomy, a lot of independent activity. Parents cared parents, you know, I got in trouble. If I didn’t come home when the street lights went on. There were certainly rules. And what we’re seeing now is a decrease in this independence. And it’s understandable. But this goes back to probably start in the 60s it really accelerated in the 80s. And there’s a concern about the safety of our children. It’s a nasty world out there we believe you look at the news. And of course it is. If a child gets kidnapped in Portland, Oregon, we know about it in Portland, Maine the same day. And we think it’s a lot closer than it is. Truth is the world is no more dangerous for children today than it was back 50 years ago, we just perceive itself. Some places traffic is a danger. Some neighborhoods are dangerous, there’s no doubt there’s some danger out there. But parents have become very concerned about the safety of their children. And of course, we shouldn’t be as parents. But this extreme emphasis on safety, minimizing the risks that they take, minimizing the chances they get to get hurt or disappointed. causes children to lose opportunities to act independently to have control over important aspects of their life to choose events. And this is we see this across again, the globe. And we see this change occurring over 50 years and sort of accelerated I think, in the last couple of decades. But this is correlated with changes in mental health decreases in mental health. From the 60s and 70s. There are there are surveys that go back this father asking kids pretty much the same sorts of questions over a 50 year period. And we’re seeing just substantial increases in psychopathology mainly anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, suicide ideation, it is really scary the American Pediatric Association, the World Health Organization have a data as identified this this is not just a few crazy Ivory Tower, a psychologist coming up with with these things, but this is a this is a an epidemic. And these two are correlated and we know from a lot of psychological research, anthropological research, that these things are correlated and there is some cause and effect in there at least we certainly suspect there is good psychological theory, some good psychological data to suggest when children have a little more autonomy, a little more feel more in control of their world. They’re able to handle the the slings and arrows of of abuse the hidden life throws us better they can they yes, there’s things to be depressed about. Things to be sad about. Well, we get over it, the things to be anxious about, but we can handle it. And it’s need children need adolescents particularly need their sense of autonomy to develop who they are, and to function well. And it is. I’m not saying we’re not saying this is the cause for the increased depression and anxiety, but it’s seemingly one important cause. And again, we think of very important costs.
As you and your fellow researchers and co authors looked at all of this data over 50 years, as you describe it, what struck you most in terms of that data? In the findings?
Oh, gee, well, I think, before I took a really closer look at it, I just I don’t think I realized the magnitude. These things creep up on you, you know, the increase in psychopathology, I’m not a psycho pathologist. I’m not a clinical psychologist. So I don’t deal with these issues every day. And of course, you realize that children are reporting more anxiety, more depression, you know, that it’s in the news. It’s in the professional papers I read, but it’s, you don’t think too much of it. When you take a look at the large scale of it. The studies of careful studies that have been done, the magnitude of it just really sort of surprised me. This is not a small effect. This is a very large effect. And on top of it, we lately, last 1015 years, we’ve been emphasizing this as doing it’s all due to social media. We want to blame social media on it. I think social media, you know, has some blame. But social media addiction, if you will, you know, it was 10 years old, 15 years old, maybe this effect goes back to the 70s and 80s. You know, the the trend is longer than that. It’s not just kids spending too much time on Instagram. That may be part of it. But it’s a longer term phenomenon.
So along those lines, then what in the current messaging to parents do you believe needs to fundamentally change in order to actively address play independent activity? And its impact on mental health?
Well, that’s a very good question. And I wish I had the simple answer for you. But parents need to think of their children not as helpless creatures that need protection. And of course, they need some protection. But as competent individuals and being given chance to be to show their competence, if you take a look at how parents behaved or view their kids, advice that from Ladies Home Journal and whatnot, the the parenting magazines of the past, children were viewed, you know, 50 6070s is very confident, you know, you want to promote independence, we slowly began to view our children as needing protection. And yes, kids need protection. You know, we don’t, don’t throw your kids out there and defend the world by themselves. But don’t view them as helpless. Give them some opportunities, give them some choice. Kids, in some sense, have a lot of choice. Sometimes kids in modern culture, they eat what they want to eat and dress the way they want to dress. That’s okay. But they still are restricted in where they can go, how much choice they haven’t what they do, and if parents can loosen up a little bit. Now with extreme of course, we have helicopter parents. But most of us are not helicopter parents, all of us worry about our kids. I certainly did when I was a parent of younger children, I worry about my grandchildren. That’s what parents and grandparents grandparents do. But if we can give them more opportunities to make their own choices, to make some of their own mistakes, to let them take a little bit of risks. One of the roles of parenting is to let your children take risks, promote development, your job is to make it get the implements the degree of risk at the right level. You don’t want to push it too much. But we’ve been overly restrictive, try to an end. How can you do this in some communities. In the past decade, parents have been arrested for leaving their children out to walk from home from school alone and no one’s at home and they’re just shooting baskets out in the in the driveway by themselves and neighbor calls and says we’ve got a neglectful parent here, no one’s home to take care of the kid. That’s just extreme. We as a culture have to view children as a little more confident. And can we construct environments for this to happen? Can we AB the the house in the neighborhood where someone is going to be around in the afternoon, but kids are going to be outside playing themselves. And yes, we’re there to take care of anything that goes wrong to keep an eye on things but but let them figure out, you know whose turn it is to bat or, or to pitch the pitch the ball or to get a turn going down the slide before you jump in. Kids can solve their own problems pretty well. Let younger kids and older kids intermix younger, you think this may be prime for bullying, what it usually results in is older kids taking responsibility for younger kids serving his role as teacher, younger kids getting to interact with with older kids and seeing really what it’s like to be a little more, more competent and feeling a little more in control. These seem easy, but they’re really hard things to do. Particularly if you’ve got a neighborhood that isn’t all that safe. Particularly if the you can’t trust the neighbors to be compatible with you have to walk to school, have a bike ride to school is dangerous. It’s not easily done. Maybe work with your schools have more recess have opportunities for free play before school, and after school promote these types of things, schools can play a very important role. It’s not just at home, it’s not just a school. These are things that we can try to do.
Many parents and caregivers who listen to or watch this interview may say, You know what? Everything you’ve said seems reasonable, it makes sense. But how do I determine what is age appropriate for my child, that is a pain point in many families and households, depending on the dynamic, etc, etc. in that in that home? What would be your response to that?
Well, you know, take a class in child development. That’s, that’s not a very sophisticated response there. Take a look what other kids of this age are doing. If you have friends with children, seeing what they’re capable of. Assume your child has maybe a little more competence and you think they have and maybe give them some opportunities we watching very closely. Give them a chance to make mistakes that aren’t going to be too too, too serious. And you can say, okay, we’re pushing this a little bit too much. You really can’t get to make your own tune if your sandwich effectively. This isn’t working out. Let’s take a step backwards. Giving them some opportunities to do chores around the house to do things that are important for the household. Children and this is something that David Lance’s were one of the co authors. He had children around the world Oh, in the late preschool, early school years, four to six years old. He calls it the helper stage kids want to help left them. I think even younger, three, three year old, I’ve been in the kitchen many times, you know making something and you’ve got a toddler there who wants to help. We all know that it’s more work if you let the toddler help. And if you don’t, and I think we tend to say no, go do something else. I’ll get this done. Give them opportunities early on. This will help them develop their skills. It’ll give you an idea of where their abilities are. So you can you can suggest something else for them to do to understand what a child’s competencies are is what the doubt developmental level is you need to work with your kid you need to to give them opportunities, assess them and, and then then try the next step up.
What do you hope will happen with the results and the findings of this study as we move forward, both in the short term and in the long term?
Well, in the short term, I hope shows like this will get the message out to a lot of parents. We wrote this in the Journal of Pediatrics. So we hope that pediatricians some pediatricians get the message, and are able to advocate to their parents and have children. Give them some opportunities to encourage them have a little more autonomy. We hope this gets in the big picture. It’s a little grandiose to change society’s views we do see changes in societal views this one article is not going to do it. But in writing this paper we noticed other scholarly and not so scholarly. People are writing on this topic as well. We’re not alone in this. This may be a minority position right now. But there are other people who are promoting these ideas as well, many of them working in schools, to encourage principals and teachers to give children more opportunities for free play, for example, to make some of the decisions themselves a little more autonomy. There are a lot of things parents can do. Their parents are always looking for after school opportunities for their kids are often do these opportunities afford some independence. I was never a big joiner as a kid. But something that I think was important. I was I was in Boy Scouts for a little bit. It’s now just called scouts, boys and girls can can join it in something like scouts. Yes, it’s guided. But this mastery is part of it, you get your merit badges, you master it. And it’s not someone just teaching you things, you’ve got to sort of work in them yourselves. The older scouts work with the younger scouts, something like that. I’m not advocate and advocate for Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts per se, but some kinds of activities where it’s not just an adult telling a child exactly what to do. But giving children opportunities to do things themselves, maybe with other children coordinating with one another to get a job done. How do you put up a tent? You know, it’s, it’s not an easy thing to do. But if you’ve got an older child with little experience and younger kids learning from it and working on it, these are ways of building mastery building competence. Competence is another step, step with it. Autonomy is one thing but you want to feel confident. And you want to also have these interactions with other people, building good relationships, they all go together. Autonomy is a certainly important part of it. These things happen in play, you play with other other children, people your own age younger, a little bit older, and you develop competence in some in certain skills, some of which are going to be directly related to, to what you use as an adult. And others are just related to what you what’s important in childhood right now. But it gives you confidence.
We are certainly both in North America around the world, you know, across the globe at a very critical point. When we talk about youth mental health issues. You know, a global epidemic in and of itself, anxiety and depression are at all time highs in the United States, and certainly in many other countries. So what would what will happen in your estimation, Dr. Bjorklund, if we don’t actively address this, in the short term, given all of these statistics, some of which you alluded to? What can we plausibly expect to happen if it’s not addressed?
Well, I hate to be overly negative about this. But anxious malade maladjusted adolescents and children grow up to be maladjusted adults. And having good mental health, including loneliness is a big factor in in a lot of societies and, and this can contribute to depression in whatnot, loneliness, there’s a lot of reasons for it. But some of it is just not developing good social skills, not knowing how to make friends, not being able to keep an intimate partner, because you just don’t haven’t developed these skills. I’m not saying that free play, more free play when you when you’re five or six years of age is going to be a cure all. But if we don’t address the mental health crisis we’re seeing now in children and adolescents. We’re going to continue facing it in the future. And we’re going to be dealing with more and more adults who are having difficulty coping with a more and more complex world and the world is getting more and more complex. You know, I know exactly what the future is, is going to be for us in another 3040 50 years. Part of it is the world is changing drastically right now. Climate change, of course, and how we’re going to adjust to it. But the new technologies AI everyone is buzzing about this now since chat GPT came out came around. These issues have been around for for some years. We don’t know what the job market is going to be. We expect that children today are going to grow up to have to be adults who are going to have various jobs, not going to just have one occupation, but they’re going to change them from time to time because technology changes. We need to educate children so they can be flexible. He educates us so that can be critical thinkers. Part of this we think anyway, is developing greater autonomy, greater confidence in oneself, greater mental health now. I try to be optimistic about the future. But are we out are in a period of radical change, not just for our society, but for our species. Some people, whether they’re right or wrong, are comparing the changes that may be happening in most cultures in the next several decades to the changes that occurred for the Industrial Revolution back a couple 100 years ago, and you want to go back to the agricultural revolution, and 12,000 years ago, but it’s happening much faster now. And we need well adjusted, critical thinking adults to handle this and to do this, we need to raise children who are well adjusted themselves and have a sense of control and autonomy and good self worth.
Dr. David Bjorklund professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, we thank you for your time and your perspective today.
Oh, yeah, thank you very much. It’s been my pleasure.

“What happens during childhood is important in and of its own self, both for children while they’re doing it, but also for the adults they’re going to become.” Bjorklund, who has four kids and 14 grandchildren, says we take the “wrong approach” when we view play as frivolous and allow it to become de-emphasized in a child’s life. Nor should play always be turned into something educational or organized by adults.

While Bjorklund acknowledges that social media has not helped children’s mental health, he thinks that decreasing autonomy and independence since the 1970s and ‘80s has been a far greater blow to their well-being. It is the opposite of what they need: “When children have a little more autonomy [and] feel more in control of their world, they’re able to handle the slings and arrows of abuse [that] life throws at us… Adolescents particularly need their sense of autonomy to develop who they are, and to function well.”

Take play away, and there are serious psychological consequences: “We’re seeing substantial increases in psychopathology—mainly anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, suicide ideation. It is really scary… This is an epidemic.”

Bjorklund also expresses concern that lack of free play fails to prepare children for a rapidly changing world. “We need to educate children so they can be flexible… so that [they] can be critical thinkers. Part of this is developing greater autonomy, greater confidence in oneself, greater mental health now.” And it all starts with play.

In his conversation with Where Parents Talk, Bjorklund also discusses:

  • Other findings from the research study
  • How parents can take age-appropriate actions to encourage autonomy in kids
  • What he thinks will happen if mental health issues are not resolved
  • How mixed-age play benefits children

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