Why are Kids so Miserable?

March 23, 2016

“Something in modern life is undermining mental health,” Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, wrote in a recent paper.

Specifically, something is undermining young people’s mental health, especially girls.

In her paper, Twenge looks at four studies covering 7 million people, ranging from teens to adults in the US. Among her findings: high school students in the 2010s were twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues than those in the 1980s; more teens struggled to remember things in 2010-2012 compared to the earlier period; and 73% more reported trouble sleeping compared to their peers in the 1980s. These so-called “somatic” or “of-the-body” symptoms strongly predict depression.

“It indicates a lot of suffering,” Twenge told Quartz.

It’s not just high school students. College students also feel more overwhelmed; student health centers are in higher demand for bad breakups or mediocre grades, issues that previously did not drive college kids to seek professional help. While the number of kids who reported feeling depressed spiked in the 1980s and 1990s, it started to fall after 2008. It has started rising again:

Kids are being diagnosed with higher levels of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and everyone aged 6-18 is seeking more mental health services, and more medication.

The trend is not a uniquely American phenomena: In the UK, the number of teenagers (15-16) with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s and a recent survey found British 15-year-olds were among the least happy teenagers in the world (those in Poland and Macedonia were the only ones who were more unhappy).

“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,” Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, wrote in Psychology Today.

What’s going on?

Researchers have a raft of explanations for why kids are so stressed out, from a breakdown in family and community relationships, to the rise of technology and increased academic stakes and competition. Inequality is rising and poverty is debilitating.

Twenge has observed a notable shift away from internal, or intrinsic goals, which one can control, toward extrinsic ones, which are set by the world, and which are increasingly unforgiving.

Gray has another theory: kids aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore.

“Children today are less free than they have ever been,” he told Quartz. And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll, he says.

“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,” he wrote.

What’s so great about play?

If play seems trivial, it’s not. Play is brain-building for babies and young children. There is a sequence of how children develop, from the moral and emotional to the social and intellectual, says Dr. Ellen Littman, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Understanding Girls with AD/HD. Each phase requires building certain muscles, whether to do math, or make a friend.

“There is a developmental sequence and you can’t violate it all that much,” Littman told Quartz .

For example, circle time in preschool is not about learning the alphabet or mastering Old MacDonald as much as it is learning to be part of a group, mastering the art of taking turns, and starting to listen.

But preschool is increasingly about preparing kids for kindergarten, which itself used to be about play, but now operates more like first grade. Kids are expected to sit for longer and focus on more academic tasks, relegating play to recess. According to Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, in 1998, 30% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was at 80%.

“They can do math in first grade, but they are not attuned to subtle social cues,” Littman says. “They are not developing the normal skills that come from interacting with play, including how to manage their emotions.”

Gray agrees. Playing—unstructured time, with rules set by the kids (no adults acting as referee)—is how kids learn independence, problem-solving, social cues, and bravery. Now, parents jump in to to solve the playground kerfuffle, spot with eagle eyes the dangers of tall trees and steep hills, and fail to let kids have any independence for fear they will be abducted or hit by a car.

“Where do children learn to control their own lives? When adults aren’t around to do it for you,” he said.

“If you don’t have the opportunity to experience life on your own, to deal with the stressors of life, to learn in this context of play where you are free to fail, the world is a scary place,” he say.

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