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The Decline of Play And Rise In Children’s Mental Disorders

In the last 50 to 70 years the levels of adolescent anxiety in America have been gradually growing. Today at least some figures indicate that five to eight times as many high school students as half a century ago match the clinical requirements for severe anxiety disorder.

The enhanced psychopathology isn’t the product of modified diagnostic parameters, but also with consistent tests and standards.

The new evidence for the rapid generational increase in anxiety , and other mental disorders among young people comes from a newly published study at San Diego State University led by Jean Twenge.

Twenge and her colleagues took advantage of the fact that the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index (MMPI), a questionnaire used to measure a variety of mental disorders, was given. We would like to think of it as progress, but if success is measured in young people’s mental wellbeing and happiness, then we have been moving backwards since at least the early 1950s. The problem that I want to pose here is why.

The increased psychopathology, in the wider world, appears to have little to do with practical risks and uncertainties. The shifts are not associated with economic cycles, conflicts, or any of the other kinds of global events that people sometimes speak of as influencing the mental states of children. During it, WW II, the Cold W and the tumultuous 1960s and early ’70s, the levels of anxiety among children and adolescents were much lower than they are today. The shifts appear to have much more to do with how youth view the world than they do with the way the world really is.

Young People Lose Their Sense Of Control

One thing we know about anxiety is they greatly associate with people’s sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. People who think they are responsible for their own destiny are less likely to become anxious than those who feel they are sufferer of circumstances outside their control. You would think that over the last few decades the sense of personal power has increased. Significant progress has been made in our ability to prevent and cure diseases; the old biases that have limited people’s choices because of ethnicity, gender and the average individual is wealthier than they have been in decades.

A questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s, called the Internal-External Control Scale Locus, is the standard measure of sense of control. The questionnaire contains 23 pairs of claims. One argument in each pair represents belief in an internal control locus (individual control) and the other represents belief in an external control locus (individual control circumstances). The person taking the test will have to determine which statement is truer in each pair. For example one pair is as follows:

(A) I realised that what is going to happen was going to happen.
(B) Trusting in fate never turned out to be as successful for me as choosing to take a definite course of action.
In this case, selection (a) is an external control locus and (b) is an internal control locus.
Many studies over the years have shown that people who scor towards the Internal End of Rotter’s scale do better in life than those who scor towards the External End.

They are more likely to get good jobs they enjoy, take care of their health, and play active roles in their communities—and are less likely to become anxious. Twenge and her collaborators evaluated the findings of several previous studies using Rotter ‘s Scale for Youth from 1960 to 2002 in a research study published a few years ago.[3] They found that average scores changed significantly during this time — for children aged 9 to 14, as well as for college students.

Shift Towards Intrinsic Goals

Twenge’s own hypothesis is that the generational rises in anxiety are due to a change from “intrinsic” to “extrinsic” goals. Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own growth as a person — such as being successful in one’s chosen interests and cultivating a positive life philosophy.

Extrinsic motives, on the other hand, are those which have to do with material incentives and decisions of other people. They include high-income goals, status and good looks.

Twenge cites evidence that today’s young people are, on average, more oriented towards extrinsic goals and less focused towards inherent goals than in the past. For instance, an annual college freshmen poll shows that most students today list “being financially well off” as more important to them than “developing a positive philosophy of life”—the reverse was true in the 1960s and 1970s. The change to extrinsic targets could well be causally related to the move to an external control locus.

We have far less personal influence over extrinsic goal accomplishment than intrinsic goals. I can certainly develop my skills through personal initiative, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get rich. Twenge argues that the change from intrinsic to extrinsic aspirations is a general move to a materialism society, conveyed by television and other media. Young people are exposed to advertising and other messages from birth which mean that happiness depends on good looks, popularity and material goods.

My guess is that Twenge is at least partly right in this, but I would propose another explanation, which I think is far more important and fundamental: my theory is that generational rises in externality, extrinsic aspirations, anxiety are all largely triggered by the decline in free play opportunities and increased time and wei over the same period.

How the decrease in free play may have resulted in a decline in influence and in intrinsic goals and a rise in anxiety

As I pointed out here and here — and as others have pointed out in recent famous books — in recent decades, the freedom of children to play and experiment on their own, regardless of overt instruction and direction from adults, has deteriorated greatly.

Historically, free play and discovery are the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, to manage their own lives, to grow their own interests and to become confident to follow their own interests. This was the theme of many of my preceding articles.

In reality, play is action regulated and directed by the players by definition; and play, by definition, is aimed at intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals. By depriving children of opportunities to play by themselves, free from overt oversight and influence of adults, we deprive them of opportunities to learn how to take care of their own lives. We may think we ‘re protecting them, but in reality we ‘re decreasing their happiness, decreasing their sense of self-control, keeping them from finding and enjoying the activities they ‘d enjoy most, and raising their chances of suffering from anxiety and other disorders.

How Compulsory Schooling deprives young people of personal influence, guides them towards extrinsic goals, and encourages

Throughout the same half-century or more that free play has deteriorated, school and school-like events (such as school lessons and adult-driven sports) have gradually increased in popularity.

Today , children spend more hours a day, days a year and years of their school life than ever before. Tests and ratings get more weight than ever. Outside the classroom, children spend more time than ever in environments where adults guide, defend, serve, rate, judge and reward them.

Adults are in charge of all of these environments and not kids. In school , children soon learn that their own choices of activities and their own assessments of competence do not count; what counts are the choices and judgments made by the teachers. Teachers aren’t absolutely predictable: you can study hard and yet get a bad grade because you haven’t found out exactly what the teacher expected you to study or correctly guess what questions he or she was asking. In the minds of the vast majority of students the target in class is not competence but good grades.

Given a choice between really studying a subject and having an A, without hesitation the vast majority of students will prefer the latter. That is valid at all levels of the education process , at least up to the graduate school level. That’s not students fault; that’s our fault. That is the way we set it up. Our system of continuous school assessment and evaluation — which is becoming more stronger with each passing year — is a system that very simply replaces intrinsic incentives and goals with extrinsic ones.

It’s built almost to cause anxiety

School is also an environment where kids have no choice in whom to interact with. They ‘re herded into spaces packed with other kids they haven’t selected, and they have to spend a good portion of the school day in that room. Kids who feel insulted should leave the situation in free play and find another group which is more compatible; they can’t do that in school. If the teased are other students or teachers (which is all too common), typically the child has no choice but to face those people day after day.

A few years ago, in 6th to 12th grade, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter conducted a study of happiness and unhappiness in public school students. Each of 828 participants, from 33 different schools in 12 different communities around the country, wore a special wristwatch for a week, scheduled to transmit a random signal between 7:30 am and 10:30 pm.

Any time the signal went off, participants completed a questionnaire showing where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment.

The lowest levels of satisfaction by far (surprise, surprise) occurred while children were in school, and the highest rates occurred when they were out of school and conversing with peers or playing. Time spent with parents dropped halfway through the period. Average happiness rose on weekends, but then plummeted through the evening from late Sunday afternoon, in anticipation of the coming school week. We have come to the conclusion as a society that children have to spend that quantities of time in the very environment where they least want to be. The cost of that faith, as measured by our children’s happiness and mental health, is high.

Another Way

Anyone who genuinely looks at the experiences of Sudbury students modelling democratic schools and of non-schoolers — where independence, play, and self-directed discovery prevail — knows there’s another way. We don’t have to make children nuts to get them taught. Provided the independence and opportunity, young people are educating themselves without pressure. They do so with joy, and develop core values, personal self-control, and emotional well-being in the process.

That is the overarching theme in this blog for the entire series of essays. It’s time to take an honest look at culture. In my last post I invited readers to submit their self-directed education storeys and many of you replied. The invitation is still available, but promptly answer please. In the next few weeks I’ll post essays on how kids learn to read through their self-directed play and exploration, how and why they learn math, and how they grow special interests and skills that ultimately lead to careers.

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