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  • Writer's pictureErin

The loneliness epidemic & how we're making it worse

This blog post is part two of a series. If you'd like some context, please read part one first :)

A new study came out just last year that showcased a new theory regarding the teen mental health crisis we face today. You might be surprised to find that it has nothing to do with technology or social media use (although that is still a prime suspect for the problems teens face).

This video demonstrates a phenomenon that I believe we have collectively noticed, but have done little to question or solve. It's hard for me as an early Gen Z to put myself in the category of children who were raised with such rigid restrictions, but the overarching study shows that this is not at all a new issue. The mental health crisis of teens set off alarm bells for our society as early as the late 2000's, right around when I was entering middle school. Around the same time, I began to spend much less time outside, climbing trees and following my cat around, instead trading that behavior for tending to my brand new Facebook account and playing Sims.

That change is just scratching the surface, though. My mother grew up in my hometown, and would always regale my family with stories about snow days where the kids would walk up to the snowed-over main road, right where it sloped down into a steep hill, and spend all day sledding and dodging the rare commuter car. During the summer, she would adventure in grown-up backwoods by the river with her friends - one time even discovering an abandoned canoe and restoring it for new use. Though my reaction to these stories was always to ask "why can't we do that now?" I believe the true answer was a lot more complicated than she could have explained.

I was raised in the era of "stranger danger" PSAs and the rapid decline of third places accessible to the average American. It was no longer safe to walk along that steep main road, for fear of trespassing through private property or walking without marked spaces or crosswalks. Once I were to get into town, who's to say I wouldn't be apprehended by an unfamiliar, ill-intentioned passerby? Because of the fears instilled into new parents in the 80's and 90's, very few kids today will experience the same adventurous social freedom that my mother did. Sure, tech addiction may be the main culprit for why kids are no longer defaulting to playing outside, but the thought of sending a preteen out to the basketball court to meet up with friends, or to let them play and roam "until the street lights come on" is all but unthinkable for most parents now.

Despite what the reasons for this may be, I think it's crucial to understand by limiting independent outdoor play so severely, we are killing our children's self-confidence.

An empty red swing set on a child's playground

Here's the glimmer of hope, and the reason I wanted to write about this: I recently gave my AP students an argumentative prompt on this exact study. It read:

A recent study (2023) has shown that a decline in independent activity for young children in the past several decades has led to a corresponding decline in mental well-being as they age. Independent activities are defined in this study mainly as “unaccompanied time for play, exploration, and learning, with an emphasis on natural and outdoor settings, without adult intervention.” 

While many are concerned that this is a major cause of the modern mental health crisis, others hesitate to allow young children fully unmonitored time without several restrictions for fear of their physical health and safety. In your essay, assess whether the rigidity of childrens independent play should be reconsidered.

Aside from this prompt, my students and I have been spending much of the school year assessing trends in modern society and culture. We've discussed whether our current educational systems are working, if our government's fears around the "obesity epidemic" are justified, and if our current practices of surveillance and data tracking have gone too far - just to name a few. I've been astonished and pleasantly surprised, at times, by their thoughtfulness in considering these issues. But this most recent argument essay revealed an even stronger sense of curiosity and yearning than I had yet seen from them. They felt much like I did in hearing my mom retell all of her childhood stories. They felt that they had missed out on something great, too.

Many of their (and my) ideas of what that utopian childhood must have looked and felt like surely comes from nostalgic movies like The Sandlot, or books like Bridge to Terabithia - fictional pieces that work well because they capitalized on the best parts of being a child, without mentioning that their protagonists existed in environments that kept them safe. In reality, with all that freedom certainly came with risk. Some of the elements from the "stranger danger" campaigns were absolutely warranted, and came with beneficial advice for any naïve young person trying to navigate a scary world. Not all kids live in environments where safe independent play is possible, nor did the kids of my mom's generation. Leslie still drowned in her solo venture to Terabithia.

But these complexities cannot negate what the studies are now showing us, and that is the reality of the loneliness epidemic: kids who are unable or severely limited in their ability to play and explore without constant adult supervision grow up to be less confident in themselves, more anxious, and much more likely to develop an external locus of control - in other words, they rely on outside forces to control their life and surroundings and likewise blame those outside forces when things go wrong for them. If these kids are always under adult watch, they have likely never had to solve a longer-lasting problem on their own or think critically about next steps in their decision-making.

Specifically relevant to our conversation around the loneliness epidemic, heavily-supervised children never learn that they can rely on peers similar in age for sincere help and charity. That will have come pretty much exclusively from the adults in their life. Piling on the messaging that the outside world is scary and largely unsafe from the likes of campaigns like "stranger danger" and sides of the internet children probably shouldn't see in the first place instills a core belief that people, places and things they don't know cannot be trusted. If a child grows up with this narrative, why would they ever be interested in exploring on their own? They've been conditioned for a life of distrust and skepticism. It makes complete sense that these studies are finding connections in the mental health crisis and this style of upbringing.

So what can we do, besides hope that the pendulum will start to swing back in favor of letting kids off their leashes a little? I think the first solution lies in the yearning my students and their greater peers demonstrate when speaking about this topic. They want a life that doesn't revolve around social media. They want to experience unbridled freedom within a container of safety - and that does not equate to supervision, but rather to trust. They want to be able to test their abilities and limits at an age-appropriate time. Most of all, they want to not be coddled.

It will take a lot to move the needle of our current practices toward something that mimics that utopian childhood we've all imagined, that many of our mothers have told us about. It's not likely that we will completely eradicate heavy technology use for our children, but it is promising that most of my juniors agree that social media platforms should start heavily enforcing age restrictions. They see that something is deeply wrong. It's not likely that all parents will feel the world is safe enough to let their children roam it freely, but it speaks volumes that quality research is being done to show the benefits of their practiced independence.

Perhaps the pendulum is already swinging.

I think it's worthwhile to build more potential energy for this societal change. Some small ways we can all do this, even if we are not parents, are to allow the kids in our life to engage with the outdoors in meaningful ways and set up boundaries for when technology use is appropriate and when it is not. Hold them to higher standards and allow them to see what benefits there are in putting their attention elsewhere. Of course, if you have kids or regularly supervise them, try for a more hands-off approach, let them do their thing and think on their own, and see what happens. You'll likely be surprised at what they can accomplish on their on or with the help of a friend their age.

If you don't have kids in your life but want to encourage more independence and self-confidence, it might be worthwhile to practice some of the activities mentioned in these studies - namely, "playing" by yourself. Though playtime in adulthood looks a little different, there are endless possibilities in exploring it (just be sure to put the phone away as you partake). How does it feel? What do you notice yourself thinking about or experiencing as you do this? Is it strange in any way? Unfamiliar?

Perhaps this leads into deeper self-reflection: What limitations were put on your freedom as a kid, and do you think it shaped your world view? Were you allowed to make your own decisions and explore as you wished, or were you quite limited? How much trust was allotted to you, and when? Did you have to earn it? Do others have to now earn yours?

Though it all may seem like a pretty niche corner of society to put our focus on, I find it quite compelling that there is finally more to the complex puzzle of the mental health crisis we face than what we've been pinning it down to for so long. There are many more sides to the story, and many more stones to uncover. This is the latest, but I believe could be a very large, component to investigate in further, and hopefully to invest more resources into as a solution.

Hopefully, it will lead to a happier collective culture in the near future.


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