Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago.

A 2010 study, by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, shows a rise in anxiety and depression amongst our youth over the past 50-70 years. Results are based on a questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale, which have been tabulated over time showing today’s youth feeling they have less control (External locus of control) over their lives, versus more control (Internal locus) of their lives, as did participants dating as far back as 1951. The rise in the number of youth testing with an external locus of control follows the same increases seen over the decades in anxiety and depression.

Twenge’s own theory is that the generational increases in anxiety and depression are related to a shift from “intrinsic” to “extrinsic” goals. Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person—such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments. They include goals of high income, status, and good looks. Twenge cites evidence that young people today are, on average, more oriented toward extrinsic goals and less oriented toward intrinsic goals than they were in the past.

While Twenge believe’s the cause of our rise in anxiety and depression to be the shift from intrinsic to extrinsic goals, the author of this article in Psychology Today believes there to be a correlation to the amount of free play allowed our children and the increased time and weight given to schooling. Peter Gray believes that it is in play that we learn to make decisions and solve problems, absence of this freedom creates an uncertainty in youth and adults which leads to an external control belief, making us more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.

During the same half-century or more that free play has declined, school and school-like activities (such as lessons out of school and adult-directed sports) have risen continuously in prominence. Children today spend more hours per day, days per year, and years of their life in school than ever before. More weight is given to tests and grades than ever. Outside of school, children spend more time than ever in settings in which they are directed, protected, catered to, ranked, judged, and rewarded by adults. In all of these settings adults are in control, not children.

Read the full article on Psychology Today