Here I discuss evidence related to various theories about this huge increase in suicide rate and conclude that decline in kids' freedom to be kids was the major cause.
One of the things that was different between the early internet and the later one was the primitive graphics of the early internet. The early internet was largely for readers. The later internet was largely for viewers. Reading, and listening to stories stimulates your imagination. You have to imagine your fictional world in order to partake of it. Books, and early internet games relies on 'the willing suspension of disbelief'. If you didn't engage with the world, you thought 'this book is boring' or something and stopped reading it.
Things changed as 'the attention economy' became a thing. Things were no longer left to the imagination, and that aspect of play was neglected in the favour of games and activities which were hard to put down. A friend of mine, who was a child psychologist since the 1970s, sadly now deceased, and whose specialty was children who had undergone trauma -- not abuse, in particular, but more of car accidents, earthquakes, having a close relative die -- and who were having a hard time getting over it. She said that early in her career, if you had a child who had difficulty imagining things in your office, this was likely to be a symptom of depression, and you had to look around and see if you could find a root cause of the depression, which might not be the earthquake or what have you that the child was having problems with. And a great many children other had problems precisely because they were so imaginative -- they could imagine so many, many, many things that could go wrong as part of an earthquake and felt oppressed by all the things that were out of control that didn't happen as much as those that were out of control and did.
At the end of her career she was treating more children whom, she thought, had 'lack of imagination' not caused by some sort of trauma she needed to discover, but simply because they were 'normally' unimaginative. Their imaginations were strongly constrained into imagining 'what it is that the adults want me to think and do' so they could obey them more effectively, and weren't available to help them 'imagine their way out of their own problems' or 'think about ways that this could be better'. They had managed to trade obedience for creativity, and the result was not good for them as soon as 'being obedient' became impossible or unsatisfactory.
Do we have any ongoing tests of creativity with results for the time period? It's hard to know whether this is a problem with children in general or with her patients, who are by definition a self-selected set without some sort of standardised testing.
I’m a longtime fan of your work, Dr. Gray, and am so grateful for all you’re doing to bring awareness to the losses in freedom kids have been enduring over the years.
I’m guessing that the 1990 drop might be related to changes in parenting. 1990 teens were likely to be the products of homes where more mothers had returned to work. Teens of the ‘80s (I was one) and the early ‘90s are often referred to as “latchkey” kids and those parents are often now called “neglectful.” (I don’t agree with that as a blanket assessment.) However, there’s no doubt that kids in that era had much more freedom in their lives than the kids to come.
The societal pressures around parenting began to change in the late ‘90s with the rise of the parenting “expert” and that got intensified with the rise of the internet in the early 2000s. Parents were suddenly told they could not trust their intuition and they needed to listen to experts—and the experts were pushing a more intensive style of parenting. Combine that with losses of freedom in education after the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, competitiveness over college admissions which rose in the early 2000s, fears over youth safety that began in the late ‘80s and only intensified over time, the rise of for-profit youth sports and test prep and tutoring companies, etc. and parents were suddenly getting the message that childhood was basically preparation for adulthood. Youth freedoms, as you’ve long been pointing out, we’re being stripped away from all sides.
I want to point out that I don’t blame parents for this rise in “intensive parenting.” They’re being bombarded with messages that if they don’t push their kids to succeed, the kids will fail. They are also not being supported in their abilities to trust their intuition as parents.
(Can you tell I’m working on a book about this?)
All of these things happened earlier than 2010 however. Why the delay? Because it took that long for these kids to reach their teenage years. And that’s when we started seeing the effects.
Your choice of "constraints on independent activity theory" is at least quite descriptive, and any serious researcher will see what the issue is. There is a reason we don't generally use words like "imprisonment", and that is because its difficult to think clearly when feeling a sense of outrage. Mostly I just want to thank you here for your consistent efforts to think clearly and speak clearly about these matters. Its something that I decided, years ago, that I was just not cut out for. Too stressful.
I just wanted to say, I read quite a few Substacks, and this one has quickly become among my favorites. Great balance of data but also interpretation, focused on important but neglected questions, and clear/concise writing! Thank you for this gift
Perhaps there is a connection between boy suicide rate, and how accepting the society is of the image of "traditional" masculinity.
One thing that was different during the 80s' and early to mi 90s' was that during the Reagan/Bush years, the popular culture was infused with testosterone fueled imagery -- think Stalone, Schwartzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, etc. -- and all those stories and characters presented traditional masculinity in a positive way. Perhaps boys that grew up in that time period saw themselves as more normal, and more belonging into this world. As a consequence they had a better mental image of themselves and the reduction of suicide rates followed.
This time period of roughly 20 years is hemmed-in on both sides by 2nd and 3rd wave feminism, respectively. Both of these movements had enormous influence on our society, and on our popular culture. Consequently, they influenced how masculinity is both viewed by society and how it is presented in art. Needless to say, neither movement views masculinity in a positive light. The distaste for "traditional" men can be easily observed in the popular cultural "products" (TV shows, movies, etc). More recently, the cultural rhetoric has gone so far to call masculinity outright "toxic". Essentially portraying most men as somewhat damaged or "ill".
It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that a boy growing up in a society that apparently rejects his very essence would develop a negative mental image of himself, and would think he does not belong into this world (leading to higher suicide rates).
It would be interesting to see a graph showing teen suicide rates, overlayed directly with:
A. Divorce rate
B. Percentage or number of single parent families
C. Percentage or number of kids living in households without a father
One theory to the decrease in suicide in the 1990s is possibly the mainstream of anti-depressants.
We were blind to the Child abuse by the GOP blocking the Child Tax Credit and before that the Child abuse by the Quack Catholic Priest Child Molesters and before that the Child abuse by the Quack Shrinks.... WHOOPS! WE'RE STILL BLIND TO THE 89% OF AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGISTS THAT REFUSE TO USE FAST ACTING SCIENCE... resulting in....
"Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 18 countries"* yet I can't find one American that acknowledges the "Annual American Holocaust"(in 2018 there were plans to kill 6 million Americans... by suicide)**
Do you know anyone that has a "sustainable curiosity"*** in our (New Nader's Raiders') successful legal "checks and balances" on the government's refusal to RAPIDLY DISBAR authorities that don't test nor past the licensing test?
Sincerely, Power Corrupts
***Where "sustainable curiosity" is defined as the MINIMAL INITIATIVE required to send a weekly or monthly text or email:"How is it going?"😁
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Good article, i may add that a part of the taking away of “freedom” of children and adolescents could be the onset of huge diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and the millions of prescriptions of adderal and other ADD meds. It suppresses personality, activity, brain function, and basically flatlines the beauty of the active, growing, inquisitive minds of children. I was told my son, who is 30 now, should be on these meds since he was hyperactive, intelligent, talkative, etc. but I would never do it. He grew out of this, and was/is very, very, normal, and successful and calm, polite, has character, etc. as an adult. Basically, he was a child and grew into productive adult with no mental problems.
I came here from your D3 post, and I'm grateful for your expertise in this area, Dr. Gray.
My wife and I have 5 children aged 11 and under, whom we are homeschooling. We use a curriculum based on Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy, which makes much of play and exploration, while reducing the amount of "classroom" time needed.
What you describe here is one of the reasons we chose to go the homeschooling route, because we saw how deficient traditional schooling options were in creating opportunity for play, beauty, art, music, etc. I do not see many researchers acknowledging the possibility of homeschooling as a solution to this, despite the growth we are seeing since COVID in families choosing this route.
I'm curious to know if, in your research, you've found any correlation to reduced anxiety, depression, and suicide rates for those children in homeschooling situations, or if the numbers are similar? Of course, the methods and motivations of homeschooling differ widely, but its hallmarks appear to be flexibility and individual focus, as well as a deep interest in a child's well-being.
Hi Dr. Gray! I am an educator and school dropout. I also have a long history of struggling with my mental health. I feel like this connects directly to your article about our human right to quit. I also connect quitting to mental health in my blog response to your article. You can read my response here: https://www.offdabeatenpath.com/blog/peter-gray-said-quitting -- Thank you for your work! It continues to trail blaze an important path forward
According to some studies, in 1990s suicide rates dropped due to SSRIs hitting the market and being available, and it rose again because 2003 FDA label warnings led to less taking the treatment.
I checked the data from Australia, and it's almost eerie how perfectly our data fits what you have observed. A linear increase until about 1990, then a sharp drop until the early 2000s before it starts rising again. I'm really interested to hear your theories about the drop
Hi! I found this from the Dept of Justice, Juvenile Suicides, 1981–1998
The data looks very different from what you have presented. There is no 1990 spike in suicides. Interestingly, they are looking at ages 7-17 and you are including ages 18-19. So it is possible the huge spike is only 18-19 year olds, but not those younger.
My initial instinct to the overall data in your initial message was the it might have much to do with the shock of reduced status for males and increased status and independence for females. Men came back from WW2 to find women have replaced them in a variety of professions and have increased in confidence and status. Boys watched their "war-damaged" fathers and experienced the change most acutely.
This change in status and opportunity applies more starkly since 2000 and the MeToo movement. It manifests dramatically in the job market and career prospects for girls/women v. boys/men. All you need to do is check radio/TV (NPR, WBUR and such), where long term male presenters have dropped from sight and women flourish. Women even report on sports (football! the epitome of malehood!) Moreover, it is an aggressive change that manifests in language, in career opportunities, etc.
Excellent piece, as always, but especially so this time.
On the anomaly:
Internet doesn’t really fit the timing. It went mainstream in 1995, when commercial restrictions were lifted. Traffic from 1984 to 1994 grew x 1 thousand; from 1994 to 2004 it grew x 1 million, according to Cisco. The entire 1994 internet volume crosses today’s internet in a small fraction of a second. It was still an infant then, and uncommon in homes as late as 1994.
The AIDS epidemic was peaking around 1989-93, and from your letter I infer gay teen boys die by suicide at higher rates than the rest of their male cohort. I can’t quite work out a coherent logic -- fewer young men to commit suicide if there are fewer young men available in the population? Seems contradicted by age progression into the 90s -- but maybe you have something to say about it.
The renewal of the rising trend must to be linked not only to the imprisonment theory theory but to the rise of smart phones and social media, at least in significant part. Jonathan Haidt has made this case well. 2010, the year Instagram launched.
Whatever was on the flip side, reducing suicides starting around 1990, could be something that social media displaced.
Everything I can think of, including the possible positive effects of video games, doesn’t fit a clean timeline.