Free-Range Kids

Coddled Kids Become Depressed, Anti-Social College Students

Young people need independent play in order to become capable adults.


The Wall Street Journal reports that today's college students are so lonely, sad, and socially anxious that they grab their dining hall food to go—preferring to eat in their rooms.

Time spent in dining halls is down 40 percent, according to Degree Analytics, a college data company. Attendance at sporting events, clubs, and even dorm meetings is down too. The Journal quotes one residential adviser who said several students asked to attend her meeting by Zoom, even though they were down the hall.

The story documents classroom changes too—and not just at the fancy colleges. The changes include less class participation and more students handing in half-finished assignments. These same students are then shocked when they get Fs. They tell their professors: Look, I tried.

Where's my participation trophy?

Props to reporter Douglas Belkin and assistant Harry Carr for gleaning so many granular examples of a generation that seems to have arrived on campus undercooked. The authors found that at Wesleyan University, student government meetings used to begin with a walk around campus. Today, they still take a walk, but they hold onto a shared rope, preschool style.

It's no surprise that mental health on campus is reportedly decreasing. One in seven students has considered suicide this past year, according to a Healthy Minds study cited by the Journal. In fact, so many students are demanding therapy that hundreds of colleges have contracted with a telehealth company that promises to find students a therapist within five minutes of their call.

Experts are debating the cause of all this misery, and there are plenty of potential culprits: COVID-19 closures, political extremism, and even the advent of the "like" button. But could one unnoticed factor be the fact that this generation spent so little time unsupervised as kids?

recent University of Michigan study found that the majority of parents of kids ages 9 to 11 will not let them walk to a friend's house, play at the park with a friend, or trick-or-treat unchaperoned. Only half will let their kids go to another aisle at the store by themselves.

It's easy to see how a generation that was never allowed to play, walk around the neighborhood, or even drift over to the dairy section without anxious adults watching and assisting them…might just be unprepared for the real world—or even eating in the dining hall.

And what about the fact that most college kids today grew up with cellphones? I'm not talking about TikTok. I'm talking about the fact that nowadays when a kid's bike chain falls off, they can instantly call Dad to come fix it. It's the same thing with their grades; teachers tell me kids are texting their parents from the school bathroom. The parents then turn around and call the school.

When kids play unsupervised with other kids of different ages they learn important skills: creativity, communication, compromise, compassion, and leadership. When they successfully complete tasks on their own, they understand that they are helpful, capable, and resourceful.

When young people lose out on those experiences as kids, they become socially awkward and afraid as adults.

Until we give kids back some independence to run around, play, explore, and expand, they will arrive on campus unprepared—clinging to the rope like a toddler, because that's how they have been treated all their lives.