Is There a Link Between a Lack of Play and Mass Shootings?

Many, many of you have sent me this interesting piece: Thoughts ytzkneryzh
on Vegas and Why Men Keep Doing This
, by Charles Hoehn, author of Play It Away. (Free book here!) It ran on the blog Be Yourself. In trying to parse why Stephen Paddock and a few other men have unleashed massacres (something, thankfully, most men do NOT “keep doing”), Hoehn rolled around some ideas, including that the lack of play can lead to deep depression and pathology.

I, too, believe the drive to play is installed at birth by Mother Nature, for a reason: To teach us, in a way so fun it makes us ignore how hard it is, all the lessons that will serve us the rest of our lives. Lessons in empathy, communication, creativity, team-work, problem-solving, risk-taking, patience, focus, self-control, generosity — you name it. In play, you have to learn to get along with each other well enough to keep the game going. That is huge. Play connects us to people. Taking play out of kids’ lives, especially to give them more structured, supervised time,  is something I caution against.

BUT there are 320,000,000 people in America. And all but one did not unleash a massacre in Vegas. What’s more, the man was 64, so he grew up in the golden era when kids WERE allowed to play outside till the streetlights came on.

So yes to more connecting. Yes to less loneliness. And yes to Hoehn’s plea for more play. There are so any reasons to get back to playing. The fear of turning our kids into mass murderers is not on my list.

Thoughts on Vegas, and Why Men Keep Doing This

[Reason] 2- Men in the United States are deprived of play opportunities.

You might be offended by this suggestion.

How could this guy talk about play after a shooting?! Play is for kids!


Homo sapiens play more than any other species. It’s impossible to prevent a human from playing. We play shortly after we are born, and the healthiest (and least stressed) humans tend to play for their entire lives.

Play may be God’s greatest gift to mankind. It’s how we form friendships, and learn skills, and master difficult things that help us survive. Play is a release valve for stress, and an outlet for creativity. Play brings us music, comedy, dance, and everything we value.

Above all, play is how we bond with each other — it’s how we communicate “I am safe to be around, I am not a threat.” Play is how we form connections with other humans.

The irony is that loneliness would not be a problem if we all got ample time to play. Not only would we have deeper friendships, we’d also have better relationships with ourselves. Play allows us to enjoy our own company.

There is a strong correlation with play deprivation and mental illness.

When you deprive mammals of play, it leads to chronic depression. When you deprive a human child of play, their mental and emotional health deteriorate. Play suppression has enormous health consequences.

“But the Vegas shooter loved to gamble! He went on cruises!”

That’s not the type of play I’m talking about.

To better understand this dynamic, we need to look at the background of another mass shooter.

In 1966, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother. Then, he climbed up the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, and shot 46 people. In total, he murdered 16 people. At the time, this was the biggest mass shooting of its kind in United States history.

Dr. Stuart Brown and his team of researchers were commissioned to find out what “The Texas Sniper” had in common with other mass murderers.

They gained a key insight when they examined their childhoods.

Brown recalls:

“None of them engaged in healthy rough-and-tumble play. The linkages that lead to Charles Whitman producing this crime was an unbelievable suppression of play behavior throughout his life by a very overbearing, very disturbed father.

Healthy and joyful play must be had in order to thrive. Boys need to wrestle with their dads, and they need to roughhouse with other boys. Parents and teachers need to play with their kids.

But more importantly, they need to encourage those kids to go out and play. And then, let them be.

“It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your kids are?”

Ever since that famous ad aired, parents have shamed each other into watching their kids like a hawk.

If you let your kid walk up the street alone, you’ll either get a call from another parent, or the cops will pick them up. Our kids are stripped of their right to experience life on their own terms.

In an effort to improve our kids’ test scores and beef up their future resumes, we’ve stripped away nearly all of their free play opportunities. Recess has been sacrificed in the name of Scantrons, and pills are prescribed to the kids whose bodies and minds cry out for play.

The result: A generation of the most anxious, depressed, and suicidal American children on record.

This is in alignment with Dr. Peter Gray’s research, who studied the epidemic of mental illness and the decline in play:

“Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults… The decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people. 

This is why I believe mental illness may be the biggest health crisis of our lifetimes. Because those kids will grow up into isolated adults who don’t know how to play, or seek out their friends when they are lonely. They have no emotional support.

They are alone.

In the most memorable chapter of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author describes the research of James Gilligan, a young psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s.

Gilligan was invited to make sense of the Massachusetts’s prisons and mental hospitals, where he interviewed murderous inmates. He included in his notebook this heartbreaking observation:

“They would all say that they themselves had died before they started killing other people… They felt dead inside. They had no capacity for feelings. No emotional feelings. Or even physical feelings.

Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret. A central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed— deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed.

I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”

ALL OF US will face difficult times in our lives where we will experience shame, humiliation, disrespect, and ridicule.

Do you know what gets us through those hard times?

Friendship: The love and support you get, from the people you play with.

Amen to the powerful effects of love, support and friendship. – L.


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26 Responses to Is There a Link Between a Lack of Play and Mass Shootings?

  1. David (Dhewco) October 8, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

    Um, I will admit that males do most of the shootings..but let’s not forget that that females shoot too. The constant use of ‘men’ here seems to glaze over that. One of the first ‘big’ publicized shootings was done by Brenda Spencer when she shot across the street at the Grover Cleveland Elementary school.

    Of course, the play part of this post is still relevant. She doesn’t seem to have had many friends from what I’ve read.

  2. Theresa Hall October 8, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

    I not sure if lack of play as a kid turns one into a mass shooter but lack of play is probably good for causing mental health issues. I know that some school you hardly have time to eat what with getting to the lunchroom and waiting in line for the food cuts into eating time which isn’t good for anyone. Then we have the schools wanting good grades on those government test which means gotta cram tons of info into those brains so don’t have time to bother with recess even if is good for the kids.
    The one thing that I know for sure that schools don’t make good parents to any kid that isn’t personally theirs because they always blow it when it comes time to put the kids first. Yes there are times when kids need some sense knocked into them but sometimes patience and understanding with hard work count for more. As for whether AA kids are little monster or victims of prejudice I personally think it probably a bit of both. All kids can be monsters but sometimes those in charge do think badly of the kids for not fitting in their neat little mold. I was one who was thought badly of for the crime of not being like other kids my age even I gave all I had to my schoolwork and didn’t get in fights. They pretend to care when doctors said I needed surgery but I knew that if they had really cared they would have never labeled me as lazy.
    Even to this day I still remember the dislike for the crime of not being perfect.

  3. AmyP October 8, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    Lack of play can lead to lack of socialization. Lack of socialization can lead to mental health issues. Mental health issues can lead to mass shootings. However, it’s a complex issue and I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the two are related. Play is great and there are many many reasons to advocate for it, but I don’t think that saying it may help reduce mass shootings is one of the reasons.

  4. dancing on thin ice October 8, 2017 at 1:57 pm #

    The song “I don’t like Mondays”was about the Brenda Spencer incident.
    Shootings are sensitive topic for me, one of the SH teachers was a friend of my cousins.

    We learn to have sympathy for those that are different by playing with a wide variety of people into adulthood.
    All too often many people communicate by calling those they disagree with names.
    Every group has certain sensitive topics they may over-react to such as what to call December holidays.
    The term “snowflake” should be replaced with “overly sensitive person” as amore neutral term instead of straight censoring of banning the word.

  5. Workshop October 8, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

    Of course, there’s correlation and there’s causation. Being mentally ill and avoiding free play does not mean a lack of free play caused the mental illness. There are lots of issues that can exacerbate mental illness, but something like schizophrenia has a strong genetic link associated with it. No amount of free play will help that.

    So no, free play as a child didn’t play a factor. Whatever the situation is, I think it’s larger than that.

  6. Donald October 8, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

    Mass shootings are a way to say “FU world”! What causes this? Speculation, hearsay, and conjecture will keep this debate going forever. That’s why I like to go in the other direction. I study where crazy comes from. I start with mild crazy and work my way up.

    The post about the 80-year old that chatted to a child in the supermarket is a good starting point. When fear and suspicion are combined with the popular sport of online condemning, it’s easy to see where one of the causes of the isolated feeling that so many people have that the article talks about.

    However, I think the underlining feeling behind this is a feeling of helplessness. I’m helpless to:
    find anyone to understand my pain
    get anyone to care
    to get out of this bad situation
    to stop the never-ending struggle (emotionally or financially)

    Locus of Control LOC plays a big part and for the last 40 years, the byproduct of out micromanagement, CYA, and worst first thinking is that it discourages people to develop an internal LOC. Therefore by default, they develop an external LOC. (an external force controls whether or not I’m happy. I have little or no control of it)

    Learned helplessness is a big issue. I scratch the surface of it on this page but there is so much more to it than that. If you visit this page, please try to see past the cruelty of the experiments conducted in the 60’s. This is too much for some people to read. The learned helplessness experiments were things such as locking up animals, electrifying the floor and training them that there is nothing that they can do to escape the pain. However, it’s madness like this is what causes the mass shootings. Please try to see past the cruelty so that these dogs and cats didn’t suffer in vain.

  7. David N. Brown October 9, 2017 at 12:29 am #

    I first researched “spree” shooters more than 10 yrs ago. One of the first I heard of and the earliest to fit the description did his deeds in the 1940s, which was about when we first had modern urban centers and mass produced repeating firearms. That individual surrendered and was kept from execution with a very questionable diagnosis of mental illness, which I suspect was leniency for having a war record ( though it came out other troops were scared or disgusted by him). Military service, if usually brief, was still the most common denominator up to when I started tracking these specimens, but not since. It also used to take a fair amount of effort to find info on them, whatever one cares to make of it.

  8. James October 9, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    Lack of play is a symptom of a more serious issue, one that probably is linked to these shootings: A culture of paranoia, fear, and hostility. We don’t let kids play outside because we view everyone as potential threats–and each time we treat someone as a threat, or post about “saving” a child because we called the cops on someone who patted our son on the head, we re-enforce the idea, in our minds and the minds of others, that everyone not intimately familiar to us as a grave threat to us and our children. After a certain point, it stands to reason that some people would act to eliminate those threats. (To be clear: I’m not excusing the action. I’m saying that we can logically conclude, based on the premises presented and human nature, that this will happen. It’s still deplorable and inexcusable.)

  9. lightbright October 9, 2017 at 12:47 pm #

    No, I think the connection is a stretch. Plenty of children who are denied adequate play grow up to refrain from committing mass murder. And mass murder has always been part of history, even in the days of free-range play. Mental health is complex.

  10. Catherine October 9, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

    Posters above say that lack of free plan can’t isn’t a sufficient cause of mass shootings. Of course, no one believes that. We are saying it is one contributing factor combined with others, such as mental illness. We are beyond single factor causality, humans are complex dynamical systems. Lack of free play can be the factor that pushed someone over the edge in a probabilistic manner if there were other deficits.

  11. Dienne October 9, 2017 at 2:14 pm #

    “The irony is that loneliness would not be a problem if we all got ample time to play.”

    Well, not really. There’s always going to be the awkward kid, the kid with no social skills, the overweight kid that can’t keep up, the physically disabled who can’t join in, those who are different enough to be mocked and bullied, etc., etc. For those people, “play” time is precisely the problem because they physically, mentally and/or emotionally can’t navigate it and it leaves them feeling even more isolated and lonely. Such individuals often prefer structured time because it’s easier for them to navigate.

  12. test October 9, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    Given that teenagers and young people are less violent then before in general, I doubt that lack of free play is contributing factor in current violence.

    Young men in particular are less violent then the free playing generations. So I would say, that reason article is nothing but demagoguery and bad science.

  13. David N. Brown October 9, 2017 at 2:53 pm #

    @Dienne: I was especially struck by the vintage reference to “rough and tumble play”, which sounds to me like a potential euphemism for fights and bullying. In more recent times, of course, every effort is made to suppress physical conflict, which I think is like putting tape over a “check engine” light.

  14. James October 9, 2017 at 3:39 pm #


    “Given that teenagers and young people are less violent then before in general, I doubt that lack of free play is contributing factor in current violence.”

    I’m not sure. Having an outlet for violent tendencies seems like a good thing to me. Humans are violent creatures; it’s built into our nature. Without an outlet, people explode. At the very least, without more information, I don’t think we can discount the possibility.

    David N. Brown:

    I’m not sure you’re right. There’s a difference between rough-and-tumble and “fighting and bullying”. Football/rugby/hockey are pretty rough-and-tumble games, but actual fighting is against the rules. Then you have the ultra-violent games like dodge ball, red rover, and tag. This stands in opposition to the modern trend to make everything as non-violent as possible, to the point where kids are afraid to do anything other than sit still with their hands on their laps.

    I will say that even actual fighting on occasion can be a good thing–sometimes kids, particularly boys in my experience, have to blow off steam, and that’s fine as long as no one is in unreasonable danger (ie, no eye gouging, no going for the throat, etc). I remember working a few issues out with various cousins and friends that way. We didn’t even have to be upset with the person we were fighting with–sometimes one of us would see that the other needed to blow off steam, and ask if they wanted to wrestle. There were a few scrapes and bruises, but we usually were laughing about it in the end. Is it the best way to handle things? Probably not. But kids are learning, and we had an outlet, however socially inappropriate.

  15. Niamh October 9, 2017 at 4:03 pm #

    This is a really poignant and important article, I really agree with you.

  16. test October 9, 2017 at 4:10 pm #

    @James I have looked into violence rates and they are down. I am not saying that having outlet for anger is a bad thing. I am not saying they are down because of lack of play specifically. However, they were going down for a while, so blaming remaining violence on lack of play is not quite visible from data and just ideological manipulation.

    Actual fighting, you hit me cause I did not obeyed you or disagreed with you, I am not blowing off the steam – only you are. I am getting angrier and more frustrated due to being treated unfairly and have no solution. There are two kids in that situation, one is maybe blowing off steam while pushing for his way and the other had no steam originally. Which has nothing to do whatsoever with consensual play fight with friends or siblings. That is like comparing swimming and drowning. Adults teaching kids that hitting others to get your way is a wrong way of pushing own ambitions is a good thing.

    Your argument jumped from “actual fight” to “ask if they wanted to wrestle” in the middle of the argument. But yeah that is the thing, the boys need blow off steam was often used to excuse the aggressor and to shut up his targets by shaming (you are not manly enough if you don’t accept that stronger kid beating you). While the pendulum might get too far in case of some schools where the play fight is not allowed either, we should not return back to accepting to the bad behavior as tolerated without even trying to teach them better.

    The man who killed people in Vegas did not lacked free play and was at retirement age anyway.

  17. Donald October 9, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    “No, I think the connection is a stretch. Plenty of children who are denied adequate play grow up to refrain from committing mass murder”

    There are also plenty of people that can walk 30 feet and the physical exertion from it isn’t overwhelming. This is why I keep comparing mental fitness to physical exercise. That’s why I keep saying that it’s important to:

    learn new things
    have new experiences
    allow children to experience having a skinned knee

    If none of these things happen, this is the same as never doing any physical exercise.

    That’s also why I brought up the subject of learned helplessness. These dogs, cat’s and lab rats were locked in a cage. They were being electrocuted through the floor. The whole point of the experiment was to train them that there is nothing that they can do to avoid the pain. They were then put in another cage where only half of the floor space was electrified. They could have easily escaped the pain. However, they didn’t even try because they learned that their efforts are futile.

    This happens today with human beings. Instead of physical pain, they are subject to emotional pain. They also stop trying. They also say “FU world”! However, most say this in ways other than a mass shooting.

  18. Michael October 9, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

    There was a special joy when, as teenagers, we had large tackle football games without pads. We knew that we would be bruised, nicked up, bloodied, and battered and we looked forward to it. On occasion there would be trips to the ER for stitches that were accompanied by smiles and laughs from both doctors and patients. It was a celebration of our youthful invincibility. It’s what young guys do. From L’ Morte D’Arthur onward in the Western world young men, and now young women, have been comparing scars and stories of how they were earned. Those earned on playing fields were no less honored than those on battlefields. If a young person ever makes it past their teen years without stitches or casts the parents should be investigated for abuse or at least neglect.

  19. Donald October 9, 2017 at 5:20 pm #

    “It was a celebration of our youthful invincibility.”

    This is vital! This develops the confidence that they can ‘bounce back’ from adversity and difficult times. The less that people develop this, the more susceptible they are to the learned helplessness concept. I.E. they don’t even try to get out of their bad situation.

  20. David N. Brown October 9, 2017 at 6:24 pm #

    James: I don’t mean to suggest that bullying and “rough” play are the same thing, or were considered as such, just that there’s enough of a continuum for the former to be rationalized or romanticized as the latter. Otherwise, your comments are pretty well in line w/ my own thoughts. At the least, traditional attitudes gave an acceptable means to challenge a bully directly, even if the major variables were usually in the bully’s favor. From my own experiences, crackdowns on fighting mostly just punished victims who fought back at the start, leaving the rest to stew until and unless they could find a way to settle things permanently.

  21. Helen Armstrong October 10, 2017 at 8:44 am #

    Theresa, could you please explain what you mean by “there are times when kids need some sense knocked into them?” I certainly hope you don’t mean that kids sometimes need physical punishment because that is definitely not a free range attitude – it is an authoritarian one, which is the antithesis of what this movement stands for.

  22. James October 10, 2017 at 12:51 pm #

    @test: ” I have looked into violence rates and they are down.” How did you do this? How did the research you looked into look at this? What was the sample size? What are the confounding factors? How were incidents reported?

    Let’s keep it simple: How did the study you’re using address false negatives?

    This sort of data is notoriously difficult to determine. It’s not that I’m questioning you in particular–I’m questioning the whole premise of the research you or I would need to utilize to support any conclusions we make on such issues.

    This isn’t just me saying this, by the way. It’s a common–nearly ubiquitous–criticism of this type of sociological study.

    “Actual fighting, you hit me cause I did not obeyed you or disagreed with you, I am not blowing off the steam – only you are.”

    I honestly cannot believe you’re this inexperienced with dealing with humans. Sure, sometimes what you describe is the case. Just as often, you hit me because you’re having a really bad day and I put you over the edge–it’s not that what I did warranted the attack, just that it’d been building for a while and I happened to be the one you took it out on. This isn’t theory, I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Sometimes if you’re the guy getting the brunt of it you realize it’s not about you, and you fight because it’s what the other guy needs. Again, maybe not the healthiest way to deal with stress, but it’s certainly not an unusual one.

    If you think this has nothing to do with siblings, you’re deluding yourself. I’m raising two boys, and this is more or less a constant. We’ve taken steps to ensure no one gets hurt, but in general let them sort it out.

    You are drawing a distinction here that cannot–CANNOT–be drawn in the real world. You are further using non-standard definitions in order to distort the language into appearing to support your point. Ask anyone who practices martial arts “How’d your last fight go?” and they won’t tell you about the last time they were attacked, but rather the last sparring match they had. Boxing is the same. So is how people discuss childhood interactions.

  23. James October 10, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

    @ David: “I don’t mean to suggest that bullying and “rough” play are the same thing, or were considered as such, just that there’s enough of a continuum for the former to be rationalized or romanticized as the latter.”

    I agree with this. It actually was worse–at one point it was considered GOOD for boys to be bullied and beaten, as it thought to prepare them for the hardships they would face in the adult world. I just think we’ve goon too far the other way.

    The current way of dealing with bullying/fighting is….well, if we wanted to find a way to protect and encourage bullies, I doubt we could find a better one. By punishing everyone involved, all we’re doing is teaching kids to not fight back and that their only hope is a sympathetic authority figure. That’s how you get folks who would rather call the cops than actually talk to the old man chatting with their kid. (I know it’s more complicated than that, but this is a contributing factor.) It’s learned helplessness, as someone mentioned above: the victims learn that if they fight back they’re punished, and that their only hope is the intervention of some authority figure.

  24. David N. Brown October 10, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    @James: I had a particularly horrid experience with a “monitor” who refused to help b/c the other kid’s had “only” abused me verbally. In hindsight, I think it was just one person being lazy, but at the time, I accepted it as school policy.

  25. test October 10, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    @James Violence rates and crime rates are both reported annually.

    And no, it is not true that each kid attacks roughly the same amount of times as the other so it fairly evens out. Some kids are more aggressive then others, some much more. Many would never fight if they would have a choice – but learned to be aggressive bc of being hit by aggressors one two many times. Yet others are more likely to be hit consistently and just learned to be submissive toward stronger ones.

    As far as I recall, it rarely evens out. Moreover, if adults tolerate actual fights (nor play), the actual fights became cynical part of kids politics. Where some fondly remember beating other kids, some kids grew up firmly convinced not to allow the same happening to their children.

  26. sb October 12, 2017 at 3:24 am #

    The Las Vegas shooter grew up in the 50s and 60s. Is there any evidence he had a lack of play?