For Teens, More Screen Time Equals Less Happiness
New research findings from San Diego State University (SDSU) suggest that teens who spend more time on their devices are markedly less happy than peers who invest their time in non-screen activities.
To investigate the link between screen time and life satisfaction, lead author and SDSU professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge, along with SDSU colleague Gabrielle Martin and the University of Georgia’s W. Keith Campbell, examined data from the Monitoring the Future (MtF) study. MtF is a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of more than a million adolescents in the United States. The MtF survey asks students how often they spend time on phones, tablets and computers. It also includes questions about in-the-flesh interactions and overall happiness.
Twenge and colleagues’ findings appear in the January 2018 issue of the journal Emotion.
On average, Twenge and her co-authors found that teens who spend more time in front of devices are less happy than those who invest more time in non-screen activities like sports, reading newspapers and magazines, and face-to-face interaction.
Twenge says she believes screen time drives unhappiness, rather than the other way around.
“Although this study can’t show causation, several other studies have shown that more social media use leads to unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to more social media use,” Twenge says.
However, total abstinence from devices doesn’t lead to happiness either. Twenge and her colleagues found that the happiest teens used digital media a little less than an hour daily. After a daily hour of screen time, unhappiness rises steadily in relation to increasing screen time.
Looking at historical trends from adolescents since the 1990s, the researchers found that the proliferation of screen devices over time coincided with a general drop-off in reported happiness in U.S. teens. Young people’s life satisfaction, self-esteem and happiness all plummeted after 2012—the same year that the percentage of Americans owning smartphones rose above 50 percent.
“By far the largest change in teens’ lives between 2012 and 2016 was the increase in the amount of time they spent on digital media, and the subsequent decline in in-person activities and sleep,” Twenge says. “The advent of the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for the sudden decrease in teens’ psychological well-being.”
If you have coaching clients—regardless of age—whose high levels of device usage may be linked to their own lower life satisfaction, Twenge shares some recommendations based on her research. “They key to digital media use and happiness is limited use … Aim to spend no more than two hours a day on digital media, and try to increase the amount of time you spend seeing friends face-to-face and exercising—two activities reliably linked to greater happiness.”