Is technology negatively affecting our mental health?
According to new U.S. research, it’s at least taking its toll on teenagers, suggesting spending lots of time on their smartphone are more likely to be unhappy.
Conducted by researchers from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia, the study gathered data of 1.1 million students from grades 8, 10, and 12, across America. They were asked how much of their day was spent on their smartphone, how often they had real-life social interactions, and how happy they felt in general.
The teens who felt unhappiest were the ones that spend most of their time in front of screens – including texting friends, playing computer games, browsing social media, and other online activities. Teens who participated in more non-screen activities, like sports, reading periodicals, and real-life socializing, identified with being much happier than their screen-locked peers.
“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,” says lead author Jean M. Twenge, who now fully supports the theory that increased screen time leads to decreased happiness.
The study also discovered a distinct pattern that aligns with their findings: young people’s life satisfaction, self-esteem and happiness all dipped around 2012, which coincides with a sharp rise in smartphone and screen usage. This was the year Americans owning a smartphone jumped above 50% for the first time.
“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 social activities and sleep,” said Twenge.
“The advent of the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for the sudden decrease in teens’ psychological well-being.”
Interestingly, cutting screen time cold turkey isn’t the answer either: the findings show that teens who spend a bit of time in front of a screen – under an hour a day – were actually the happiest. After the hour mark, unhappiness scales up with more screen time.
“The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use,” Twenge adds. “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.”
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