SAN DIEGO — Worried about your child’s smartphone use getting out of hand? You should be. A new study finds that teens who are hooked on their phones and other digital devices are “markedly” unhappier than their less-plugged-in peers.
Researchers from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia examined data on more than a million 8th, 10th, and 12th grade American students participating in the longterm “Monitoring the Future” study. Participants were polled on their mobile device and computer use and their amount of face-to-face social interaction with others. They were also surveyed on their level of overall happiness.
The authors found that teens who spent more time hanging out with friends in person and less time texting or video chatting were happier than those who spent more time in front of a screen. There was a notable increase in overall life satisfaction for students who participated in more extracurricular activities or sports, as well as those who read actual print publications more frequently. The research team believes that habitual use of smartphones or computers to socialize was a key factor in how unhappy a participant felt.
“The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use,” says Jean M. Twenge, the study’s lead author a professor of psychology at SDSU, in a news release. “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.”
And while Twenge suggests allowing a maximum of two hours for screen time, she says the study showed that the happiest teens were those who spent a tad less than an hour per day on digital media. That statistic includes teens who report not using digital devices at all — which means some use of technology makes children happier. But after that first hour, unhappiness rose steadily among participants as their total screen time increased.
Twenge notes that while some studies have proven social media use can lead to greater unhappiness for a child, the study showed that being unhappy did not lead to more social media use.
Not surprisingly, the authors point out that studies have shown self-esteem and life satisfaction levels dropped sharply after 2012, which is the same year that the number of Americans who owned a smartphone jumped over 50 percent. To that point, her study only adds to the wealth of work that’s determined parents must monitor how much time their teens are spending online.
“The advent of the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for the sudden decrease in teens’ psychological well-being,” she says.