In recent months, Silicon Valley executives have been speaking out about the addictive designs of smartphones and social media, which make them hard to put down. Now, a new report puts numbers to the warnings, and it ties a sudden and large drop in adolescents’ happiness with the proliferation of smartphones, and the finding that the more hours a day teens spend in front of screens, the less satisfied they are.
The report, published Monday in the journal Emotion, used a national survey of 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders conducted annually by the University of Michigan. After rising since the early 1990s, adolescent self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness plunged after 2012, the year that smartphone ownership reached 50 percent in the United States, the report said. It also found that adolescents’ psychological well-being decreased the more hours a week they spent on screens, including the internet, social media, texting, gaming and video chats.
The ubiquity of the devices has mushroomed in the past six years: The percentage of teens who had smartphones jumped from 37 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2015 to 89 percent at the end of 2016, according to the Pew Research Center and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The study graphed correlations between happiness and screen activities and non-screen activities including sports, in-person interaction, religious services, print media and homework. For all the non-screen activities, the correlation was positive. For the screen activities, it was uniformly negative.
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“When I made that graph, I got up and took my kids’ Kindle Fires and shoved them in the back of a drawer,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the study’s lead author.
The report’s findings were not all dire: Teenagers who get between one and 5 hours a week of screen time are happier than those who get none at all. The least-happy were those who used screens for 20 or more hours a week.
The greater unhappiness of those with no screen exposure could be due to several factors, Twenge said. “It could be that they are left out of the social scene of high school, that it’s very difficult to carry on friendships in high school these days without texting at all or being on social media.” It’s also possible that those kids are outliers, she said — they might be teens with special needs or in special education, or those whose screens have been taken away by parents.
The happiest teens, according to the study, are those who are above average in face-to-face social interaction time and below average in social media use.
Some sort of screen time is built into being an adolescent these days. Many schools require students to be online and to use iPads, Chromebooks or other devices to do their work.
Marina Bowsher, the mother of a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl in Chevy Chase, Md., views screen time “like dessert: Sure, you can have some once in a while, but it shouldn’t be part of your every day.”
However, she and her husband decided to relax her rules against gaming after helping their niece move into college and noticing that “every boy was carrying around an Xbox ... and suddenly there was no monitor. It’s like drinking: Nobody’s telling you no.” They decided that it was better for their son to learn to regulate his gaming in high school, when he had parents to help, than to have to learn how in college when no one was watching. Their son has a smartphone and a laptop; their daughter has a phone with no social media accounts. “It’s all around them, and they are going to have to learn to live with it in their society,” Bowsher said.