Teens who spend less time in front of screens are happier

Over 94 per cent of Australian teenagers own a smart phone.
Over 94 per cent of Australian teenagers own a smart phone. Photo: Stocksy

In recent months, Silicon Valley executives have been speaking out about the purposely addictive designs of smartphones and social media, which make them hard to put down for anyone, but particularly teenagers.

Now, a new report puts numbers to the warnings, tying a sudden and large drop in adolescents' happiness with the proliferation of smartphones, and finding that the more hours a day teens spend in front of screens, the less satisfied they are.

The report, "Decreases in Psychological Well-Being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology", was published Monday in the journal Emotion using a large 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 smartphone ownership reached the 50 percent mark in the US, 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 findings jibe with earlier studies linking frequent screen use and teenage depression and anxiety.

According to a survey undertaken by Roy Morgan research, 94 per cent of Australians between the ages of 14 and 17 have a smart phone and 78 per cent of those are paid for by someone else.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 are the biggest internet users, with 99 per cent of the people in that age group using the web. Teenagers between 15 and 17 years old were also spending the most amount of time on the internet, reaching 18 hours a week usage. Overwhelmingly, the amount of time Australian teens are on the internet is spent on social media.

The study graphed correlations between happiness and screen activities and non-screen activities such as 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.

"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.

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Twenge, who is also the author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood," called the relationship of screen and non-screen activities "zero sum" - if you are doing one, it takes time away from the others.

The report's findings were not all dire: teenagers who get a small amount of exposure to screen time, between one and 5 hours a week, are happier than those who get none at all. The least happy ones were those who used screens for 20 or more hours a week.

The greater unhappiness among 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 is also possible that those kids are outliers , she said - teens with special needs or in special education, or those whose screens have been taken away from them 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.

Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America who has conducted studies on teenagers and screen use, called the study interesting but said that it is hard to separate screen time from other stressors that may be affecting teenagers' happiness, such as the political or economic landscape. "The culturally easy scapegoat right now is the technology - it's new, it's scary, it's changed our lives, it's changed our kids' lives," she said.

While she generally advises moderation, Lenhart said rather than making one set of rules about when and how much screen time teens should have, she prefers a case-by-case approach. "Some of it is about your particular kid, and your particular life, and you as a parent," she said. "Some of it is you looking at your child and saying 'Something is not right here.'"

In many ways, some sort of screen time is built into being an adolescent. Many schools require students to be online and to use iPads, Chromebooks or other devices to do their work. But teachers have also decried the distraction that technology can become when students use their devices in the classroom for things other than their studies.

Technology-free schools do exist - including some in Silicon Valley that tech titans have sent their own children to. And movements such as Wait Until 8th have urged parents to delay giving smartphones to kids. But even Bill Gates, who is known for limiting his children's access to technology, allowed them to get phones by age 14.

But the finer points of screen use in today's society are still evolving. Earlier this month investors in Apple, the maker of the iPhone, signed an open letter demanding more options for parental regulation of phones, such as the ability to limit their use to certain hours or shut off social media access at a certain time each day.

The letter, which Twenge helped draft, cited research showing negative psychological effects of phone use on teens and noted parents' "constant battle" over screen time, calling it "unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone." Apple responded by saying it is planning new enhancements to increase parental control.

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The Washington Post, with reporting from Fairfax Media