With meaningful concern, but no real surprise, I read the recent study from Kent State University on the relationship between cell phone usage and happiness. Using over 500 students, the study concluded that “for the population studied, high frequency cell phone users tended to have lower GPA, higher anxiety, and lower satisfaction with life (happiness) relative to their peers who used the cell phone less often.”
Before I comment further on the study, it is worth noting what the study does not prove. First, it does not prove that the cell phone usage causes the reduced happiness, it only shows the relationship between the two. Second, even if there is a causal relationship, the study does not attempt to explain why cell phone usage might reduce happiness and impact grades.
I will address both of these issues over two blogs. This blog will argue that the frequent usage of cell phone (and other technologies) does reduce happiness. The next blog will suggest reasons that this would be true. I will draw on observations of trends and tendencies I have seen in my 21 years of working with children, teens and college students in summer camp and outdoor education.
Before I begin, please allow a disclaimer. I am not a technophobe. In fact, I am a fan of technology and much of what it brings to our modern life. I do not long for days without phones, computers or advanced medical technology. I worry, however, that we have not yet found the right balance between technological consumption and human interaction.
Proof that Frequent Cell Phone Usage Is Reducing Happiness
I see four pieces of evidence of a link between cell phone usage and happiness. Before I continue, it is important to understand that cell phone usage is not simply talking on the phone, but is instead is the device’s “full range of functions”, including texting, games and social media applications.
The Emergence of the Techno-trapped Person
In the past decade, I have observed the emergence of a particular type of teen or child: the techno-trapped. These young people carry themselves differently than their peers, often fidgeting, making less effort to engage face-to-face with other people and seeming less comfortable in their bodies. I suspect that this is my imagination, but they often seem to be reaching for the device that is the center of their technological obsession, be it a game console or a mobile device.
What is noteworthy is that our team can identify them as techno-trapped individuals before we begin to speak to them. Upon meeting a young person that is a very frequent user of some technology, we know that they are techno-trapped before they or a parent tell us about their lives. This predictive ability seems to be real evidence that this condition is actually real and not our imagination.
I cannot say for certain that these young people would be happy were they not frequent users of technology (perhaps some other habit or substance would take technology’s place), but I do know their number is growing.
Conversations with Parents
The second reason that I believe that the excess use of cell phone (and other technologies) reduce happiness comes from our frequent conversations with parents. Since parents entrust us to keep their children safe without them, clear and frequent communication is critical to working successfully with families. We get to know parents’ hopes, fears and concerns.
Parents often talk about “losing” their children to a particular addiction (their word) in the form of phones, computers or games. Often, the parent reports that behavior changes rapidly once the new technology is introduced into the child’s life, be it an interactive first-person-shooter game or a new smartphone. Further, parents who later successfully reduce or eliminate the same technology usage report “getting their child back”. When I ask them to describe the difference in behavior after a successful intervention, they talk about improved eye-to-eye contact, more frequent smiles, a more settled demeanor and increased patience.
Conversations with Young People
The third reason I believe in a link between phone usage and happiness comes from conversations with the young people themselves as they describe their experiences or those of siblings and peers. In the case of phones and social media (texts and social media apps), there is often a growing resentment and fear associated with the technology. They do not want to be on the “outside” of any social interactions, so they find themselves monitoring (even obsessing over) multiple applications and devices to assure that they are constantly connected. The need to be connected and avoid being an outsider is not new to young people, but the new technology makes these efforts constant. There is no downtime from the social efforts.
When they talk about it, they use words that suggest a feeling of being trapped; they would love to do it less but simply do not believe the have the option to do so.
Direct Observations After Reducing Technological Usage
The final reason I see a link between high frequency tech usage and happiness is the unique nature of our work with young people. Campers and college-aged counselors join us for at least two weeks, during which time their technology usage is either eliminated (for the campers) or severely curtailed (for the counselors). As a result, we get the opportunity to see young people who were high frequency users function without the technology and then observe any changes in behavior.
In the first days of visit to camp, young people talk about their phones and social media as I have described above – often as a burden or obligation and not as a source of joy.
Their conversations change over the course of the next 14-21 days. By the last week of camp, the techno-trapped children sound – and act – differently. They become more at ease with peers and adults face-to-face. This increased comfort occurs with both existing friends and newer acquaintances. They are more confident and less risk-averse. They smile more readily. They also talk about their phones and other technologies differently, often expressing a concern that they might “fall back into the trap” or “get stuck again”. When they talk this way, we guide them to adopt more useful internal narratives.
For example, when a child says, “I worry I will go back to my old habits when I get home”, we encourage them to instead say, “I now know that I can be spectacular without this technology” or “I have learned that I can go X (make new friends, play a new sport, enjoy nature), so I can continue to do this at home”. The goal is to convince them that their reduced technology usage does not have to be a camp-only experience. Many young people report an ability to maintain moderation upon their return to “normal” life after camp.
Aristotle extolled moderation in all things. Technology is no exception. Excessive use of even the best technologies reduces our happiness in meaningful ways. Next week, I will suggest reasons that this is true.