Are Smartphones Making Adolescents Less Happy?

New research explores recent trends in adolescent well-being.

Posted Apr 03, 2018

Let's face it:  Smartphones, social media, digital devices, and the Internet have completely transformed the way most of us interact socially.

For young people especially, spending time online is practically a way of life and, not surprisingly, is shaping how they view the world and interact with other people. Not only are they more interconnected, but they have more access to information than any previous generation. All of this has resulted in a cultural shift that is still unfolding.

But does this translate into greater psychological well-being? Though often defined in different ways, psychological well-being is usually measured by how satisfied people feel about their lives as well as the quality of the relationships they have with friends and family.   Often viewed as synonymous with happiness or life satisfaction, research looking at psychological well-being has particularly focused on adolescents and how their sense of well-being has changed over the years.

With this in mind, a new research study published in the journal Emotion takes a comprehensive look at psychological well-being in adolescents over the past ten years and what this may mean for the future.   In this study, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and her co-authors used data data taken from Monitoring the Future (MtF), a comprehensive survey of American 8th, 10th, and 12th graders conducted annually since 1991. 

Conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future surveys 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th grade students each year as well as administering follow-up questionnaires to former participants.   All participants completed test items measuring self-esteem, different aspects of life satisfaction, self-satisfaction, and personal happiness.   Along with demographic information, the survey data allows researchers to examine cultural changes in behaviors, attitudes, and values as they occur.  

For the own research, Twenge and her colleagues focused on changes in psychological well-being as they related to the economic depression of 2007-2009 as well as the introduction of smartphones over the past twelve years.  While previous research has shown that psychological well-being has risen in adolescents during the last four decades of the previous century, more recent research has suggested that this trend is reversing, possibly due to the influence of smartphones and other digital media.   Given that media research has already shown that smartphones became widely available beginning in 2007 with most Americans owning one by the end of 2012,  the researchers selected the year 2012 as the baseline for their research.    

Looking at survey data from 1991 onward,  reported levels of psychological well-being in adolescents either remained the same or rose over the 1991-2011 time period.  Beginning in 2012 and continuing through to 2016 however, there was a significant drop in most aspects of life satisfaction. This includes overall life satisfaction, satisfaction with friends, satisfaction with the government, personal safety, level of fun experienced, and satisfaction with parents.  Personal happiness and self-esteeem also declined significantly. 

Twenge and her colleagues also carried out a second study to identify specific reasons for this decline. Since Monitoring the Future began collecting data on smartphone and digital media use beginning in 2006, the researchers focused on this later data to examine how screen time was related to psychological well-being.  This also included looking at how often the participants engaged in face-to-face social activities, attended religious services, read print media, or engaged in sports or exercise.  To rule out the influence of the recent economic recession, the researchers also looked at economic factors such as unemployment rate and median household income.  Participants were also questioned about the amount of time spent on homework to investigate changes in academic pressures.

Results showed that adolescents who spent more time with electronic media (smartphones, electronic games, and the Internet) were generally less happy, less satisfied with their lives, and had lower self-esteem.   On the other hand, adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities, including sports and exercise, in-personal socializing, and print media had higher psychological well-being.  This trend was especially apparent for 8th and 10th graders though the overall relationship between screen time and well-being was much weaker for 12th graders.   

When looking at the possible role of academic pressures, including amount of time spent on homework, 8th and 10th graders who reported spending more time on homework actually reported higher self-esteem and well-being.  As for economic factors, no clear link could be found between the Great Recession and psychological well-being in adolescents.  

Though it isn't possible to determine whether there is an actual causal connection based on survey findings alone, Twenge and her co-researchers point out that statistical analysis of the survey results do appear to suggest a causal relationship.  Across the years studied, increases in electronic communication use by adolescents generally preceded decreases in psychological well-being. 

It is important to note the significant limitations of this study however.  While the increase in electronic communications seems to be the most likely culprit for this drop in well-being, there may be other factors at work which weren't directly examined by the researchers.   Potential factors include the general drop in face-to-face social interactions among adolescents seen in recent years, the loss in sleep time that is often related to excessive screen use, and the potential addiction issues that can arise from becoming too dependent on social media. There are also the mental health issues that can arise from cyberbullying or other forms on electronic harassment which can also influence self-esteem and psychological well-being.  

So what can be learned from these results?   While many parents may decide that the simplest solution is to ban all digit media use for their children, that isn't necessarily the answer.   In looking at these results in greater detail, the researchers found that the highest levels of happiness and well-being were in adolescents who only spent a few hours a week online rather than those who avoided online use entirely.   Conversely, adolescents spending more than forty hours a week (about six hours a day or more) were twice as likely to be unhappy than ones spending less than half that time online. This suggests that the best strategy to prevent mental health problems is to encourage adolescents to limit their online use and devote more time and energy towards in-person activities.   

In recent years, social researchers have suggested that we are seeing the rise of a new generation  growing up with smartphones and other forms of digital media.  Tentatively dubbed the iGen generation by Twenge and her colleagues, young people born after the year 1995 or thereabouts appear to be far more affected by electronic communications than older generations and, as we are slowly coming to terms with how the world has changed as a result, may be showing problems that adults themselves may also experience in future. 

Finding the right balance between online life and the real world will be an important challenge for the future.

References

Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Campbell, W. K. (2018, January 22). Decreases in Psychological WellBeing Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000403

More Posts