Happiness Plummets When We Tap Into Screens

5 tips for reducing screen exposure and freeing up your time.

Posted Mar 16, 2018

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Twenty years ago few people had Internet in their homes. The smartest phones were Palm Pilots and BlackBerry keyboards used by businessmen. The iPhone is only 11 years old, but today it seems that infants to octogenarians hold the Internet in their hands – and collectively it's making us miserable.

In previous posts I’ve explored the connection between screen time and autism and the growing evidence that heavy screen exposure hurts young, developing brains [1, 2]. Neuroplasticity simply means change in the nervous system due to environmental stimuli of all kinds. While it offers infinite potential for beneficial change it can also have negative effects such as addiction and mental illness, which are maladaptive forms of learning. One effect that typical levels of screen exposure has today is to make many of us measurably unhappy.

Screen–induced sadness can—and does—affect virtually everyone. Hanging out with friends, engaging in sports, or reading a physical book were once activities that filled free hours. Today high schoolers spend nine or more hours a day on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat as well as spending time on computer games, texting, and watching videos. Their parents’ online exposure is nearly as much.

Despite branding itself as a tool for social “connection,” rigorous studies find that people are better off when they keep the bulk of their social interactions offline. One recent study showed that teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent about an hour a day. Staying off Facebook for as little as one week significantly increases happiness and self–satisfaction [3].

Even merely liking a post or clicking interesting links was correlated with poorer mental health and lower life satisfaction [4]. Instead of kicking a soccer ball or slipping out for a midnight rendezvous, users “connect” with “friends” through remote, abbreviated chat–speak. They compulsively scroll through their feeds, get sidetracked by video clips that auto–play one after another, or binge watch entire seasons on Netflix. Regardless of what’s on tap, these common screen activities are making them less happy than their parents who engaged in lower–tech pastimes. Even doing homework makes teens happier than any activity involving a screen [5]. Notably, it wasn’t those who withdrew entirely from digital media who were the happiest, but those who tempered their daily use to just a few hours.

As we plug in, happiness plummets. So how do we unplug? Here are five ideas to get you started:

1. Charge your phone in an inconvenient spot. Letting it charge on your nightstand or tucked in the mattress keeps it within easy reach. That is handy, but deadly. Move it somewhere that takes a bit of effort to get to. Doing so makes it easier to dive into a physical book, engage in a hobby, or simply spend time with friends and loved ones. You’ll benefit, too, by sleeping better [6].

2. Go outside. Leave your phone, laptop, and smartwatch at home and get out of the house. Even a quick walk around the neighborhood can boost your mood. Not only is your mind unoccupied by screens, but even modest exercise boosts endorphins, the feel–good brain chemicals.

3. Try your hand at a board game. We’ve come a long way since Monopoly and the like. Video games may once have cornered the market on playful competition, but they are now matched by cards, board games, and dice. The latter has an entire subculture that can help you pick out your first purchase [7].

4. Put your home router on a timer. You can put a dent in the flow of distractions and screen enticements by turning off your phone’s wifi and data after a certain hour. Better yet, knowing how easy it is to thwart your intentions, put your home router on a timer. Your phone will still work, and if someone really needs you they can call.

5. Sell, donate, or dump. By cutting down the number of TVs, computers, and other screens in your home, maybe even consolidating them into a single entertainment corner, you open up space to engage with household and friends. Cooking, drawing, and other passions may be hiding behind the curtain that screens have pulled across a richer and more engaged life.  

Address comments to neuroman@gwu.edu 

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References

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-fallible-mind/201611/big-mistake-small-kids-left-their-own-devices

[2] Tromholt Morten. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. November 2016, 19(11): 661-666.https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0259

[3] https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-new-more-rigorous-study-confirms-the-more-you-use-facebook-the-worse-you-feel

[4] https://qz.com/1190151/why-am-i-unhappy-a-new-study-explains-americas-unhappiness-epidemic/?mc_cid=640d76243f&mc_eid=9c7d54f5f5

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-fallible-mind/201708/four-ways-more-restful-sleep

[6] https://boardgamegeek.com/wiki/page/Board_Game_Gift_Guide_2017