The Depressing Truth about Screen-addicted Kids

We are raising a generation of unhappy kids. There are all sorts of places to put the blame, and much of it is out of our daily control. But there is one area that you can control, and it could have a dramatic impact on how happy your kids are.

According to a news update from ScienceDaily, researchers at San Diego University have found that more screen time coincides with less happiness in kids.

“Happiness is not a warm phone, according to a new study exploring the link between adolescent life satisfaction and screen time,” the article notes. “Teens whose eyes are habitually glued to their smartphones are markedly unhappier,” said study lead author and San Diego State University and professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge.

The study crunched data collected from more than a million 8th, 10th and 12th graders in the U.S. They were asked questions about their phone, tablet and computer usage, their real-time social activities, and their overall happiness.

“On average, they found that teens who spent more time in front of screen devices — playing computer games, using social media, texting and video chatting — were less happy than those who invested more time in non-screen activities like sports, reading newspapers and magazines, and face-to-face social interaction,” the article continues.

This news comes at a time when we are all wrestling with the dark side of social media in politics and our society at large. Some have proposed that unhappy kids are more likely to gravitate toward spending time online, instead of the screen time itself changing happiness levels. But the researchers believe what they’ve discovered disputes that.

“Although this study can’t show causation, several other studies have shown that more social media use leads to unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to more social media use,” said Twenge.

This dovetails with anecdotal but supporting evidence from a Gen X parent and social strategy expert. Lesley Bielby of HHBrandable says that the kids she talked to recently said social media was making them unhappy and anxious. There have been other reports that link social media and depression in youth.

That said, cutting out social media entirely is apparently not the answer either.

“The happiest teens used digital media a little less than an hour per day,” the article continues. “But after a daily hour of screen time, unhappiness rises steadily along with increasing screen time, the researchers report today in the journal Emotion.”

The mantra to parents is to restrict screen time.

“By far the largest change in teens’ lives between 2012 and 2016 was the increase in the amount of time they spent on digital media, and the subsequent decline in in-person social activities and sleep,” Twenge said. “The advent of the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for the sudden decrease in teens’ psychological well-being.”

Listen, I have kids. I know this is not easy. You can’t just take away their iPads and phones; they’ll feel like they are being punished. But you can lay down some rules. Homework before screens, no tech Wednesdays, tell them to take a break and take out a board game, reading before bed vs. more screen time. Enroll them in activities and insist the screen stays off during those times.

This isn’t easy, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that parents are failing at keeping their kids safe from this growing problem. We know what it takes to be happier. It’s time to help our kids learn this too.