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Variable Reinforcement and Screens

Why Can’t Screens Make Us Happy?

Despite the benefits of our screens, why don’t they improve overall happiness?

You might have read my blog on the topic of why our screens don’t make us happier from several weeks ago. I followed that up with this video on my Tech Happy Life YouTube channel. This should be the last video in which I’m covering the territory as in a written blog. So, if you didn’t read my written blog or you just prefer some of that content via a video, here it is! I look forward to covering many more topics in future video episodes, and I hope that you will join me for those!

Transcript of Tech Happy Life YouTube Episode 3:

Why Don’t Our Screens Make Us Happier?

Hello! This is Tech Happy Life, with Dr. Mike Brooks. In today’s episode we’re going to be talking about why our screens don’t seem to be making us any happier.

The “Before”

Since you’re watching this, you probably remember the “Before,” just like I do. What am I talking about? The “Before” I’m talking about is before we had constant connection to the internet, before we had smartphones, before we had social media. In some ways those seem like simpler times, but we clearly benefit from all of our devices and our access to the internet.

Yet, with all the benefits that or screens provide, they don’t seem to be making us happier. But how can that even be?

Consider a smartphone for just a moment – in this one device, we have access to just about any song we want, at any time, any movie, TV show, book, video game. All of our friends and family we can contact in this one device. If someone had described such a device when we were kids, we would think, “This is a dream come true!”. And if someone had asked, “If you could have such a device, would that make you happier? Would it make other people happier?” – We would have said “Yes!” in such a resounding way! How could it not?

Hedonic Adaptation

One of the reasons our devices might not be making us happier [is] a concept called “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill”. Hedonic adaptation is the idea that when we experience positive events or something negative, that we have a bit of a set point in our happiness, and that soon after we experience the positive or the negative event, our happiness will return to baseline, or its set point. Consider when you got a new car, or a new handbag, or a new TV, a new smartphone – how happy did it really make you? How quickly did you return to normal? So it’s an idea that despite the benefits and the power of the technologies we have, we’ve just gotten used to them.

Pros and Cons Cancel Each Other Out

Another reason that our screens may not be making us a lot happier is because the pros and cons of our screens in a way cancel each-other out. For instance, let’s take a look at our social connection, with our smartphones and our social media, we have access to our friends and family, so that’s a positive. However, through social media, that can foster social comparison which can be a negative on the way we feel, and then also cyber-bullying.

Then if we take something like productivity, there are many apps and tools that we have to enhance productivity. We have access to all the information we could ever want. However, on the computer we can easily get distracted and go down rabbit holes, and then that interferes with our productivity. And then we have the entertainment options which I have described before – the songs, the music, the games, wonderful options – yet on the negative there are so many options it can be overwhelming and it can be hard to decide what to pick. And then, we can spend so much time on these things that it can interfere with things like exercise, sleep, and our in-person connections – and our productivity.

Sleep Deprivation

Another reason our screens might not be making us a lot happier – and this is a really big, important one, and I can’t emphasize it enough – is sleep deprivation. So there’s a lot of research that shows that all of this time and all these options we have to look at entertainment and be busy on our screens is encroaching on our need for sleep. Now, our need for sleep hasn’t changed in tens of thousands of years. We still need about 8 hours of sleep as an adult, and teenagers need 9 or 10. And basically, we’re not getting it. Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on our physical and emotional wellbeing,  and that’s from staying up too late, and also the blue light from our devices suppresses melatonin, and melatonin is an important hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycles. And for children and teens, sleep is particularly important for physical and cognitive development. There’s research to show that kid’s brains do not actually grow as well as they should if they’re suffering a sleep deficit. Not only that, there’s a huge amount of research to show that our physical and emotional well-being take a huge hit when we’re suffering from sleep deprivation.

Loss of In-Person Connections

Now the last reason I want to go into is the loss of in-person connections. So there’s a lot of research to show that a good chunk of our happiness comes from the health of our in-person relationships. And, that isn’t just verbal communication. If we think about it, it’s touch, kisses, caresses, hugs, the warmth of a smile. All those things are something we can’t get through our devices, not even with emojis.

So if you think of – you might have heard of “attachment theory” – but he way we attach a parent to an infant is so critical to their long-term development and that’s the touch, the caress, the holding of infants, the smiles. All those things are built-in. But sometimes our eyes are on our devices, more than they’re on our kids. And if it’s too much, then what can happen is that can interfere with their development and their overall happiness.

What to Do About It?

So these are some of the reasons why our screens might not be making us much happier at a societal level. Now, as a parent, at this point you might be wondering “What am I supposed to do about it?”.  Well there’s good news. So, my colleague Dr. John Lasser and I, we developed a model that we call the “Tech Happy Life Model”. It is designed to help you and your family get more of the benefits of technology while minimizing some of those negatives. In the next episodes, we’ll be taking a deep dive into that model so that you’ll get some practical strategies on what you and your family can do.

So, this has been Tech Happy Life with Dr. Mike Brooks, and I hope to see you next week.

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