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Finding The Truth Behind How Screens Affect Our Happiness

When it comes to how screens affect us, the “truth” doesn’t make the headlines. Finding what is true in this world is elusive. Ain’t that the truth? This is especially “true” when it comes to social sciences.

Math is the only pure science in the sense that it offers certainties. For instance, 2 + 2 will always equal 4. Even “hard” sciences like chemistry can’t offer certainties. You might ask, “at what temperature does water boil?” And you might say, “100 degrees Celsius.” However, you have to take into consideration that the boiling point of water changes with atmospheric pressure. Science doesn’t always yield certainties and this idea applies just as much to what we are going to discuss — social sciences.

The Slippery Social Sciences

Social sciences, including psychology, are even less definitive than chemistry. Us humans are complicated and many variables affect our behavior (i.e. genetics, personalities, situations). To answer the question, “how do you screens affect our well-being?” from a psychological standpoint the answer will be “it depends.”

Another reason we can’t answer this question with certainty is that research can’t keep up with the pace of technological innovation. Thus, we can only find relative truths (i.e., it depends) versus absolute truths (i.e., always, in all instances) within social sciences. Definitive answers just don’t exist.

What Are We Measuring?

Of course, our screens affect us. It’s more of a matter of how we are affected and to what degree that is up for debate. Simply put, our screens create experiences, and we are affected by experiences. How we are affected by our experiences depends on too many variables to count. Measuring well-being is particularly tricky. So, if I’m trying to do a study on the effects of screens on teens, which measure should I use to assess the effects?

  • Grades
  • Sleep
  • Friendships
  • Happiness
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

For each one of these categories of variables above, there are still many ways to assess them. For instance, when we are looking at depression, are we looking at clinical a depression (e.g., a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder) or merely feelings of sadness? Are we finding data through self-reports or parent ratings? These complications prevent us from coming across a certain answer.

However, let’s say I conduct a study on the effects of screens and find the conclusion that I wanted by designing a study in a way that I can detect a particular effect. For instance, I could probably design a study in which I assess some form of technoference and find that it has a negative impact on the quality of in-person social interactions. Here’s the strange part. That could indeed be true (i.e., screen use can negatively affect in-person social interactions) AND it could still not make an overall dent in the quality of our relationships.

Say what? How is this possible?

The Experiencing Self vs. The Remembering Self

Psychologist, economist and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman describes why measuring happiness is so difficult in his 2010 TED talk. He says it’s difficult because of the differences between the “experiencing” self and the “remembering” self. The experiencing self is what we are feeling in the present moment. While the remembering self has more to do with life satisfaction upon reflection. Questions like “how was your spring break vacation?” or “what was your childhood like?” more so reflect this “remembering” self.

The funny thing is that the experiencing self and remembering self are very different. The experiencing self can have lots of “happy” moments but the remembering self might be dissatisfied overall in terms of life satisfaction. You might think of famous burned-out rock stars and actors who fit the bill here. The experiencing self is more about the moment-to-moment pleasures and pains whereas the remembering self is more about overall life satisfaction and contentment.

As Kahneman describes, there is only about a .5 correlation between the two. Not to get too much into statistics here, but this would mean that roughly 75% of the variance in life satisfaction is explained by factors other than experiential happiness. In other words, knowing that someone rates high on “experiencing self” happiness doesn’t tell us a lot about how they will rate their overall “remembering self” happiness (i.e., life satisfaction).

What Does This Have To Do With Screens?

When we read different articles about how screens affect us, perhaps some of the discrepant findings arise from comparing the effects of screens on the “experiencing self” and on the “remembering self”. Thus, it’s possible that our day-to-day screen use affects our happiness levels (positive and/or negative) in the moment AND that they don’t really affect our overall life satisfaction.

Let’s take a look at an example:

The Jones family go on an annual beach vacation to South Padre Island every summer. They have a daughter, Heather (16) and a son, Patrick (11). While the family enjoys typical beach activities, Mr. and Mrs. Jones are frustrated that Heather always has her phone in hand and is taking a lot of selfies, Snapchatting, and posting to Instagram.

Finally, Mrs. Jones confronts the issue of Heather’s phone use. “Why don’t you leave your phone sometimes and actually have fun at the beach instead of posting about it?”, Mrs. Jones asks. “You aren’t really even enjoying the beach because you are on your phone most of the time! We didn’t pay for this expensive vacation just to have you glued to your phone. You can do that at home!”


Let’s pretend we had a device to capture each member of the Jones family’s experiential happiness without actually interfering with that happiness. In our example, it’s entirely possible that Mrs. Jones is correct — Heather’s enjoyment of the beach was disrupted by her phone use. However, to some extent, her loss in “beach enjoyment” was offset by her enjoyment of posting pictures to Instagram and getting likes and responses from her friends. Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ moment-to-moment happiness was also negatively affected by Heather’s phone use, as they found her nearly non-stop phone use both irritating and disrespectful.

Let’s fast forward months after their family trip to South Padre Island.

The family printed all of the digital photos taken from their vacation and framed several of their favorites. As they view these vacation pictures, their “remembering selves” have fond memories of their 2018 South Padre Beach vacation. Their positive recollections increase over time and they all look forward to returning next summer.

So, did Heather’s phone use affect her (and family member’s) happiness while on vacation? YES! However, it depends whether we are talking about the “experiencing self” or the “remembering self.” While Heather’s phone use was bothersome in the moment, if we asked each Jones family member to rate their overall life satisfaction, it’s doubtful that this one beach trip would influence their ratings much if at all.

The Takeaway

Without a doubt, screens affect us. We use our screens to acquire news, information, and knowledge, to entertain ourselves, to create art, be productive, and connect with others. These are all experiences mediated by our screens. Measuring the effects screens are having on us is challenging work. It’s nuanced with many variables coming into play. In terms of the “two selves” that Kahneman describes, it’s important to understand that screens can create experiences that affect our moment-to-moment happiness levels AND not really affect our overall life satisfaction.

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