How can teens achieve greater happiness from their screen use?
Above, you will find my most recent vlog on my Tech Happy Life YouTube channel: Teens, Technology, and Happiness. Teens can definitely benefit from screen use, but how can it undermine happiness? Also, there is a key takeaway regarding how teens (and adults) can gain greater happiness and life satisfaction from screen use. It’s a simple principle to keep in mind but very powerful if followed.
Transcript for Episode 2: Teens, Technology, and Happiness
In today’s segment, we’re going to talk a little bit more about Teens, Technology Use, and Happiness, and I’m going to lay out a few caveats.
One, when we measure happiness, it’s a difficult thing to do – there’s different ways to do it, and depending on whose research it is and how they’re defining happiness you’ll get some different results.
Another issue is correlation does not equal causation. So, you may have heard about this but just because A is associated with B, does not mean that A causes B.
With regard to technology, for instance, teens who use a lot of social media, it’s associated with depression – but does that mean that the social media use caused the depression? Some of the research shows that teens that who are depressed tend to use social media more.
Another thing is that in experimental design studies, which are well-controlled studies where you set it up with an experimenter and you have participants in it, they found things like the presence of a cellphone diminishes the quality of in-person interactions when they set up a specific study like that. But then the question is – is that how is works in real life? Are these results generalizable? So that’s an issue to consider.
And then I want to mention publication bias. Studies that don’t find interesting results tend not to get published. So If I did a big study that said that “hey, teenagers seem fine and their cellphone use doesn’t affect them,” it’s less likely to get published, and even if it gets published, it’s less likely to get picked up by the news media because it’s just not very interesting and eye-opening.
Takeaways from the Research
So, when we take all the literature on how teens are affected by screens, there’s a few takeaways here. One is that moderate technology use and screen use seems to be associated with many positive outcomes. It’s the overuse of screens that’s associated with the negative outcomes like depression, or lower academic grades. This is sometimes referred to as the “Dose Effect” – The idea of “too much of a good thing isn’t good. In a way, this is no surprise – This is how the world works, same thing with technology. We wanna try to hit the sweet spot.
When we look at the negative effects that come from overuse, it seems to be the case that too much screen time is associated with lowered life satisfaction. In turn, the lower life satisfaction seems to be associated with unmet psychological needs.
Our Psychological Needs
So what are those psychological needs? According to two researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and there’s a large body of research they’ve done on this, there are 3 psychological needs that we need to meet in order to be happy (according to their Self-Determination Theory). Those three needs are:
1. Competence, which is our mastery, like our skills and things like that.
2. Autonomy, is our sense of agency
3. Relatedness, is our social relationships, the health of our social relationships
In order to meet our psychological needs, of course, first, we need to meet our psychological needs. So, for instance, if we don’t have enough oxygen, we don’t care how many “likes” our Instagram post got.
Sleep is an example of a physiological need. If we don’t get enough sleep, we are not gonna be happy. Our irritability goes up, depression rates, anxiety, stress, even there’s a host of negative physical health effects that go up when we don’t get enough sleep. And basically, people are getting a lot less sleep then they used to, including teens. There’s about 40% of teens these days who get less than 7 hours per night. Our teens need 9-10 hours of sleep per night to be happy and healthy and performing maximally. And when they’re getting less than that, when they’re shaving off sleep each night their wellbeing is going to take a hit.
Now let’s take a look at our psychological needs for Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Now, in a way, we can meet these needs through our screens. For instance, a teen playing Fortnite could meet their needs for Competence – they’re getting better at the game – Autonomy – they have a lot of free roaming and things they can control in the game – and Relatedness – they’re playing with their friends. They’re meeting all three of those psychological needs through playing Fortnite. That’s great, right?
Our Evolutionary Heritage
Well the problem is we evolved to live in a world very different from the world in which we now live. If we go back to the world of our evolutionary heritage, for most of our existence we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in tribes of about 100 to 150 people. Mind you, all of our social interaction during this period of our evolutionary history was in person. So we’re meant to be in social relationships with others -yes – In Person!
The Key Takeaway?
So if we pull all this together and there’s a bottom-line, takeaway message, it’s this: Much of our happiness in life comes from our in-person relationships. To the extent that we use technology and our teens use technology to facilitate and enhance their in-person connections, they will tend to benefit from it. However, when our screen use and that of our teens is displacing or replacing in-person relationships, they, we and they will suffer (from greater negative effects).