If you're a parent or grandparent, especially of a teenager, you may have complained that kids today are always looking at a screen. Whether it's computer games, Facebook, Snapchat, or texting, there are plenty of draws that keep teens locked on devices. You've probably suspected this isn't good for them. Now there's scientific evidence that you're right. But before you start saying "I told you so" to your teen, you might want to consider your own digital habits as well. Because this study says the screens aren't good for you either.
Researchers from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia spent some time examining data from the Monitoring the Future longitudinal study. This survey gathers data from over a million 8th graders, 10th graders, and 12th graders across the US, asking them about their phone, tablet, and computer use; their social interactions; and their happiness levels.
As you've probably suspected, the longer the teens spent looking at screens, the less happy they were. Instead, teens got a happiness boost from interactive, physical, and intellectually stimulating activities - everything from playing sports to reading physical media to spending time with friends. Interestingly, the researchers, who reported their findings in the journal Emotion, don't think that unhappiness drives teens to their devices. In fact, other research has found that unhappiness doesn't increase social media use - but the reverse is true: social media use increases unhappiness over time.
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The researchers found that the "sweet spot" for digital media use is under an hour a day. Any more than that, and unhappiness levels start rising. The researchers recommend replacing screen time with beneficial activities like exercise and socializing as often as possible.
While this study was conducted with teens, the findings apply to all of us. And one of the most common excuses I hear about why people aren't exercising is that they don't have time. But most of us seem to have time to check our phones multiple times a day. Try putting your phone down and engaging in a quick interval workout. You can find some of my favorite routines in the archives. You'll boost your physical and your mental health simultaneously. You can even invite your teen to join you. Make it a competition if you're both trying to decrease your online game playing.
Cutting back on screen time isn't a cure for depression, but if you've been noticing a general trend toward unhappiness (particularly in the last five to ten years since smartphones began taking over our lives), you should be honest with yourself about how much time you're spending looking at a screen. We often assume that playing games online or looking at social media will boost our happiness, but the opposite is true. Try setting some stricter boundaries for yourself (and your teen, if needed), and see how you feel.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD