Still not sure if screen time equals sadness? Here's the proof

What more than 1 hour of screen time is doing to the teen brain

What more than 1 hour of screen time is doing to the teen brain

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Whether you've experienced an emotional slump after killing a Saturday morning on social media, or someone is incessantly warning you that that might happen, it's commonly believed that our screens are negatively impacting our lives. While there certainly have been enough professional warnings, a recent, comprehensive study — in both time and scope — has lent even more significant credence to the relationship between screen time and unhappiness.

A study from San Diego State University has analyzed data from longitudinal surveys of 1.1 million 8th, 10th and 12th grade students, surveyed yearly from 1991 to 2016. The surveys asked students about their daily screen time (whether on a smartphone, computer, tablet or gaming), their non-screen time activities (playing sports, hanging out with friends, etc.) and about their general happiness. The overall trend suggested that students who spent more time on their screens were noticeably less happy than those who prioritized non-screen activities.

However, this is not to say that no screen time at all equalled maximum happiness, in fact, it did not.

Happiness amongst screen-using students peaked at just under one hour per day and began declining as the usage increased beyond that. This is an important distinction because it may suggest that a certain amount of screen time is almost now integral to our lives and happiness.

Examining just how deep and wide the concept of screen time has been integrated into our lives reveals another disturbing trend. The same study also looked at the general psychological well-being (including happiness, self-esteem and life satisfaction) of these age groups year after year. While it stayed relatively stable throughout the '90s and 2000s, there was a sharp decrease in overall psychological well-being after 2012 — the first year that over half of the American population became smartphone users. Furthermore, this year also marked the downturn of in-person interaction and sleep duration (adding to the belief that smartphones are contributing to the growing sleep epidemic). Researchers also took into account other societal factors (like unemployment and the Great Recession) but saw no noticeable relation. This harsh trend is even more alarming when we realize that it only began 6 years ago and screen-based industries show no signs of slowing down.

What's fascinating here is the level of addiction that seems to be present; we're adjusting the rest of our lives to accommodate for our screen habits and, after a certain point, we continue to use our screens when they're providing us with zero positivity and still aren't able to stop it. The lead researcher of the study, psychologist Jean Twenge, suggests that the social isolation caused by screen time can be a contributing factor to this vicious cycle and the behavioural patterns of waiting for replies, likes and popularity creates psychological pressures of their own (though they are more present in females than males, who Twenge noted spend more time gaming than on social media). We are so hardwired now that merely having your phone in the room has been associated with decreased cognitive function.

Fortunately, as we become more aware of these trends, we seem more and more determined to react to them. Some Apple investors have written an open letter, asking the tech giant to make it easier for parents to control their children's screen usage, while other professors are calling on developers to rethink how they make their apps, designing them to compliment reality rather than distract from it (and there are quite a few apps attempting to do so already). Twenge suggests keeping your daily screen use within the optimal range of an hour and no more than two. If you're thinking that frees up a large amount of your time, that's kind of the point. Having parents impart these regulations on their children, says Twenge, frees up their time and capacity to develop social skills from non-screen living. This alludes to another consideration that, in light of this study, makes this trend and our action all the more important; many of these youth have lived their entire lives with a screen and don't even know that the alternative can give them some much-needed happiness.