A newly published study suggests today’s teens are less happy than some of their predecessors and blames it on social media and the use of smartphones. But the correlation appears much stronger than the causation.
The details come from the Monitoring the Future Study, which surveyed more than a million teens in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades (the school years Americans usually turn 14, 16 and 18 respectively.) Gizmodo notes the same survey has been run regularly since the 1990s and a version only covering the 12th graders goes back to 1976.
The headline figure is a simple average of the participants’ self-reported happiness score of three for “very happy”, two for “pretty happy” and one for “not too happy.” The average score rose for every year of the study until 2012 and then began declining, albeit by a very small proportion.
The study authors suggested the most likely explanation is a dramatic increase in smartphone ownership among teens since 2012, going from a luxury to effectively the norm. They say they then broke down the figures based on the way respondents said they divided their time between “new screen media” such as phone users, “old screen media” (in effect, TV and movie watching) and “non-screen activities” such as socializing and sports.
Generally, the more the balance was in favor of non-screen activities, the higher the self-reported “happiness” scores, along with other measures such as self-esteem. This did have a limit however, with the correlation becoming weaker when you got to teens who spent no time on screens. (And lets be fair, if you’re a teenager today who doesn’t use a phone or watch TV, you’re probably going to be unhappy about it.)
As always in such cases, correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation. Indeed, in some cases the logic might be completely back to front and instead it could be that teens who are happy and have high self-esteem are inherently more likely to have a good social life and find sports rewarding.