On Screen Time, Health, and Collective Behavior

Continuing in the spirit of exploring the heath-technology intersection we wrote about two weeks ago, researchers at San Diego State University recently found that teenagers who spend more time on screen devices are less happy than their less-screen-time counterparts. Specifically, non-screen activities like sports, reading, and face-to-face interaction were more common among those who spent little time on their phones and TVs. Psychologist Jean M. Twenge and her colleagues further remarked their confidence that screens were causing unhappiness, not the other way around, evidenced by a growing body of literature on the topic.

The next logical question for Twenge et. al.’s “Monitoring the Future” longitudinal study would  look into possible explanations for the screen-time and unhappiness correlation. Perhaps it could be a lack of satisfaction with digital interaction, or the even negative impacts of social media—it doesn’t take a scientist to know the dangers of constant self-comparison to peers’ Instagram images. Maybe it’s something simpler: for example, the more time spent in front of the TV —even if it’s not a happiness-drain—the less time to spend on other activities that are more positively correlated with happiness. Either way, the findings certainly have implications for the mental well-being of teens. Adolescence is already a time of inner turmoil as the body goes through puberty and fluctuating hormones. This new research suggests screens could inflate these effects.

But what’s the deal with differential screen usage? Why do some teens use screens more than others?

A theory arising from observing many platforms is that networks behind screens thrive when more people are using them. For example, having a cell phone with a messenger app is useless unless other people also have a cell phone with the same app. The same goes for nearly all social media and remote gaming platforms. To some degree, the same logic also follows with TV shows or YouTube videos. If other people have watched the newest episode of, say, The Bachelor on a Monday night, it adds to an individual’s value of watching the show; they can now participate in Tuesday-morning conversation.

In other words, an increase in people using screens encourages even more people to join them as the value of doing so increases. Likewise, if fewer people use it, the value of screens decreases. A teenager may be swayed to spend as much time in front screen as her friends, and different friend groups could have different norms of screen time.

Twenge et. al.’s study found that the happiness-optimal level was an hour or less in front of screens. Their work begs the question: how can other teens have incentives to reduce TV time to this peak-happiness amount?

Maybe a change in group mentality can help reach a healthier equilibrium. Teens could find value in non-screen activities and collectively, perhaps without much thought at all, hold themselves accountable to limited digital interaction so as to maximize happiness. These are speculations, but nonetheless, asking what drives teens to use screens is imperative following studies like “Monitoring the Future.”