Worrying about kids these days has been a popular pastime probably since the dawn of humanity, but a recent Atlantic article with the ominous headline "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" by psychology professor Jean Twenge takes this classic genre to terrifying new heights.

Leaning on loads of sociological data, Twenge convincingly argues that a recent spike in misery, loneliness, and lack of independence among teens is, in fact, due to young people trading parties, dates, and driver's licenses for Snapchatting in their bedrooms. (On the plus side, car accidents and teen pregnancy rates are apparently way down for the same reason). In fact, the huge spikes in the trend data coincide almost freakishly with the release of the first iPhone.

The little misery machine in your pocket

It's an interesting, if slightly terrifying, read for parents or educators, but buried in the long article is also a nugget of scientific truth that anyone who regularly spends time in front of screens (so basically all of us) would do well to consider.

Among the many studies Twenge cites is a massive annual survey of young people that's been ongoing since 1975. It's one of the best measures of the national mood of teens, and according to Twenge it delivers a stark warning to screen addicts of any age. Here's the money quote:

Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

"There's not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness," Twenge adds, underlining the point.

In case you're resisting the conclusion, let me spell it out for you: the more time you spend in front of screens, the more miserable you're likely to be, and there's absolutely no reason to think this isn't true for adults too. In fact, there are plenty of studies suggesting this holds true no matter your age, from research showing that quitting social media makes people happier to other findings illustrating that smartphone use erodes relationships.

The real world will make you happier.

Twenge closes with a straightforward call for parents to set some sensible limits when it comes to screen time. No one is suggesting you need to chuck your iPhone in the trash, but weening yourself off constant contact with your gadgets is almost certainly going to make you happier.

If you're an adult cutting down on screen time could mean something as simple as turning off constantly pinging notifications. Both personal accounts and preliminary studies have shown that eliminating all those pings and chirps (as challenging as it can seem at first) leads to real gains in psychological well being.

But whatever way you choose to approach the problem, the first step is the same: we all need to take to heart the harsh truth that's at the core of Twenge's article. No matter how old you are, more screen time means less happiness. After all, as many have noted before, none of the best moments of your life will take place looking at a screen.

"If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something--anything--that does not involve a screen," Twenge concludes.

That advice is just as good at 35 years old as it is at 13.

Published on: Aug 9, 2017