When it comes to raising happy children, there's no shortage of obstacles in the way. In fact, it can be overwhelming. Of course, the pursuit is worth it because who wouldn't want a happy child?

It's even more worth it when considering this--increasingly, research is showing that happiness leads to success, not the other way around. That's worth pausing on. Happiness molds future leaders that produce superior results, make more money, and do more good acts. 

But back to that overwhelming part. Given that reality, I appreciate when hard data, not just opinion, can serve as a guide to guiding one toward happiness.

The newly released 2019 World Happiness Report provides just that. The sexy soundbite from the report is that Finland is the happiest country in the world for the second year in a row. A closer look shows a disturbing trend: The U.S. continues to decline in happiness ratings.

It's been sinking every year since 2000. The report cites obesity and substance abuse as primary contributors, and posits a surprising "complimentary driver" (particularly among young children/teenagers): a drastic change in how leisure time is spent.

The plot thickens.

The report references the famous "Monitoring the Future Survey," which has been conducted among 13- to 18-year-olds since 1976 and among 8th and 10th graders since 1991. Over the last decade, the amount of time adolescents spend on digital screen-based activities has skyrocketed, with the average 12th grader spending more than six hours a day of leisure time on screens (the internet, texting, and social media). Forty-five percent of adolescents report being online "almost constantly."

The digital demon rears its head.

Skeptics will point out the benefit of screen time. It can be used for homework, learning, relaxation, and socializing (even if digitally). But the more time you spend on a screen, the more you lose out on face-to-face time (opting instead for FaceTime), the more you stop attending religious or social events, the fewer books you read, and the less sleep you get. Those are often fundamental cornerstones of health and happiness.

To me, the rise in screen time irrefutably correlates with the decline in these other critical activities. That doesn't even account for the decline in well-being that the report indicates comes from social comparison. In my own research, conducted for leadership classes I teach at Indiana University, I've found that self-reported happiness has decreased over time since the beginning of social media. Worse: The more time you spend on social media, the more that self-reported happiness decreases over the course of a day.

Is the inverse true? Are children who spend more time on activities like reading and face-to face socializing and who spend less time on their devices happier? The study answers with an emphatic yes.

Raising your children to be successful isn't just about chasing them off their devices. It's about what you direct them to do instead. Here's some advice on how to manage this new reality. (As a disclaimer, I'd like to share that my wife and I have not mastered any of these, but we can at least claim great intentionality.)

1. Have sacred "no-fly zones."

By "no-fly zones," I mean times when attention is not allowed to flitter away in device-land. Times like dinner. No devices, nothing to pull your child's attention away from the human interaction in front of them.

Consider research that the Happiness Report detailed: One group of kids was asked to bring their devices to a restaurant, while a "control group" weren't allowed to do so. The control group reported enjoying the dinner much more.

2. Put parameters on a pedestal.

Time on social media is a privilege, not a right. Other things must happen to trigger that privilege (doing your homework, helping around the house). Setting parameters for what must happen before, during, and after screen time is critical, as is sticking to those parameters.

Use the myriad parental control devices available if you have to. It won't be easy, but consistency will pay off. As it turns out, my daughter is now by far the most brutal with her family and friends about setting the device aside during together time. Maybe mom and dad are doing something right after all.

3. Role model restraint.

Lest you put me on a pedestal, don't. I blow everything I worked for in No. 2 here. I try my best, I've gotten better, but I can still do so much better at limiting actual and daughter-visible occasions of interactions with my device. It matters.

Net, the no-miss advice portion of this story is much harder to nail. But I at least hope now you won't miss the gravity of the issue at hand. Nothing short of your child's happiness.

Published on: Mar 25, 2019
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