In the past decade, teens have started spending more time online and less time interacting with friends, reading, and sleeping. They’ve also gotten less happy, according to the newly released World Happiness Report, an annual study sponsored by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network showing changes in happiness.
And generally, writes Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor who wrote this chapter of the report, teens who spent more time with digital devices were less happy; those who spent more time on other pursuits were happier.
“This creates the possibility that iGen adolescents are less happy because their increased time on digital media has displaced time that previous generations spent on non-screen activities linked to happiness,” she writes. “In other words, digital media may have an indirect effect on happiness as it displaces time that could be otherwise spent on more beneficial activities.”
Of course, as Twenge points out, studies so far haven’t shown that digital media use actually causes unhappiness. While there’s a correlation, it could also be that other factors are driving both unhappiness and digital media use–or that unhappy people turn to their electronics. Still, she points out, some studies have seen people reporting increased happiness after limiting online activities.
“In addition, the increases in teen depression after smartphones became common after 2011 cannot be explained by low well-being causing digital media use (if so, one would be forced to argue that a rise in teen depression caused greater ownership of smartphones, an argument that defies logic),” she writes.
While the studies she cites mostly look at adolescent behaviors and moods, it’s possible that adults who also spend a lot of time online and report lower happiness numbers are also affected.