More Than An Hour Of Screen Time A Day Makes Teens Unhappy, According To A New Study, & Here’s Why It Matters For Adults, Too

Most days, I'm on my laptop and cell phone for at least 12 hours, and that's not counting the time spent watching Netflix before bed. I usually plug my ears when I hear warnings about technology overuse being bad for you — between my work schedule and love for all things social media, I pretty much have to stay online. But a new study has me wondering whether I should scale back: Researchers found that more than an hour of screen time a day makes teens unhappy, and the results are significant for people of all ages. Adults spend, on average, almost 11 hours looking at screens every day, and excessive use has been shown to cause sleep disturbances and vision problems. This study, which was conducted by researchers at San Diego State University, adds insight to what we already know: Sitting in front of a screen for too long can affect you in surprising ways.

The researchers analyzed data from Monitoring the Future survey, an ongoing study of adolescents and teenagers with more than one million participants funded by the National Institutes of Health. Based on those results, researchers found that teenagers who spend time on social media, playing video games and using their phones are less happy than teens who play sports and prioritize real-life socializing. "The key to digital media use and happiness is limited use," said lead author Jean M. Twenge in a press release. "Aim to spend no more than two hours a day on digital media, and try to increase the amount of time you spend seeing friends face-to-face and exercising — two activities reliably linked to greater happiness."

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Interestingly, teens who avoided technology altogether didn't reach peak happiness. The perfect amount of time to spend in front of a screen daily is about an hour, which feels a bit improbable. Granted, spending an hour or less in front of a screen may be easier for teens, who typically don't work office jobs, but all of the teenagers I know are incredibly online — presumably, that's why teens are consistently making things go viral. But the study provides pretty convincing evidence that logging off is a good idea. Check out this excerpt from the press release.

Looking at historical trends from the same age groups since the 1990s, the researchers found that the proliferation of screen devices over time coincided with a general drop-off in reported happiness in U.S. teens. Specifically, young people's life satisfaction, self-esteem and happiness plummeted after 2012. That's the year that the percentage of Americans who owned a smartphone rose above 50 percent, Twenge noted.
"By far the largest change in teens' lives between 2012 and 2016 was the increase in the amount of time they spent on digital media, and the subsequent decline in in-person social activities and sleep," she said. 'The advent of the smartphone is the most plausible explanation for the sudden decrease in teens' psychological well-being."

So what does this mean for adults? Much of the concern about screen time focuses on children because their brains can be affected and even rewired due to excessive use. Still, we have plenty of research to show that screen time can affect adult health. I already talked about sleep and vision problems, but adults are susceptible to headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome and severe stress if too much time is spent looking at digital screens. For both teenagers and adults, the solution is pretty simple: Make a point to unplug. Spend time outside exercising, turn off the television when you're eating and take breaks from your digital devices. Logging off entirely is a dramatic step that isn't feasible for most people, but spending less time online could actually make you feel better in the long run.