New study says more screen time equals fewer happy teens

FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - Does your child spend too much time on the phone? Some parents will say their kids do it to make them happy.

However, a new study, published in the journal Emotion, suggests the opposite.

The study—Decreases in Psychological Well-Being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology—took a large survey of U.S. 8th, 10th and 12th graders between 1991 and 2016—and found a sudden decrease in psychological well-being after 2012.

We ran into Autumn Ireland outside Best Buy in Fargo. She has two young kids, and says she wants to start them off at an early age, enjoying life: without so much screen time.

"When I was growing up,” she said, “I played in the dirt, you know, bikes, stuff like that, I mean that's just more, that's more living."

Ireland may be on to something: the study, published in late January, links more screen time in teens to lower self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness.

The study, which factors in the Great Recession, concludes indicators such as unemployment were not the cause for the decrease in psychological well-being. It did, however, find that, “adolescents who spent more time on electronic communication and screens (e.g., social media, the Internet, texting, gaming) and less time on non-screen activities (e.g., in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, attending religious services) had lower psychological well-being.”

Nevertheless, study says that teens who get five or less hours of screen time are happier than those who get no screen time at all.

Daniel Landauer, a child and adolescent psychologist at Sanford's adolescent partial hospital program says, the more time someone spends on electronics, the less time you spend on other mood-boosting activities.

"Not actually going out to interact with friends,” he said, “focusing on online relationships, online friendships—and we do see that contributing to their stress levels and their depressive symptoms when they're here."

Lindsey Leker, a youth development specialist at NDSU says it's also because electronics provide instant gratification.

"It's very similar to taking a drug,” she said. “So if you take some sort of drug, like, let's just say cocaine, you're gonna get a really quick burst, and it makes you feel really good. So that's what happens with the screen time is they get a short little burst, they feel really good and then they want it again.”

She compares that with other activities, like being outdoors.

"It's more of a longer, prolongued enjoyment," she said.

And just like going cold turkey and stopping drug use, kids can become aggressive when parents try to take away electronics.

Child psychologist, Daniel Landauer, says he's seen cases where parents don't want to tell their kids no.

"They're afraid of arguments, conflict, pushback, aggression," he said.

That's why, just like certain drugs need weaning off of, Leker of NDSU suggests the same thing with screen time.

"The best thing to do is to kind of wean kids off of it, and kind of lower the amounts until you get to a point where you feel that's an acceptable amount of screen time or phone time for that child," Leker said.

As a mom of two, Autumn Ireland can relate: she says after the kids’ grandmother gave her daughter screen time to distact her, she dealt with the screaming aftermath.

But Ireland says it's important as a parent to stand your ground.

"Just try to calm her down,” she said, “to you know, say things and try to occupy her with other things."