The scientific reason a digital detox might make you happier


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The relationship between mental health and social media can be difficult to fully understand, especially considering research sometimes offers conflicting views: While updating your Facebook profile could alleviate social anxiety, being constantly connected might be detrimental to your mental health. And now a new study, building from a previous one that found links between adult discontent and screen time, has found a correlation between excessive time spent online and increased unhappiness in teenagers.

Since 2000 and 2012, adults and teenagers have, respectively, experienced a steep decline in reported levels of happiness, according to study co-author Jean Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. In an article published on The Conversation, Dr. Twenge explained that in an effort to better understand this alarming trend, she and her co-authors studied many experiments and bits of data, including an annual national survey conducted since 1991 of students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

“Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness,” Dr. Jean Twenge, study co-author

The study, published in the psychology journal Emotion, found that excessive screen time, which the authors define as five or more hours a day, related to the decreased rate of happiness experienced by teenagers since 2012, (which, they note, is the year most Americans started owning smartphones). “Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness,” Dr. Twenge wrote.

But that doesn’t mean you should give up your phone cold turkey; the researchers also reported that those completely off the grid were unhappier than those who were online for a moderate amount of time (less than an hour a day).

In a previous study, the same authors found increased unhappiness in people 30 and older. Though they didn’t conclusively tie this to screen time, they argue that adults are still spending more time online than they were before, which could be affecting interpersonal relationships.

So, consider Dr. Twenge instructions to “use your phone for all the cool things it’s good for. And then set it down and go do something else.” Translation? Practice mindfulness with your devices and consider the occasional semi-digital detox.

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