Life Before Smartphones: How Technology Made Teens Unhappy

Life before smartphones was simpler. Right? In the past, teens spent their free time engaging in various activities, some of which are still popular today (e.g., watching TV, listening to music and playing games). While others have become less common (e.g., socialising with friends, reading books and playing sports). But we now spend up to 7 hours a day connecting with technology, which makes it easy for teens to socialise with others. So, why, paradoxically, are teens today unhappy, lonelier and more depressed than life before smartphones?

Life Before Smartphones: How Technology Made Teens Unhappy
Teens Leisure Time Before Smartphones

A Simpler Life Before Smartphones

The images in this post are a visual reminder of a simpler life before smartphones. They show a group of teens meeting up and socialising in person with their friends. I took the pictures in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2011, the year before smartphones became popular. In 2012, happiness among adolescents dramatically decreased! A global trend that is unlikely to improve—perhaps worsen because of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing smartphone use. Ultimately, we might have to relearn how to connect with others for better wellness!

Janguear: To “Hang Out” With Friends

The Puerto Ricans have the slang word hanguear or janguear. It means to “hang out” with friends. It’s a common and enjoyable social activity for many Puerto Ricans. And feeling connected with people we like promotes happiness. However, adolescents today are less happy and more lonely than their parents were at the same age. So what’s going on?

Hanging out with friends is a common and enjoyable social activity for many Puerto Ricans

Before Smartphones Life Was Simpler

Unlike those born between 1965-80 (i.e., Gen X) and 1981-96 (i.e., Millenials), people born between 1997 and 2012 or Generation Z have used social media and smartphones since a young age and are comfortable with technology. Yet, in 2018, a study found that well-being among Gen Z dropped suddenly around the time smartphones became popular.

In their article, Twenge and colleagues (2018) found that adolescents who spent more time socialising in person with friends, playing sports, volunteering or reading books were happier than those who spent more time on the internet & social media, playing computer games, using video chat, or texting.

Thus, teens who spend more time alone with screen-based activities are generally unhappy. And teens who spend more time with others doing non-screen activities are happier. Today, it seems technology usage distracts and replaces daily pursuits that once made teenagers happy—when life was simpler!

Screen Usage Affects Happiness

But how could screen activities lower happiness among teens? Twenge and colleagues suggest screen usage takes time away from non-screen activities such as “hanging out with friends” that once made teens happy. This indirect effect of screen activity on well-being is called the displacement hypothesis.

In addition, screen activities could directly affect teen happiness by making them feel their lives are inferior to their friend’s social media posts. It seems like technology usage interferes with the enjoyment typically derived from in-person social interactions—something people enjoyed before smartphones.

For instance, friends randomly assigned to have their phones available while dining at a restaurant enjoy the experience less than those without their phones (Dwyer et al., 2018). And strangers in a waiting room with phones are significantly less likely to talk to or smile at other people (Kushlev et al., 2019).

So, smartphone usage can lower happiness and worsen well-being by making teens feel inferior to their friends’ online lives. Or by taking time away from teens who might otherwise enjoy feeling close and connected to others (i.e., social connectedness). Indeed, research suggests that people’s deep and frequent social interactions are essential for boosting their well-being.

Teens hanging out with friends is a common and enjoyable social activity for many Puerto Ricans

But, Correlation Is Not Causation

However, the harmful effects of smartphone use on teens’ well-being are difficult to prove. Instead of screen activities making teens unhappy, perhaps unhappy teens seek out screen activities.

Moreover, it might not be the use of smartphones per se that leads to unhappiness in teens, but rather the content consumed on the device, the duration of use, and the social context in which it occurs. For example, a teen using their smartphone for long periods to engage in activities that are isolating or harm their mental health may contribute to feelings of unhappiness.

At the same time, many positive aspects of smartphone use can contribute to teen happiness, such as staying connected with friends and family, accessing helpful resources and information, and engaging in enjoyable activities like playing games or watching movies. Plus, we know the right amount of screen time can make people happy by empowering them to pursue their goals, feel connected with others and enjoy life (See the Goldilocks Hypothesis).

On the plus side, people who exercise self-control by managing their impulses, emotions, and behaviours to achieve long-term goals can promote happiness. Subsequently, this could remedy the harm associated with problematic smartphone use.

World Happiness Report, 2023

According to the World Happiness Report, 2023, people in Finland are the happiest in the World. And they have been for the past six years! The United States is ranked 15th, and the UK 19th!

Why are Finnish people happy? Perhaps it’s because Finnish society focuses on making people feel healthy, safe, and secure. These personal qualities help people avoid negative emotions and experience positive ones instead (i.e., they promote self-control). Plus, people with high levels of self-control are healthier, happier, and more successful than those with low self-control.

Research also shows that teens who feel a sense of control over their lives are more likely to experience positive emotions, such as happiness and satisfaction with life. They are also less likely to experience negative emotions, such as stress and anxiety.

Strategies to help people enhance their self-control include setting goals, making plans, and staying focused, which is achievable with the support of family & friends.

Ultimately, the impact of smartphone use on teen happiness is complex and multifaceted. Yet, parents and caregivers should check and guide their teen’s smartphone usage. They should encourage healthy habits and behaviours to promote self-control by focusing on achievable milestones and enhance well-being by spending more time socialising in person with friends.

Life Before Smartphones: The Pictures

Lastly, the street photos below show a group of teens in San Juan (Puerto Rico) “hanging out” with friends. The images are a visual reminder of a simpler life when less technology usage meant greater happiness.

Where

San Juan, Puerto Rico.

When

April 2011.

What

Canon EOS 5D camera with a 24-105mm lens.

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