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Unplugging: Happiest Teens Limit Screen Time

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Teenagers are being emotionally slammed by technology. A new study links anxiety, severe depression, suicide attempts, and suicide to the rise in the use of smartphones, tablets, and other devices.

These “connections” through technology are making teenagers disconnected from “real” relationships that include talking, listening, making eye contact, and getting cues from body language.

Jean Twenge is a researcher who has studied data on 11 million youth as part of a new generational study. She calls these young people born around 2000 the iGen. Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

The defining factor of this generation is that they’ve grown up with smartphones and that technology has impacted every aspect of their lives.

Constant Connection Can Destroy Creativity and Happiness

Twenge looked at the impact this constant connection to technology has had on youth, specifically, their mental health. She found that teenagers who spend more time on screens, an average of six hours a day, are more depressed and less happy than generations of kids who spent more time in person with friends. It’s not just teenagers. All we have to do is look at parents in their 30s and 40s and even senior citizens in any grocery store or coffee shop, or in their cars, to see that adults also have trouble “disconnecting.”

New studies are showing that there’s a well-worn path the to kind of creativity that can lead to real connections that encourage mental health and happiness.

The Surprising Value of Doing ‘Nothing’

Emma Seppala, the author of The Happiness Track, says that constant input from technology keeps our minds constantly busy. Too busy. What we need, she says, is to turn everything off. The kind of creativity that can give life meaning often comes from one simple experience available to everyone. Quiet.

“In researching my book The Happiness Track, I found that the biggest breakthrough ideas often come from relaxation,” says Seppala. Giving the mind a break from constant input can give us time to allow new ideas to show up. One simple way to relax the mind is by taking walks, without your smartphone.

Seppala points to inventor Nikola Tesla who was recovering from an illness in Budapest when a friend took him on long walks to help restore his health. Tesla was watching a sunset on one of these long walks and had a sudden insight into rotating magnetic fields. That led to the development of the use of alternating currents in electricity.

Creativity, says Seppala, has benefits not only for the progress of humankind but also for our individual mental health. Creativity gives us a feeling of connection to ourselves and others. Think about the way a song can connect people across miles and continents.

The Link between Creativity and Happiness for Teenagers

Psychiatrist Carrie Barron, author of The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands, says human beings need “downtime” for their mental health. “I think the level of stress has gone up enormously because we have so much to do and we’re ‘on’ 24 hours a day,” says Barron. She says technology is part of the cause of depression, “…especially for children because they’re growing up in an “..ambitious, be productive all the time mentality.”

“The literature indicates that kids are so stressed about grades, social media, and performance that they are sleep deprived and sheep-like…The very things that will help them succeed and stay well, such as meaningful relationships and conversations, are sacrificed,” says Barron. “True connections take time to develop – and they do not have ample time.”

Barron says downtime can reduce anxiety and depression. “We need to play. We need to hang out. We need to have spontaneous time. I think spontaneous thought does a lot for alleviating depression and anxiety.”

She says creativity “…connects us to our inner selves and to our environment and offers the deep satisfaction of accomplishment.” Relaxation and the experience of creativity, whether cooking a meal, drawing, or playing music increases mental health and well-being.

5 Ways to Connect without Technology

Barron suggests these ways to enjoy “downtime” that can increase creativity and happiness. Adults can model and take part in these behaviors and activities with teenagers.

  1. When you physically feel too absorbed in your smartphone or another device, turn it off.

  2. Develop empathy. Listen without judgment. Accept differences and learn to be comfortable in new situations and interactions with strangers.

  3. Limit time on devices. Have conversations without your cell phone in your hand or in view.

  4. Enjoy doing something with your hands and with others, whether it’s painting a room or cooking a meal.

  5. Remember that research has shown that personal relationships are a primal need and that deep friendship is healing. Make the time to establish and deepen relationships. Take a walk with a friend or family member or take time to just sit and talk.

References Vickroy, Donna, “Helping Teens Turn Off in a World That’s Always ‘On’,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 2017 Seppala, Emma, “Research Shows the Biggest Obstacle to Creativity is Being Too Busy,” Quartz, May 8, 2017 Barron, Carrie, “The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Hands,” Barron, Carrie, “8 Ways to Really Connect with Each Other,” Psychology Today, Sept. 30, 2015


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