Since you are reading this blog, you are likely old enough to remember “The Before.” You remember a time before social media, smartphones, tablets, streaming videos and music, a constant connection to the Internet, and, um, reading blogs. In short, before screens were woven into our daily lives. With the emergence of these technologies, we have encountered new challenges such as distracted driving, FOMO (fear of missing out), cyberbullying, sexting, social media/gaming “addiction,” Internet trolls, and being “alone together.”
The Power and Promise of the Smartphone
To be fair, assuming you are old enough to remember “The Before,” you also remember limited TV, movie, and video game options, getting hopelessly lost while driving, not being able to find a coveted book or record/CD at the store, and being unable to access people in a time of need. Consider the power of the smartphone for just a moment. Imagine that someone told us when we were kids that we could have a device that would allow basically unlimited access to every movie, TV show, song, video game, bit of information, as well as provide a near constant connection to our friends. We would have thought that this magical device was the greatest thing in the world.
In fact, a device as powerful as a smartphone was so beyond comprehension decades ago, I don’t think any of us could have even envisioned it! I will date myself a bit here, but back in my day, a boy’s greatest wish from a technology standpoint would be to have had our own arcade with all of our favorites in it such as Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Centipede, Galaga, Dragon’s Lair, and Robotron (my personal favorite). But we didn’t have the vision or audacity to dream something as powerful as today’s ubiquitous smartphone.
Pretend someone went back in time thirty years ago and described a smartphone to us. Then that person had asked, “Do you think having such a device would make you and others happier?” We would have emphatically shouted, “YES!” I mean, given that smartphones provide us with so many benefits, how could they not improve our happiness? They are beyond a dream come true.
Are We Any Happier as a Society Because of Our Screens?
Yet, despite the unlimited advantages of smartphones, we don’t really see this translate into large gains in societal happiness. In terms of happiness (i.e., a deep-rooted sense of contentment and well-being), the U.S. ranks 18th out of 156 countries according to the World Happiness Report 2018. So, the U.S. is fairly happy overall, but we aren’t in the top 10%, and we’ve dropped four spots, from 14th to 18th, in the past year. Even with a steady increase in per capita income since 1972, the rise in U.S. happiness has “decoupled” from the rise in income over twenty years ago. This flattening (or drop) in U.S. happiness levels has also occurred despite the rise in technologies such as the Internet, smartphones, and social media.
As discussed in my previous blog post, Is Generation Z in Trouble?, teens aren’t falling off of a cliff into despair. However, they are struggling in a number of respects including rising levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide. In terms of their happiness, today’s generation of young people don’t appear to be happier than those who grew up before widespread access to today’s technologies.
Some Caveats About the Research on Societal Happiness
Now, I realize that many folks would rightly point out that the World Happiness Report isn’t the only source of data on societal happiness levels. Happiness is a tricky construct to measure, and researchers have different ideas about how to capture it. It is affected by a wide range of variables such as genetics, physical health, social cohesion, temperament, family dynamics, sleep, and income. Moreover, depending upon how one defines and measures happiness, one can arrive at different conclusions about trends in societal happiness.
Even if we agree that societal happiness levels in the U.S. are flat or going down, we can’t conclude that our technology use is the culprit. Correlation does not equal causation. For instance, there are some studies that link heavy social media use to higher rates of depression. However, it could be the case that those who are depressed are more likely to be heavy social media users. With regard to U.S. happiness, factors such as income inequality and historically low trust in the government could be at play.
Thus, as tempting as it might be, we can’t pin flat or declining U.S. happiness levels on our technology use. We simply cannot conduct a controlled study at a societal level in which a very large population of people is randomly divided into two groups: a technology-using group and a technology-free group, and then measure their happiness levels over time. Also, findings from small, well-controlled experimental design studies on how screen use affects mood don’t necessarily generalize to people in the real world.
This Curious Thing…
While there are some caveats to the research on happiness, it doesn’t seem that the overall happiness level in the U.S. has gone up since the emergence of technologies such as broadband Internet, smartphones, and social media. If we can step back for a moment, this seems very curious. How is it possible that our screens, with their countless benefits, don’t seem to move our happiness needle up in a significant way? We experience the positives of our screens so frequently that it is odd that all of these daily benefits don’t translate into gains in our overall happiness. In my next series of posts, I’ll try explore this issue further. I hope that you will join me on this journey!