Report: America less happy than ever, a nation of ‘mass addictions’

Over the last 10 years, the amount of time teens spend in front of a screen – because of video games, social media, texting, or being online – has gone up, especially after 2012, when smartphones reached saturation, wrote Jean M. Twenge, author of “IGen,” in a chapter of the World Happiness Report.

American adolescents are less happy, especially in the last decade, because of the change in the way they spend their free time, says Twenge.

The annual study, sponsored by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and published since 2012, shows the changes in happiness around the world by ranking 156 nations based on global data from Gallup.

By 2017, the average 12th grader spent more than 6 hours a day on the internet, social media, and texting.

In general, the research has found that this increase in time spent online has not been good for teenage happiness. Research has also found that teens and young adult who spend more time on digital media are worse off in well-being. Girls who spent 5 or more hours a day on social media are three times more likely to be depressed than people who don’t use social media. “Heavy” internet users are twice as likely to be unhappy than light ones.

“Overall, activities related to smartphones and digital media are linked to less happiness, and those not involving technology are linked to more happiness,” Twenge wrote.

The more time teens spend in the analog world, the happier they are. And the more time they spend immersed in the digital world, the less happy they are.

Digital media also has an adverse effect on teens’ well-being because of the comparative effect of their lives versus others’ – often carefully curated – lives, the report said. Because of this, social media has been linked to depression. Another risk that comes with living in an online world for hours every day is cyberbullying.

This data is correlational, so right now it can’t be proved that digital media causes unhappiness. Still, the evidence is compelling.

If skyrocketing internet use – some might say dependence or addiction – has seemingly so markedly harmed adolescents and teenagers, then what effect must it have on adults? In another chapter of the report, Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor and Director for the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, links the rest of America’s unhappiness to its state as a “mass-addiction society.”

America at an all-time low on the index

America – which dropped in ranking to #18 on the list (it’s lowest ranking ever) of happiest countries this year – is dealing with an “epidemic” of addictions, Sachs says, which leaves many unhappy and some clinically depressed.

The addictions are not just the traditional ones like drugs, alcohol, and gambling, but also digital and social media use, video games, shopping, unhealthy eating, risky sexual behaviors, compulsive exercising … the list of modern addictions goes on. Sachs expects these addictions to continue to rise.

Sachs doesn’t have much good news to deliver, but urges government action: “A public policy response built around well-being rather than corporate profits would place the rising addiction rates under intensive and urgent scrutiny, and would design policy to respond to these rising challenges.”