What do happy teenagers do? Perhaps the easiest way to answer that question is to ID what they don’t do!
Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of more than 140 scientific publications. She’s also written a 2017 book with a title that’s a mouthful and a half: “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”
If you’re a parent, and even if you’re not, that’s a title that will make you sit up and pay attention.
We’ve quoted Dr. Twenge many times here on BreakPoint—on teen suicide and depression and related topics. (Come to BreakPoint.org for the links.) But today we’re going to learn from her about what is making so many of our teenagers unhappy.
In a new article in Psychology Today, Twenge notes, “Teens are less happy and less satisfied with their lives than they were just 5 years ago. The question is: Why?”
Here’s what she found out. First, teenagers’ reported happiness dropped between 2011 and 2012. She notes that this is when smartphones became available—perhaps we should call them sad phones!
Second, Twenge discovered a correlation between teens’ happiness and their participation in activities that involved other people—activities such as sports, going to church or other religious services, volunteer work, and even homework. The more social they were, the happier they were.
By contrast, those young people who engaged in solitary activities such as reading internet news, talking on their phones, texting, social media, computer games, and listening to music—often a solitary activity these days—reported being less happy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Twenge noted: “The pattern is again clear: Nearly all phone activities are linked to less happiness, and nearly all non-phone activities are linked to more happiness.” So, put down the phone?
Yes, at least some of the time. But, as I’m sure you’ve heard, correlation is not causation. Whether constant phone usage causes the people we love to be unhappy may be impossible to discern in every instance. But surely young people who live their lives beyond the small confines of their screens, who engage less with virtual reality and more with real reality, have a much better chance of experiencing happiness than those who don’t.
And from a Christian worldview perspective, this makes perfect sense. Virtual reality can give us lots of good things, but it cannot give us the best things. The thing we desperately need as human beings is community and relationship. Not for nothing did God say in the Garden that it is not good for the man to be alone. We were built to relate—with God, and with one another. In Christ’s Body, we’re all members one of another, and we need each other. Christian community is not optional—as the book of Hebrews reminds us, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Our culture, tragically, has done an excellent job of telling all of us—and especially our teens—that we can go it alone, that individuality matters most, and that real community—when we love one another, support one another, and hold one another accountable for our mutual good—is not only unnecessary, it’s not possible.
So if we want our teens to experience a happiness that can never be lost, let’s show them the joy of living in Christian community. Let’s do a better job of integrating them into the life and worship of our churches. It’s not always easy to do, because we’re all natural-born sinners. But it’s God’s way of growing us in our faith—and in our happiness. As Bonhoeffer said in his classic work “Life Together,” “God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song.”
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author. His most recent book is "Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World."
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.