Young people feel conflicted about the internet and their well-being
Parents might not like to admit it, but teens and young adults have a unique perspective on using the internet. Many of them belong to the first generation — so-called iGen — to grow up with a smartphone in their house, or their hand.
They may have little to no memory of what it means to go through everyday life without constant distractions. They know what it’s like to build and sustain friendships entirely on a digital device. They’ve watched social media give people a collective voice where none existed before. In short, they probably know the internet’s peril and promise better than anyone.
That’s why we wanted to hear directly from younger users, between the ages of 14 and 22, about their experiences online as part of our series on the safest places on the internet for kids. Since the series urges parents to expand their definition of online safety beyond the well-known threats of strangers and bullies to include a child’s emotional well-being, we were particularly interested in how younger users perceived the relationship between their internet use and happiness.
So we reached out to readers on Facebook and Twitter with a brief survey about their experiences. The results, which represent an anecdotal glimpse into these dynamics rather than findings from a nationally representative, scientific survey, suggest some common themes.
Of the 38 respondents, 30 percent felt spending time online had a somewhat negative effect on their emotional well-being and mental health. More than a third said it had a negative and positive effect. By far, the majority of those surveyed (84 percent) said they felt happiest online when learning about the world. Other popular responses to the multiple choice question of when they felt happiest included “expressing myself creatively” and “feeling intellectually engaged.”
Meanwhile, the top reason for being unhappy after spending time online — reported by 45 percent of respondents — was because people felt like they’d wasted their time. The second most common response, at more than a quarter of participants, was wanting but failing to connect with others and feeling lonely. Parents and adults might be surprised to learn that none of our respondents said they were unhappy because they’d encountered dangerous situations or strangers. Only one person reported exposure to bullying. This insight is in line with our conclusion that parents need to rethink what they’re scared about when it comes to children and screen time.
The top reasons for feeling happy or unhappy are important reminders of the ways time spent online can be rewarding and fulfilling. Yet, too often persuasive design draws us into meaningless tasks like aimless scrolling and clicking rat