…there is actually little known about teens’ wellbeing itself, without the digital part – even though “we find a near universal decrease in life satisfaction during adolescence,” write the authors of a study just published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. “This decrease is steeper than at any other point across adulthood.”
The study fills us in a bit. It offers some explanations as to why the sharp decrease, based on data from a very large number of young lives, as well as highlighting the importance of understanding how young people themselves view wellbeing. Tracking this “subjective wellbeing” is important because teens quite likely have somewhat different ideas about wellbeing than those provided by adults for adults.
Innovation in studying teens
More on their findings in a moment, but first a bit about the authors: They work in the fields of psychology and neuroscience at four universities in three countries and, especially interesting to me, their bios indicate interest in a realistic range of factors – adolescent brain development, life satisfaction, personality and subjective wellbeing – as well as innovation in research methodology. For this study, they used the large datasets that lead author Amy Orben at Cambridge University is accustomed to working with, drawing data from 37,076 10-24 year-olds and 95,466 adults aged 25+ in the UK and Germany over a period of years (2009-’18) in their lives (longitudinal research).
They report that, although research has tracked adults’ wellbeing and life satisfaction from late adolescence to old age fairly extensively, it hasn’t focused much at all on preteens and teens up to age 16 – “even though this time of life harbours some of the most wide-reaching changes in brain structure and function, cognitive abilities, sociality and mental health,” they write.
Pervasive change – internally, externally
It’s those rapid changes, both internally and in life, that help explain the steep decrease in life satisfaction among 10-15 year-olds, Orben, et al, indicate. All that adolescence brings is challenging. “The drop in life satisfaction scores during adolescence could be driven by conditions of life getting worse during this period, e.g. increasing social insecurity, autonomy or uncertainty,” they write, and doing a teenager’s normative developmental work of identity exploration and figuring out their connections to peers and place in the world. “While life satisfaction is not identical to mental health, adolescents experience prominent increases in mental disorders such as depression or anxiety and decreases in other forms of subjective wellbeing,” the authors report.
Also, an intense blend of individual and inter-relational change affects teens’ perception of what “life satisfaction” means. “The continued development of the[ir] ‘social brain’,” developing “skill in understanding how others think and feel,” the growing “influence of their peer group,” “increased sense of a larger social world” and comparing themselves to others using “more stringent and competitive benchmarks” are some of the factors the authors cite.
Don’t you feel, as I do, that it’s important that we apply the new and growing understanding of teen wellbeing – drawing from their own perceptions and experiences – to our discussions about their digital wellbeing in policymaking at the household and national levels?
- A related study on this from Amy Orben: “Windows of developmental sensitivity to social media“
- About a paper on social media effects by Orben and Andrew Przybylski at Oxfor University that got a great deal of media attention: “Wellbeing, digital or analog: A paper, a podcast“
- From a different angle: “Digital wellness: What is, and isn’t, parody“
- About a 2022 study of teens and parents out of University of Wisconsin which offers advice to parents