April 30, 2016
May 2-8 is international Screen-Free Week, when people around the world are invited to disconnect from recreational electronics during their free time and reconnect with their inner lives, their families, their neighborhoods, and the natural world. Screen-Free Week (which began as TV Turnoff Week in 1994) is designed to create space for the other activities which screen-time displaces so that participants can make deliberate choices about how we spend our time during the rest of the year.
Screen-time consumes increasingly large portions of our lives. In the USA, adults spent an average of seven and a half hours daily engaging with screens (TV, computers, mobile phones etc) in 2010; by 2015 that figure had risen to nearly ten hours daily. (i) (This figure counts time spent on each screen separately, so electronic multitaskers may log ten hours of screen-time without actually spending ten hours of the day online.) Many developing countries are similarly screen-saturated. 73% of the world’s population now has, and uses, mobile phones. (ii) A 2014 survey found that Nigerians, Filipinos, Chinese, Brazilians and Vietnamese spent even more time staring at screens than Americans did. (iii)
This screen-time explosion has brought some obvious benefits which must be acknowledged. A wealth of information (and misinformation) is instantly available to people in remote locations. Large quantities of paper are saved by electronic document-sharing. Screen media and digital technology have greatly increased the pace and scope of international and cross-cultural communication, and made it easier to share music, dance, and other non-text-based cultural expressions between remote areas. The digital revolution, unlike TV, has made it easier for individuals who don’t have great power and wealth to broadcast information to the world. It has also made it easier for activists (and terrorists) to coordinate plans and bring about spectacular political change.
Some of the changes brought by the digital revolution are less benign. Increasing screen-time has been linked to physical health problems including obesity (iv), higher blood sugar and pressure (v), eye strain (vi) and reduced life expectancy (vii). Behavioral studies and brain imaging both show that excessive screen-time can have adverse effects on memory, mood, (viii) emotional intelligence, self-control, and the ability to focus and make decisions appropriately (ix), as well as intensifying anxiety (x) and aggression (xi). We’re still trying to understand the broader impacts of screen-time on our societies.
Some of this harm is caused by tendencies inherent in digital media. All of it is exacerbated when screen time displaces other essential activities. Stepping back from screen time and looking more deliberately at the costs and benefits of our choices can help us enjoy some of the good features of screen time without compromising our minds, our bodies, our families and our communities.
In his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry William Powers writes: “The point isn’t that the screen is bad . . . The point is lack of proportion, the abandonment of all else and the strange absent-present state of mind this compulsion produces.” (xii) He goes on to discuss the balance between breadth and depth. Screen media allow us to sample an enormous breadth of content. But we tend to use them in ways that lack depth. We may use them while performing other tasks, dividing our concentration. We may start working on one project on the computer, get a message alert from email or social media, notice something interesting in the sidebar, and… soon our focus is lost. In spite of what is sometimes said about the virtues of multitasking, research suggests that constant attention-switching lowers our productivity and lastingly reshapes our brains. (xiii)
Focused work isn’t the only depth activity that gets displaced by excessive screen time. In-person conversations, family and community bonding, in-depth analysis, physical activity, creative play and engagement with the natural world also suffer.
Families spend less time actually talking, working and playing together as their members are increasingly busy on separate screens even when they’re sitting in the same space. Parents often complain that it’s impossible to get their children to stop playing video games, texting or surfing social media and take time to listen. Some children also find it hard to get their parents’ attention due to digital distractions. A British survey in 2015 found that more than one-third of the children interviewed wished their parents spent less time on digital devices and more time present with their kids in the real world. (xiv)
Electronic communications allow us to connect immediately and inexpensively with people at great distances, but there are significant questions about the quality of this connection. The trend seems to be toward shorter and shorter forms of communication—tweets or texts instead of email, for instance. This is effective when we’re planning a get-together or flashing out updates to a large group of people. It is less effective for discussing political and social issues in a thoughtful and nuanced way, or sharing complex personal stories to create deep connections.
Since we don’t have cues like tone and body language, we can easily misread others’ comments. This lack of context also seems to discourage empathy. Recent studies suggest that young people find it increasingly difficult to register or interpret other people’s emotions, that this difficulty is augmented at least in the short term by playing video games, (xv) and that time spent away from screens, paying attention to the natural world and interacting face to face with other people, can improve empathy and emotional intelligence. (xvi)
The Internet is often hailed as a commons, but many websites and email servers are laced with commercial messages. In countries with minimal regulation, including the US, television—even children’s programming–is also heavily ad-laden. These ads affect our awareness in obvious and subtle ways. The average American child can recognize over 1000 corporate logos and only a handful of native plants and animals. (xvii) Deluged by advertising, we begin to advertise ourselves, investing a lot of time and energy in presenting a polished image of ourselves on social media in order to impress people who don’t really know us. Some studies suggest that this tendency is responsible for the higher rates of social anxiety associated with higher social media use. (xviii)
The shortening of our attention spans and the shifting nature of our connections change how we understand world events. Electronic communications can let us access stories from a wide variety of cultures and viewpoints, and make it easier for us to comment publicly on what we read and see. They can also limit our understanding.
In his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman notes that political discourse has changed as we move from a print-based culture to an image-based culture. Compelling visual images with short, unnuanced, highly emotional text become more popular than thoughtful and contextualized discussions of complex issues. As we consume more snappy, attention-grabbing content it becomes harder for us to refocus our minds and read in-depth pieces. And we become accustomed to ‘news’ presented as a succession of headlines with little context or connection. Postman writes, “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing…. [W]hen news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.” (xix)
The fragmentation of electronic media can also allow us to seal ourselves into echo chambers, getting news that confirms our existing biases and discussing it animatedly with people from around the world who already agree with us. Some people find that their families and their neighborhoods are actually more ideologically diverse than their online contacts…. and that they spend much more of their time with the latter group.
Screen-time also competes with time spent attentively in the natural world. This is partly a matter of simple displacement: if we’re spending ten hours a day on screens we may not have enough time left over to walk in the woods. It’s also a matter of the pace at which we are accustomed to moving. Nature programs may condense the most exciting images taken over a year of observation into a single hour. To actually be present in nature requires a different pace and a different attitude of mind, an open attention directed to the slow and mostly unspectacular growth and movement of the life around us. This can be hard to do when the routines of our days and the circuits of our brains are shaped by the immediate gratifications of digital culture. But attention to the natural world is vital in at least two ways. If we are unwilling to notice and savor the natural world we are more likely to continue to squander its precious resources, on which all our lives depend. And relaxed attentiveness in the presence of a world we did not create changes us for the better. Studies from Israel (xx), South Africa (xxi) and Scotland (xxii) (among others) have shown that children and youths from difficult backgrounds who spend time in the natural world show improved resilience and decision-making capacity and also understand both themselves and the people around them more fully.
The alternative to excessive screen-time is not a complete technological disconnect but a heightened awareness and a willingness to make deliberate choices rather than being passively carried along by cultural trends. Neil Postman writes, “…No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers…the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”
Breaking the spell, and fully understanding the question, is easier to do if we’re willing to step back from our digital distractions for a little while. Some people do this by celebrating Screen-Free Week. In some places community organizations come together to offer free non-electronic family activities including nature walks, volunteer opportunities, art projects, craft workshops, discussions, theater and music. Participants may sign a pledge to abstain from recreational screen-time for the whole week or whatever part of it they think they can handle. They’re encouraged to keep a log of how they spend their free time during a normal week, and then during Screen-Free Week, to consider which activities give them most satisfaction, and to make deliberate choices about how to spend their time in the weeks ahead.
There are many other ways to step back from screen saturation. Campgrounds in several countries invite campers to spend time outdoors working on collaborative projects in a place where there is no Internet access and where electronic devices are left behind for a few days. William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry, recommends a free family practice which doesn’t require an organized local support network. His family observes ‘Internet sabbaths’ every weekend. Late Friday night the modem is unplugged and Internet access turned off, freeing up time for family discussions, projects and games as well as individual reading and creative pursuits. Monday morning the Internet is reconnected.
All these practices of stepping back require discipline. For some participants the first thing they learn is that they’re truly addicted—that they feel lost and anxious within just a few hours without their smartphones or other preferred technology. Then they begin to settle into a different rhythm and discover that they truly enjoy and value many things that have been crowded out of their lives by digital distractions. In this undistracted space they are able to set priorities so that they can balance breadth and depth and remain meaningfully connected both to the digital word and to the real world. This discipline allows a freedom beyond anything technology can offer.
William Powers, in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, offers us all the following questions for reflection:
“What are the best uses of this device? How is this device affecting me and my experience? Is it altering how I think or feel, changing the rhythm of my days? Are the effects good or bad? Will pursuing more and more digital connectedness make us smarter and more creative? Will it help us understand one another better? When we’re all hyper-connected, will our families and communities be stronger? Will we build better organizations and lead more prosperous lives?”
Does your screen time help you think and work better? Does it deepen ties to friends? Do you come away in a better state of mind than you were to begin with?
Screen-Free Week coordinating centre: http://www.screenfree.org
The Children and Nature Network: http://www.childrenandnature.org
iii [Derek Thompson (May 28, 2014), How The World Consumes Media, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/global-mobile-media-smartphones-tv-maps/371760/]
ivVictor C. Strasburger, (July 2011), Children, Adolescents, Obesity and the Media, Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/128/1/201
v Amy E. Mark and Ian Janssen (March 28, 2008), Relationship between screen time and metabolic syndrome in adolescents, Journal of Public Health 30:2, Oxford Journals, UK, http://jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/2/153.short
viii Jacqueline Howard, October 30, 2013, This Is How The Internet Is Rewiring Your Brain, Huffington Post, USA ,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/30/shocking-ways-internet-rewires-brain_n_4136942.html
ix Victoria Dunckley, (February 27, 2014), Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain, Psychology Today, USA https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
x Alexandra Ossola (January 14, 2015), A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom, The Atlantic, USA http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/01/the-socially-anxious-generation/384458/
xii William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, 2010, HarperCollins, USA
xiii Travis Bradberry (October 8, 2014), Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, New Studies Suggest, Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/
xiv Kirstie McCrumb (August 10, 2015), Children reveal ‘hidden sadness’ of parents spending too much time on mobile phones in heartbreaking video, The Mirror, UK http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/children-reveal-hidden-sadness-parents-6228329
xv Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan (February 18, 2011), Is the Internet killing empathy? , CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/02/18/small.vorgan.internet.empathy/index.html?hpt=C2
xvi Opper, B., Maree, J. G., Fletcher, L., Sommerville, J., (2014). Efficacy of outdoor adventure education in developing emotional intelligence during adolescence. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 24(2), 193-196, cited on
xvii Shannon Hayes (summer 2015), “Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside, Yes! Magazine, USA http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/make-it-right/swapping-screen-time-for-getting-dirty-why-kids-need-to-spend-more-time-outside
xviii Alexandra Ossola (January 14, 2015), A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom, The Atlantic, USA http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/01/the-socially-anxious-generation/384458/
xix Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985, Penguin Group, USA
xx Margalit, D., Ben-Ari, A., (2014). The effect of wilderness therapy on adolescents’ cognitive autonomy and self-efficacy: Results of a non-randomized trial. Child Youth Care Forum, 43(2), cited on
xxi Opper, B., Maree, J. G., Fletcher, L., Sommerville, J., (2014). Efficacy of outdoor adventure education in developing emotional intelligence during adolescence. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 24(2), 193-196, cited on http://www.childrenandnature.org/research/efficacy-of-outdoor-adventure-education-in-developing-emotional-intelligence-during-adolescence/
xxiiMcArdle, K., Harrison, T., Harrison, D., (2013). Does a nurturing approach that uses an outdoor play environment build resilience in children from a challenging background?. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 13(3), cited on