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The emptiness of screen time

It draws me in, filling my eyes and ears with distracting beauty. It envelops my senses and makes me forget painful truths for a time. It promises hidden wisdom and connections with like-minded individuals but instead isolates me and offers me up as prey to willing buyers.

Television, computer screens, and other personal devices provide instantaneous entertainment for a low short-term cost. Screens offer a temporary sense of well-being, regardless of circumstance. They even allow people to dismiss the feeling that they are falling short of their standards.1 So, they turn to their screens instead of to meaningful activities that require sacrifice and personal risk.

Heavy tv viewers report lower life satisfaction than those who spend little or no time in front of a screen.2 It’s surprising that there are so many scholarly articles on the impacts of screen time on children and so few on their effects on adults. This suggests that the more thoughtful parts of us recognize the dangers of screen time while the ancient parts crave the relief of the blue screen. We try to help our children avoid the pitfalls of screen time while succumbing to its easy half-truths ourselves.

The average American spends about half of his leisure time on two-dimensional entertainment. Many spend much more than that. And in a way it makes sense. Media offers hollow approximations of what is missing from their lives.

What are some of the other attributes of those who watch a large amount of television during their leisure time? According to the research, heavy screen users:

  • Are easily bored 3
  • Are more likely to be introverts 4
  • Are more likely to struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues 5
  • Are more likely to be over 65 6
  • Likely watched a lot of television as a teenager 7
  • Have higher than average material aspirations 8
  • Read less than others 9
  • Have fewer in-person social interactions 10
  • Work less and have more leisure time 11
  • Are less happy than those who rarely watch television 12

It’s hard to tell how many of these attributes are caused by excessive screen time and how many are risk factors for those who may became heavy screen users in the future. What is clear is that the more pain people experience the more likely they are to turn on a screen and relax. Even so, most people do not want the following said of them:

[An individual] goes quietly home, collapses on the couch, eats and drinks alone, belongs to nothing, reads nothing, knows nothing, votes for no one, hangs around the home and streets, watches the late-late show, lets the TV programs shade into one another, too tired to lift himself off the couch for the act of selection. 13

In the ancient tale of the Odyssey, the Sirens were alluring creatures who hypnotized sailors with their melodies and then drowned them in the sea or kept them enthralled on their island. While rowing past the bewitching Sirens’, Odysseus commanded his men to stuff their ears with beeswax. He had his men tie him to his ship’s mast until he had safely passed out of earshot from the captivating songs.

Today’s Sirens are the marketing managers and consumer researchers who study how to capture your attention and hold it for as long as they can. They drown you in empty diversions or keep you enthralled while forgettable evenings pass by. You think you will watch a clip online for a few minutes before you begin your work and then look back wondering where all the time went. I wonder how many great books were never written, songs never sung, and champions never crowned because they spent their energy on an activity of so little worth.

So, how are we to avoid being imprisoned by the siren song of the blue screen? Here are a few ideas:

  • Face the challenges in your professional, personal and spiritual life instead of coping with them in front of a screen.
  • Talk to someone about what television is helping you escape from. Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges are treatable.
  • Commit to meaningful activities that bring you in contact with actual people. If you are a heavy screen user, you have too much free time. Join a community basketball league or a book club. Volunteer somewhere you can make a difference.
  • Make it harder to watch a show. Consider deleting media apps from your phone. Cancel some of your subscriptions. Put the only television in front of your exercise bike. Turn off the setting that automatically starts the next episode.
  • Set a screen time limit for yourself and plan out when you are going to use it. Screen time is not just for children.
  • Limit screen time to social situations if you can. Watch the football game with your friends. Go to the movies with your spouse. Comment on the questionable material that comes up while watching tv with your kids.
  • Protect children and young adults from excessive screen use. People who use screens frequently while their teenage brains develop are likely to use screens as a coping mechanism later in life.

Media technology will only become more spellbinding over time, and those who design it seem too interested in money and the praise of their peers to worry about their products’ effects on your quality of life. So, it’s up to you to manage your screen habits. Trust that you can live in a modern world and escape the snares of its softly glowing monsters.

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