Succumbing to Screens: Two-dimensional Living

“When our attention is perpetually narrowed onto a small screen, our world shrinks to meet it.”

— Nancy Colier, The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World

We are becoming adept at self-interruption. Americans typically check their cell phones 150 times a day (about every six minutes) – logging three hours each day just on phone-based e-mails, texts and internet searches. Over a lifetime, that translates to more than a decade hunched over a small screen.

Workplaces often demand round-the-clock responsiveness, an expectation that generates stress and further tethers us to phones. Seventy percent of e-mails now are read within six seconds of arriving.

In his new book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, social psychologist Adam Alter confirms that our compulsion with screens is rewiring our brains, forging addictive patterns that erode relationships and distance people from the world about them.

Compulsive use of social media, video games, online shopping, e-mail and even fitness trackers are all on the rise. An analysis of 83 studies involving 1.5 million people found that 41 percent of them had at least one behavioral addiction – providing short-term gratification at a long-term cost.

Evidence of the damage abounds. It surfaces in the sleeplessness, stress and depression of those who can no longer detach and relax. It’s on display in the selfie culture, proliferating in a petri dish of what psychologist Nancy Colier calls “infantile self-involvement.” It hits head-on, as pedestrians and drivers prioritize texting over navigating safely.

We’re susceptible to these technological devices because they activate the same brain centers that drugs do – providing hits of dopamine when we get the “reward” of an incoming e-mail or ‘like.’ Did designers deliberately exploit this biological vulnerability? Absolutely, in the opinion of former Google ethicist Tristan Harris, who seeks a “Hippocratic oath for designers.” Tech executives shielded their own children from the devices they were marketing, Alter observes. They knew how their products could hook people, and yet with each new version they sought ways to sink those hooks deeper.

Now many users are so addicted that they can’t envision forfeiting their phones even temporarily. A global study that asked college students to abstain from tech devices for just 24 hours found the majority dropped out – overcome by acute anxiety, loneliness and boredom. Results of another study were even more disturbing: 53 percent of respondents aged 16-22 claimed they would rather lose their sense of smell than their phone or laptop.

Adam Alter and Catherine Steiner-Adair, a therapist and author of The Big Disconnect, emphasize the critical role parents must play in reshaping technological habits. They advocate keeping all children under age 2 off screens entirely, and limiting screen time in older children to no more than two hours daily, preferably with quality content.

The bigger challenge, they acknowledge, lies in modeling moderate use and signaling to family, friends and colleagues that we are truly present in their company (by putting phones not just down but away). Steiner-Adair encounters many children who feel perpetually ignored, “tired of being the ‘call waiting’ in their parents’ lives.”

To sustain focus with family and in work, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin advocates partitioning one’s day into “project periods” so that activities like social networking or web-surfing are not frequent interruptions. We might also learn from the “sustainable use” approach advocated by programs that treat those who have slid down the internet rabbit hole into addiction. Extricating people typically involves – not just a stint of screen-free living – but daily attention to nutritious food, exercise, mindfulness training and outdoor recreation. Immersion in the natural world provides a critical balance when screens have shrunk our worldview.

Finding a healthier balance requires broader-scale cultural changes as well – in tech design, social media structure and work norms. Approaches might include gadgets and games designed to limit – rather than foster – compulsive use; an end to social media metrics; and workplace practices that offer genuine downtime – such as disabling work e-mail accounts between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Smart phones and tablets represent an impressive feat of technological mastery. But the true advance will come when we learn to manage them well.


© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.


Small Steps

 Engage in restorative family activities like shared outdoor excursions.

• Set family guidelines for screen-free times of day (including mealtimes).

 Track screen time using an app like Moment, and restrict children’s screen time with the Lockwork app.

• Store phones elsewhere at night to improve sleep habits and reduce health risks.