"Screen time," they call it: The total number of hours you spend staring at a television, a monitor, a tablet, a smartphone ... and now a watch. As technology, specifically touch-screen technology, continues to pervade our lives, our lifestyles are changing. This is reflected in a recent list of recommendations concerning the new Apple Watch, the latest in a series of smartphone accessories that promises to have Americans staring at their wrists as much as they now stare at the devices clutched in their palms.
"Apple wants the Watch to make you more present and to free you from the supposed tyranny of your iPhone, but what the Watch does is bring another screen into your life with all the associated tapping, beeping and peek-sneaking," writes Stephen Pulvirent. He warns against staring too long at the device and exhorts the would-be Apple Watch wearer to "curate" his notifications, as a means of preventing information overload (and incessant distractions). Most interesting, however, is his appeal to common sense: "It shouldn't be that hard, right? There are situations where it should just feel wrong to be using your Apple Watch, like a dark theater. If you screw up, fear not: Significant others, bosses, and friends will help you out with dirty looks and passive-aggressive reminders."
No, it shouldn't be that hard ... and yet it is. If you've ever sat in a movie theater listening to someone take a phone call, you know that "common sense" isn't at all common among a great many people armed with wireless technology. People will take phone calls – or stop to send text messages, check Facebook notifications, or almost any other smartphone-related activity – almost anywhere, at any time, in any context. We've all made our way around someone standing in the middle of an aisle, or even in a crosswalk, sending a text message. I've seen people take smartphone calls in the midst of a live shooting range exercise while on the firing line. The real issue is not the outlandish times and places that people will mess about with their phones when they should be turning their attention elsewhere; it is the more mundane, more constant use of such technology in situations that used to be social occasions.
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The next time you're in a restaurant, watch the tables. How many of the people seated with other diners are checking their phones? You'll be able to spot entire tables of diners with their noses bent over their devices. They aren't talking to each other while they're out to eat; they're too busy updating Facebook telling "friends" who aren't present that they're out eating with friends who are – you know, the ones they're now ignoring. The younger the diners, the more frequent the offenses. We are addicted to our tiny, illuminated screens, and while this addiction is itself concerning, it is the long-term impact on our interactions with the real world that bear greater scrutiny. In other words, we're disconnecting from the world around us in order to absorb ourselves with simulacra of reality. We are more interested in "checking in" to various locations than actually taking the time to enjoy those outings. We are becoming a nation of zombies, passive observers entranced by the scrolling, beeping, blinking screens that rule our lives.
"Screen time" is of increasing concern to parents and teachers, too. According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone "penetration" is now over 50 percent among wireless phone users, who routinely used to watch television and movies or read books and magazines. (This is one of the reasons print publications are dying, e-book sales have eclipsed paperback sales, and circulation for paper magazines is falling in favor of online subscriptions.) Athens News contends, "A sedentary lifestyle spent in front of computers and video game consoles contributes to poor health. Of the leading industrialized countries, the United States has the highest obesity statistics, and Canada is not far behind. … Excessive screen time can lead to sleep and eating disorders, interfere with a person's ability to focus and negatively affect a person's performance at school or work."
Encouraging sedentary lifestyles is the obvious downside of "excessive" screen time. The much more insidious problem, however, is, again, the social and developmental changes such devices promulgate. For example, too much screen time can lead, according to some studies, to antisocial behavior and even an increased likelihood of ending up in jail. We've known this for some time. We are, however, only now coming to grips with "social media addiction," in which the compulsion to be connected to social media through one's smartphone or tablet starts to cause behavioral and productivity issues.
"If you breathe a sigh of relief at being reunited with your smartphone after a meeting or feel the constant need to check for updates," writes RealBuzz, "you could probably benefit from a digital detox. ...When the habit of looking at your phone feels compulsive, you need to re-evaluate your relationship with social media. ... Telltale signs you're a social media addict in the making include: spending hours browsing, sacrificing sleep for social media and checking-in, reporting and uploading photos whenever possible."
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The solution is as simple as it is likely to be ignored: Back off. Use your smartphone less. Stare at screens less often. Could we? Yes. Will we? Probably not.
George Orwell foresaw a future world in which all-seeing "telescreens" monitored and thus controlled the benighted masses. We are achieving Orwell's vision, not through government tyranny, but by voluntary submission to the screens of our choice. We are, in effect, a nation of smartphone zombies, unable to see the world beyond the devices we hold. While your government works to erode your individual liberties, it is this abnegation that does you more harm. When we give up reality for virtual fantasies, when we become voluntary slaves to our wireless technology, we become a more pliant, more easily controlled populace. We cannot then complain when power-seekers and totalitarians in our government and on the political left take advantage of our preoccupation. While they're grinding their boots on our necks, we're too busy updating Facebook and tweeting pithy witticisms to notice.
Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].