Tinhat

On the Digital Age

Screen-time

Our language is missing a term. When we are not engaged with reality but instead our attention is taken by an electronic device then we are... no, there's no word for it, not even an expression.

When we're connected to the net we're browsing. When we're playing a game we're... gaming. When we're creating an email or a text we're either composing or communicating. When we're moving files around we're housekeeping. All these activities browsing, gaming, composing, housekeeping mean our attention is taken by a screen, and maybe a keyboard. But there's no expression that covers them all. Which is strange because many of us spend our working life at a screen, then come home and do much the same thing, maybe with a few breaks to looks at a mobile screen.

Since the screen is the common theme, we'll have to make do with that. These are all screen-activities. The time we spend on them is screen-time. A hell of a lot of our lives is devoted to screen-time. It's one of the chief characteristics of the Early Digital Age. If you operate a screen at work, then write some mails at home and do a little browsing, the chances are that over half your waking hours are spent looking at a screen. We are screen-operators. Whatever else we claim to be, if we're spending half our lives at a screen then we are screen-operators, first and foremost.

It's even more shocking if you include the TV. The TV came before computers and mobiles and tablets and for a while it's been seen as a separate item. But that's not really valid any more. With on-demand TV, catch-up TV, cable TV, and the same device often doubling up as a computer monitor and TV screen, we've got to start including TV in our overall screen-time. For some of us we're now up to two-thirds of our waking lives. Whoa!

We're living in The Matrix and we didn't even know it.

If you're a parent then it's more likely that you're familiar with the issue of screen-time, because you've watched it attempt to dominate your child. And it's much harder to get them to break the habit if you're a junkie yourself.

Maybe you're one of the lucky ones who manage to get by on a few hours of screen-time a day, but it's not all that common. Most middle class and professional jobs are now dominated by the screen. A doctor has a screen, a police officer spends a surprising amount of time at a screen. A shopkeeper operates a till-screen, so does a bartender. A traffic warden has a portable screen for writing tickets. A stock trader has half a dozen screens. A goddamn three year-old has a toy screen. Maybe we shouldn't be calling this the Digital Age at all. It's the Screen Age.

You could say this has been going on since the 1980's, this shift to a screen-life. But it's only fairly recently that mobile phones joined the family of significant screen devices, and that TVs moved away from fixed scheduling and converged with the web. It's that old story of the boiled frog. Too late it realises the water is already scalding. And we've turned into screen zombies without noticing the steps along the way.

The screen-zombies are revolting! Take that either way.

If we don't revolt, the human race is going to finish up with big (short-sighted) eyes and powerful fingers while our legs and other useless parts wither away. Starved of exercise, our bodies will become grossly overweight, only fit to be parked on a sofa for the purpose of operating a remote control, with occasional breaks to check the mobile for texts and mail, and brief adventures to the fridge for refreshment. Sound at all familiar?

Either there's a fabulous world inside the screen that we're all hooked on, or we've been driven like sheep into a square pen of unreality.

If you find more than half your waking life is screen-time, it's worth breaking it down into component parts to see which parts can be dropped.

Here's a list of screen-activities.

  • Reading communications text and email, work and play
  • Composing communications curiously most of this is a buffer activity, we spend most of the time composing, while the sending is almost instantaneous.
  • Composing documents mainly work
  • Creating records form filling, mainly work
  • Other work such as CAD, programming, creating graphics
  • Browsing with a purpose work and play
  • Browsing without a purpose not at work of course
  • Social media activity a mix of browsing, reading, and composing
  • Broadcast entertainment TV and YouTube
  • Interactive entertainment gaming
  • Digital Housekeeping moving files, setting up software, avoiding viruses
  • Shopping and banking, travel arrangements consumer activities

No doubt you will have something else to add to this list, but it covers 90% of regular activity. It may help you recognise which elements can most easily be reduced. If you're getting too much screen then It's worth trying to allocate entire days as non-screen days, though it's not easy.

There is a phenomenon called screen addiction. We can find it difficult to unhook from the screen and do something real. Here's a tip. If you're not sure if you should be at the screen or elsewhere, switch off the screen and think about it. Many times you'll switch it back on again, but the chances are it will now be for a specific purpose, which may not last long. Switching off the screen breaks the spell.

Using a screen late at night can cause sleep problems, due to the blue light, which makes us more alert. We may have been watching late night TV for decades without much of a problem, but it's not as blue and usually it's further away. The closeness of monitors and colder colours makes them more disruptive. Researchers recommend stopping monitor viewing an hour before bedtime.

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