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Powering Down: Is Screen Addiction Stunting Society?

The digital displays we stare at might be doing us more harm than good. Here’s what you can do to keep them from taking over.
by Michael Benninger | Jan 31 2018

For many of us, the first screens we ever set eyes on were televisions. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, technology was still working up to becoming the omnipresent force it is today, and consumers encountered comparatively few digital devices on a daily basis. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to advise their offspring against sitting too close to the TV or to limit their children’s viewing time to an hour or two per day. But fast forward to 2018, and people are literally strapping screens to their faces, while many moms and dads don’t think twice about using tablets and smartphones to keep their babies entertained. The skyrocketing number of displays surrounding us has altered our world in innumerable ways, but perhaps we should stop to consider the implications of all these pixels.

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Smartphones have been on the market for more than a decade now, and, with each passing year, they seem to become increasingly indispensable. From communication and gaming, to entertainment and health tracking, there’s little these devices can’t do. Perhaps that’s why it’s no wonder the average American spends nearly 5 hours staring at their devices each day—and that doesn’t even account for time spent watching television. Furthermore, many of the most popular apps on our phones are intentionally addictive and aim to keep users engaged as long as possible. Could it be that society’s obsession with technology is setting the stage for unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences? And more importantly, is there anything we can do about?

In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Professor Sherry Turkle argues that advancements in technology make us feel more isolated as individuals, rather than actually enriching our lives. She highlights how a variety of health complications—sleeplessness chief among them—can arise from spending too much time looking at screens. (Media maven Arianna Huffington offers further insight into the wicked ways screens affect sleep in her discourse on slumber, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time.) Alone Together additionally draws attention to the ways in which screen addiction affects children, and how the amount of time parents spend fiddling with their phones directly affects a child’s development.

In Turkle’s follow-up to Alone Together, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, the author explains how having access to an infinite amount of digital entertainment hinders our ability to exhibit empathy and form authentic emotional bonds. She details how social media and dating apps leave us with distorted expectations when it comes to relationships and, even more alarming, how our screens are stripping us of the ability to find meaning in our lives by preventing us from experiencing true solitude.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to save society from the perils of screen addiction, however it won’t happen on its own. Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, draws attention to the treatment centers and support groups that have cropped in response to this 21st-century affliction. But he also notes that such behavioral addictions are often far easier to kick than dependencies on drugs or alcohol.

If you’re wondering whether you might be suffering from screen addiction, but you’re not quite at the point where you need rehab, here are a few quick tips to help you maintain control over your devices—instead of them controlling you.

Turn off (or tweak) your notifications.

Most modern devices allow for granular control over which apps and programs can pester and when you allow them to do so. Dig into the settings for each offending app and adjust your alerts so that only urgent messages can vie for your attention.

Substitute, instead of quitting cold turkey.

Suppressing the urge to look at your smartphone will likely only make your addiction worse over time. So, rather than relying on sheer willpower to overcome an obsession with scrolling through social media, try replacing the urge with a healthier habit such as meditation or exercise.

Ditch the full-color display.

Recent studies have shown that changing your smartphone screen to render everything in monochrome (i.e., shades of black, white, and gray) can go a long way toward cutting down the amount of time you spend peering at pixels. And it’s easy to do on most modern iPhones and Android devices.

Ready to learn more about the unexpected ways technology is shaping the fate of our species? Dive into the key insights of any of the titles mentioned above, or check out over 2,000 titles on the Blinkist app.

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