For T-Day: Save Yourself from the Digital Zombie Apocalypse
Posted by Richard Conniff on November 25, 2015
My latest for Takepart:
The other day I was sitting on a porch on the coast of Maine watching as a red-throated loon hunted underwater. I couldn’t see the bird beneath the surface, but the trail of bubbles it left behind let me follow the action. It shot along for a while in one direction, circled, jinked out to one side, then sent the water boiling in a tight little spot. It surfaced momentarily to gobble down its prize, a small fish, then dove again to hunt some more.
The Internet doesn’t just offer endless possibilities; it offers endlessly updating possibilities. It is addictive because of the fear that if we don’t look now, we could be missing something big, something important, something viral.
All the while what we are missing is life. We are missing wildlife and the natural world too.
our kids are missing it. Most adults grew up in an era when the Internet wasn’t such a domineering power in our lives. We can at least vaguely remember when we used to pause to watch a flock of swallows circle or the afternoon light changing on a hillside. But for many children growing up today, digital reality is the only reality.
According to a 2004 survey, American kids then were spending about half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years previously—just 50 minutes a week. That number has almost certainly shrunk as social media have proliferated over the past decade. Arguably, kids also have less reason to go outside. The natural world isn’t there as it was in our own younger days. The earth has lost half its wildlife over the past 40 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Birds and butterflies that were common then have vanished, almost without our noticing. This combination of not looking, and having less to look at, means children grow up not caring about the natural world.
So what’s the fix? How do we get away from the virtual and back to what’s real? The first step, as in any addiction program, is to admit how bad the problem has become. According to a 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans from ages eight to 18 spend on average more than 7.5 hours a day on electronic devices, including TV viewing, video gaming, social media, and the Web. The numbers are bad enough for white kids and stunningly worse for African American and Hispanic kids, presumably because they tend to live in more urban areas, with fewer accessible green spaces and fewer alternative activities.
The second step is to understand as a society and as parents how bad this is for us all. The list of physical and social maladies associated with sedentary behavior—an almost inevitable corollary of time spent on electronic devices—includes increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, two types of diabetes, and several cancers. For children and adolescents, the risks also include sleep problems, musculoskeletal pain, depression, poor overall psychological health, and minimal face-to-face social skills.
Hence the American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend that parents limit screen time to less than two hours a day for children over the age of two (and none before then). But it has recently backed away from those strict guidelines, writing off the term “screen time” as “antiquated” and accepting digital reality as the new normal. A recent Australian study came to the same hapless shoulder shrug of a conclusion, as the title made explicit: “Virtually Impossible: limiting Australian children and adolescents daily screen based media use.” It’s impossible, the authors thought, because digital devices have become too embedded in our daily lives, including school and homework activities.
The rest of us need to walk away at regular intervals (and especially at dinner time) from our alluring but soul-sucking lives online. According to a Nielsen report release earlier this year, Americans over 18 average 11 hours a day on electronic media. Given that most of us are awake 16 or 17 hours a day and presumably spend part of our waking hours in school or at work, adults are not providing a great example. Think of it as an addiction because that’s exactly what your Internet suppliers have designed it to be. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest mean to keep us compulsively clicking, in the words of Nir Eyal, web consultant and author of the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-forming Products, so we end up doing so “over and over, in the same basic cycle. Forever and ever.”
Change that: Don’t answer the latest after-hours email from the office. Go outside and breathe for a bit instead. See what turns up. Maybe a red-throated loon is a lot to hope for, but a blue jay will do, or a patch of sunlight on a cloud.
Make shutting down the devices a family thing. Start this Thanksgiving weekend. If you have to watch football on the big day, make it just one game, not the Macy’s parade and then an all-you-can-eat buffet of games. Schedule a hike in a nearby park or preserve instead. Go out and throw a ball around with the kids. REI has set a terrific example by closing its doors on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, and telling its customers to “opt outside” instead.
Take that advice, and leave the smartphone behind. Then make it a regular thing, for an hour or more every day, to get up and go outside, just to be outside. You may find, after a time, that it is at least as addictive as that next click on an electronic device and far more rewarding.