“Screen time” ranks among the phrases, along with “trans fats” and “big box retailer,” that elicit mournful nods among the chattering classes. People regret the loss of unmediated presence: museums free from selfie sticks, dinners uninterrupted by stealthy smartphone checks and weekends free from the tyranny of email. And I get that, I do. But the nostalgia for the days when we weren’t carrying mobile computers in our pockets is highly overrated, particularly among educated professionals.
In the words of the scholar of the human condition Louis CK, “everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” Screen time, and increasingly mobile computing, are transforming the world, putting everything from public health information to banking capability in the hands of people who previously had no access to either. Closer to home, screen time confers cultural and practical benefit as well.
Here are just a few examples:
'Screen time' ranks among the phrases, along with 'trans fats' and 'big box retailer,' that elicit mournful nods among the chattering classes.
Reading. When I was in grade school, I made bi-weekly trips to the Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr. I was a voracious if shamefully indiscriminate reader, and lugged home a pile of books in tote bags biting into my hands. It’s a pleasure I never lost. Today I have a Kindle that can download basically any book in the world. We’re still denizens of our local library and frequent our terrific independent bookstore, Newtonville Books. But the ability to have additional virtual access to wider selections at every moment is fanning the flames of a good habit.
Traveling. Have a spare night in Siem Reap on your own? Use your smartphone to find the best restaurant on the fly through both expert and user-generated reviews. Want someone to dine with while you’re there? It’s not impossible to find a friend of a friend on a social network who might join you. Need a taxi? Now you can pre-order and pre-pay for one, and have a clear record of the driver. But screen time benefits aren’t confined to traveling the globe — trying to navigate the 14 villages of Newton and surrounding exurbs has been utterly transformed for me by mobile computing. I’m convinced I spent most Saturdays in the early 2000s lost en route to playdates and soccer games, to the extent that my son equated the car’s gear shift into reverse with a familiar Anglo Saxon expletive. The magic of GPS technology has added years to my life that would have been otherwise spent circling in Waban.
Learning. We all understand what education is — episodic, location-based, culminating in a degree. Until it wasn’t. Online learning has been around in various forms since at least the early 1990s, but only the rise and fall of the MOOC frenzy has pushed the technology to more practical, consumable forms. You can expand your horizons with a Harvard course on Einstein, advance your programming with a Pluralsight subscription, or master some Spanish on duolingo. Sure, your kids are wasting time on YouTube and Twitch, but they also have access to learning materials from the practical (how to tie a bow tie) to the elevated (physics explained on Khan Academy).
Health and fitness. Sitting is the new smoking, and the rise of the screens has indisputably caused an increase in sitting, as well as eye irritation and thumb pain. But at least you can search online and find treatment for these issues. More current health information is readily available and frequently accessed by everyone from the curious teen to the informed cancer patient. Most recently, Google added fact-checked medical information to search results. While we all know hypochondriacs practicing diagnosis by internet, there are many more benefiting from accessible, accurate information. And fitness is a less lonely pursuit, with apps that connect people and motivate them through quantification and gamification. Telling me how many steps I take a day is a start — telling me how I can compete with a friend is even more effective. They’re not magic bullets capable of persuading non-exercisers to change their ways, but they are effective tools to keep people aware of their exercise habits.
[Screens are] transforming the world, putting everything from public health information to banking capability in the hands of people who previously had no access to either.
We live in an age of complexity, where diminished privacy and algorithmic accountability threaten at very least our norms and at most, well, democracy. But the nostalgia for a life without screen time is misplaced — we’re fast finding ways to reap the benefits and develop strategies for the risks. It’s fashionable to be a tech skeptic, and focus on the downside risks of the major social shifts that are occurring through ubiquitous computing. God knows, the media does its part, conveying that before these dastardly screens we were all engaged in wholesome and elevating pursuits in a world of child safety. The categories above represent just a few of the opportunities for social connection and advancement. If everything’s not quite amazing, well, it’s pretty damn good.