May 1 to May 7 is Screen-Free Week, an annual (since 1994, when it was aimed at curtailing watching TV) celebration when families are urged to swap digital entertainment — TV, surfing the web, watching the latest Netflix series or playing with apps and video games – for spending quality time with family and friends, an activity that once was thought of as real life. Although these days, that sentiment often seems as outdated as a Norman Rockwell painting.
Unless you’re living on a mountaintop (where cell reception is probably non-existent, though that may depend on how high the mountain is), it’s probably clear to you that the eyes of way too many teens are glued to their smartphone screens. The first time I thought that my teenage daughter might be addicted to her smartphone was the morning I saw her spooning cereal into her mouth with one hand while reading the screen of the smartphone held in the other. But the occasion that spooked me was the recent ride I gave to my daughter and three of her friends. Not so long ago, a ride with that many girls was filled with chatter and shrieks of laughter. But this one was eerily quiet, with all four passengers staring at their phones (the thought has occurred that they were texting each other about the dorky dad driving).
But it’s not just teenagers. Adults are just as addicted. According to which study you read, a smartphone owner may consult their device anywhere from 150 to 200 times a day, partly due to the relentless stream of prompts compelling them to check their screen.
Teen or adult, smartphone addiction is the new normal. So says Tristan Harris, a former Google executive, in an article titled “The Binge Breaker” that appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Atlantic. Harris (the binge breaker of the title) is quoted by the article’s author saying: “Our generation relies on our phones for our moment-to-moment choices about who we’re hanging out with, what we should be thinking about, who we owe a response to, and what’s important in our lives.” Is it any wonder that we check our smartphones so often?
It’s easy to blame smartphone addiction on lack of willpower, but according to Harris, the need to continually check our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites that are designed to make us go to it as frequently as possible. “You could say it’s my responsibility,” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he says, but “that’s not acknowledging there’s 1,000 people on the other side of the screen [i.e., software engineers] whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”
Harris – now the co-founder of the advocacy group Time Well Spent — is trying to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from our devices. He says the most successful sites and apps hook us by tapping into deep-seated human needs, and that technologies and tools are being designed to get us to act in certain ways. Websites bundle services, so as to entice us to extend our visits. It’s no accident that to answer a simple friend request, we must first pass by a news feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through a stream of posts. The “friend request” tab then nudges us to add more contacts by suggesting “people we may know.” Once we send that original friend request, an alert appears on the recipient’s phone and, because seeing our name taps into a hardwired sense of social obligation, the friend drops everything to answer. It’s a vicious social media circle.
Some observers contend that visiting such websites, and using social media, merely satisfies our craving for entertainment, just like TV or books. Others point out that the previous generation says of every new technology, “It’s melting the kids’ brains.” And then kids do what they’ve always done: They adapt.
But Harris worries that the trend is toward deeper manipulation in more sophisticated forms. Going screen-free next week will be particularly challenging for devotees of Snapchat’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji. Snapstreak is so pernicious that, according to Harris, some teenagers, before going on vacation, give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead.
You can observe Screen-Free Week and still use your devices for work or school. But it means rethinking how much you’re using them and when, and if screens are interfering with family time . . .particularly mealtimes.
Peter Bochner is a member of WaylandCares, a community coalition whose mission is to help the youth of Wayland make good decisions.