How Did We Get Here?
In the classic Sociology book ‘Bowling Alone’, Robert Putnam makes the compelling argument that social capital (reciprocal connections among people) has been in a steady decline ever since its peak in 1964.
By 2000, the average American was 58% less likely to attend a club meeting than an individual only 25 years earlier. This may not seem like much of a big deal until you realise that regularly participating in a social group halves your risk of dying in the next 12 months.
It’s not just the joining of groups that have changed either. For example, we are 45% less likely to invite friends to our place and 33% less likely to have dinner around the table with the whole family. We are also 40% less likely to join a bowling league, surprisingly the number one participation sport in the U.S. (Putnam, 2000).
This overall decline in social capital has also resulted in a loss of mutual trust. For example, from 1966 to 1998, the proportion of Americans who endorsed trusting the federal government “only some of the time” or “almost never” rose from 30% to 75%. Without this trust in others, we no longer know who to turn to for help and support when needed.
What’s Caused The Problem?
Putnam believed that some of the main culprits for the loss of social capital were:
- The changes in family structure, with more people living alone, in a single-parent home or deciding not to have children.
- Suburban sprawl and longer commutes, with less time, energy and interest for leisure and social activities once all the commuting is considered.
- A generational effect, where older generations (pre-boomers) are consistently more civic and socially engaged than the Baby Boomers, who are more civic and socially engaged than generation X’ers, who are more civic and socially engaged than Millennials, or at least they were at the time of the books printing (except for hours spent volunteering on an individual basis).
- Technology, especially television, has lead to the privatisation of leisure time. The more people watch TV, the less time they spend involved in social capital type activities. Putnam believed that TV might have contributed up to 40% of the overall decline in social capital since 1965.
How Much Time do People Spend on Technology?
The 2013 documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’ has some pretty scary statistics about how much technology is consumed by male children and teenagers. In the U.S., the average boy:
* spends 40 hours a week watching television, including sports and movies.
* spends 15 hours per week playing video games.
* spends 2 hours per week watching porn, with 21% of young men using porn daily.
The Potential Consequences of Excessive Technology Use
Although some people write off the TV, video games, and the internet as harmless forms of entertainment that help keep kids safe, out of trouble and off the streets, they come with their own risks and potential consequences. For example, the following data was presented in ‘The Mask You Live In’ documentary:
* 31% of young males report feeling addicted to the video games they play.
* 50% of parents don’t monitor the content or ratings of video games, even though 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence.
* By 18, the average male has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen, including 40,000 murders.
Exposure to violent media may:
* lead to children becoming less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others,
* lead to children becoming more fearful of the world around them, and
* lead to children behaving in more aggressive and harmful ways towards others.
Exposure to pornography:
* increases sexual aggression by 22%.
* increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%
The typical response by the content producers to statistics like these is that the content we watch doesn’t impact our behaviour.
BUT if this was the case, WHY do we have a multi-billion dollar advertising industry?
IF media images don’t affect people’s subsequent behaviour, WHY would commercials and product placement exist?
WHY would companies be happy to pay millions for 30-second Super Bowl commercials?
It is ONLY BECAUSE the COMPANIES paying for the commercials and the marketers producing the commercials HAVE EVIDENCE that WHAT WE SEE IMPACTS OUR BELIEFS AND BEHAVIOURS!
If a 30-second commercial can change our attitude or behaviours towards something, why won’t witnessing 200,000 acts of violence before 18?
WHO IS REALLY BEING FOOLED? The general public, or the multi-billion dollar corporations, industries and governments?
The Problem of Smart Phones and Digital Streaming
Since 2013, the problem of technology has only gotten worse, and it is now eating into even more of our leisure time, as shown in this clear depiction by Adam Alter in his 2017 TED talk:
The New York University psychologist presented data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that sleep, working, commuting and activities of daily living (cleaning, showering, eating etc.) have all taken up a similar amount of time over the past 10 years.
As shown in the red (data from the mobile app ‘Moment’), what has changed is how much time we spend looking at screens. It used to be only minutes in 2007. Now our phones, laptops and tablet usage is taking up most of our free time and dramatically cutting into our social and leisure time, much like TV had previously done in the second half of the 20th century.
Unlike TV, this has not been by accident, with the smartest minds of today often focusing on how to attract and sustain our attention on their games, sites, and apps. Alter explored this brilliantly in his recent book ‘Irresistible’, which I put in my top 40 countdown of my favourite psychology books.
A 2017 review by Brendan Meagher on the Australian Psychological Society Website introduced me to the term ‘problematic mobile phone use’. This is “an inability to regulate one’s use of the mobile phone, which has negative consequences in daily life” (Billieux, 2012).
Australia is now fourth in the world in terms of smartphone usage. 84% of us have a mobile phone, with 85% of teenagers and young adults exceeding 2 hours of screen use on their phones every day. The average for all Australian mobile phone users is 2.5 hours a day, which adds up to 38 days per year. We check something on our phone 30 separate times each day, and 45% of Australians now say that they couldn’t live without their phones (Meagher, 2017). Possibly the scariest statistic is that 42% of Australians over 18 still use their phones while driving, despite this being linked with a much higher risk of car accidents (Rumschlag, 2015).
Consequences of Excessive Mobile Phone Use
Mobile phone overuse can be likened to an addiction, with similar symptoms to substance use problems, including tolerance, withdrawal, and daily-life disturbance (Kwon et al., 2013).
Adverse consequences include increased risk of aggression, sleep disturbance (Yang et al., 2010) and physical health problems (Lee & Seo, 2014).
It can also negatively impact relationships, lead to fewer social interactions across a week, and impair academic performance (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011).
Is Your Mobile Phone Use Problematic?
If you are unsure, Meagre recommends considering the following questions:
* Do you think you spend too much time using your mobile phone?
* Has your mobile phone use caused problems in a relationship?
* Do people say that you spend too much time on your mobile phone?
* Does the time you spend on your mobile phone stop you from doing other tasks?
* Have you tried to cut down your mobile phone use?
* Have you used your mobile phone while driving or crossing a road?
Could You Cut Down Your Screen Time?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions like I did, you might benefit from tracking your usage and seeing how much time you actually spend on your phone actively doing something.
I bought the full version of the app ‘Moment’, as recommended by Adam Alter. I didn’t try to change how much I used my phone to get an accurate baseline for the first week. My average was 1 hour, 48 minutes of screen time a day. Less than the national average, but still not how I really wanted to spend my spare time.
I then took on the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ on the ‘Moment’ app for the following week and set myself the goal of less than 1 hour of screen time each day.
The ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ was first developed by Manoush Zomorodi after she realised just how long it had been since she had last felt bored, thanks to always being able to look at her phone whenever she had a spare second. She also realised that she had very little time to let her mind wander without this time of boredom, which was often when she had her best creative ideas. She then decided to set a challenge on her podcast for her listeners, which became the focus of her subsequent book of the same title.
- On day 1, the aim was to observe my phone usage.
- On day 2, the aim was to keep my phone out of reach and put it in my bag instead of my pocket.
- On day 3, the aim was not to take any photos, which was quite easy.
- On day 4, the aim was to delete an app that I used more than I wanted to. This led to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all being deleted from my phone.
- On day 5, I took a fake-cation and put my phone on aeroplane mode to have fewer distractions during the day.
- On day 6, I aimed to observe things that I normally would have missed if I had been glued to my phone, especially while on public transport.
- On day 7, I tried to make something creative. This consisted of me cooking a nice meal for dinner, and it didn’t taste too bad either.
As the above-left data shows, I managed to pick up my phone three times less per day. My baseline of 21 times per day was 9 less than the average Australian already, but I’m glad that I could reduce it further to 18 times per day.
The second picture is more fascinating to me. My phone use took up 7% of my waking life across the challenge. This was a big drop from 12% of my waking life the week before.
The picture on the left indicates a freeing up of 4 hours and 26 minutes across the week for me. My new average is now only 70 minutes per day. Not quite at my 60 minutes per day maximum goal yet, but well on the way.
As shown in the data above on the right, the average person who takes on the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ creates 58 minutes more free time each day by cutting down their phone usage. It would be great to know how they used their spare time instead.
Other Suggestions for Cutting Down Screen Time
- Book in social outings or join a club or sports team. Exercise is also great for both mental and physical health, so combining socialising with exercise is recommended.
- Develop a list of other non-screen activities that you may enjoy and can do regularly.
- Stop channel surfing on your TV — figure out which shows you want to watch ahead of time and record them. This increases the enjoyability of the programs you watch and cuts down how much time you spend watching TV as you can fast forward through commercials.
- If you use a TV streaming site such as Stan or Netflix, decide if there is a program you really want to watch and how long you want to watch before you switch it on. Then, you can set an alarm or reminder to help manage binge-watching.
- Stop leaving your TV on in the background or switching it on as soon as you get home. Listening to most music is likely to be more relaxing than watching TV.
- Install the app or plugin ‘Freedom’ on your computer. This helps you block certain sites that you can waste a lot of time on and make setting limits for yourself easier.
Hopefully, with everything discussed here, you can now see the potential pitfalls of excessive use of technological devices, especially those involving bright screens.
If you feel rushed, always complain about being busy, spend too much time on your phone, or want to find more time for social and leisure activities, I encourage you to consider the role that technology plays in your life. If there is an area where it is becoming problematic or causing you distress, I recommend implementing any of the above suggestions or challenges to see what difference it can make in your life.
If your screen usage is an unhealthy habit that feels too strong to change by yourself, a session with a clinical psychologist experienced in treating addictions could provide additional assistance and support.
Dr Damon Ashworth