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I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for Screen Time: A Preliminary Thought on Screen Time

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

It is obvious, we have new technologies that allow us to connect, view, and talk like never before.  From video games, to social media, to streaming videos, a cry has come up from the parents of America:  Is all this time on our cell phones and tablets OK?  How much is OK?  How much is too much?  What harm is all this causing?

We have not written about these timely questions before because the answers are not yet clear.  We are not writing now because the answers are now clear.

Rather, this post is being written because a new perspective was printed recently, a perspective that just might help us think about these questions.

The article was in a recent NY Times.

In this article, some recent research into the use of screens was reviewed, and some questions raised.  I found one question the most compelling part of the article.  Is screen time a meaningful concept anymore?  Have we moved into the sort of constant and varied use that our relation to the use of these devices is now far more complex than the now outdated terms, screentime, can mean?  The article offers a new word to replace screen time, the screenome.  Screenome, how does that bizarre word help anything?

Think of other -omes.  The biome, the gut’s microbiome, the neurome.   Each use of the suffix -ome indicates we are dealing with a complex system.  The neurome is the whole mass of functions performed by the neurons and other cells of the human brain.   The gut microbiome is the universe of the trillions of bacteria in the human gut that interact in complex ways.

The word screenome may not be a keeper, but it brings to mind the sense that kids, and we, are no longer just having a bit of screen time meaning doing one thing on our screens.  The article makes clear that the average person bops around quite a bit on our screens.  We look at video clips, we play some video games, we text or connect somehow to many others, we use a host of apps, we read.  Someone once related a story about a pediatrician admonishing an adolescent to stop spending so much time on social media, he replied that with the doc was a kid, she could only connect to one person at a time on a phone, now he can connect with hundreds with one social media action.

The point that is emerging is that our devices have not really changed who we are.   The human mind is capable of connecting to other humans in vastly complex ways, it always has been able to do this.  Long before even electricity was discovered, before the first child played a video game, or snapped a chat, humans were socially engaged across millions of people to do the most complex extraordinary things.   Simply consider all the actions of the great civilizations of the world, each of which did what they did without electricity.

The use of these new devices to connect, play, talk with each other has not ushered in any materially new fact of connectivity.  Humans are profoundly connectable, seek out social functioning, are social.  And so the fact that research so far has not delivered clear proof of harm of the technology, per se, makes sense.  In this sense, the invention of the tablet or mobile phone did not make us an extraordinarily social species, we have been all along.  And, just as in times past before Instagram, people found ways to use our social abilities to cause harm, to ruin lives, even to end lives, just so we will using these devices.   It remains far from clear if these devices have made us any kinder or meaner.  We remain who we are, and our stories of kindness and of cruelty, continue to astound us.

One finding that was curious was that looking at patterns of use of social media can reveal someone is or may become depressed, with an accuracy that is similar to that achieved by professional psychologic evaluation.   I caution readers not to conclude that use of social media causes the depression, the story instead makes clear that if depression is occurring, use of social media may shift.  It appears to be the depression that causes certain patterns of use of social media, not the use of social media that causes depression.

BOTTOM LINES

  1. The explosion of mobile devices and apps has thoroughly who we connect with each other, especially the younger you are.
  2. There are plenty of stories of inappropriate use of streaming videos and of use of social media that cause harm, but the jury remains out on the actual overall impact on humanity of these new ways of connecting.
  3. We started the technological revolution as an extraordinarily complex social creature, it is far from clear even today how the use of social media, video games, etc. will actually alter who we are.
  4. It may very well turn out that whether we choose to be kind or cruel will determine much of what happens to us, more than the tools we use to relate, and live, but the answer to that question simply remains unanswered to date.

Stay tuned,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

 

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