The Zuck surveys an early prototype of his virtual reality zombie army.
When I was kid, I remember having pretty strict limits on the amount of time I could spend staring at the TV screen. On a typical weekday I would probably only watch TV for an hour or two, and mother dearest would restrict video game time to a measly half an hour (them newfangled thangs will turn your brain to mush, you know). As a nerdy ankle-biter it was truly devastating – a slap to the face of modern technology and any prospects I had at becoming a true gaming legend, which especially stings looking at millionaire pro gamers even younger than me. But hey, I probably wouldn’t have been able to compete with my horrendous 300 ms reaction time, and ultimately I really am glad that I was forced to read books and play outside instead of following a dark path to becoming a full-time basement dweller.
However, the question still lingers: how much of an effect does screen time have on children? Adults? How much is too much?
It’s no secret that hours of screen time have skyrocketed in the last decade. For many adults, basic daily life, work, and leisure revolves around a screen of some sort. A study of 2,000 British adults found that the average amount of time spent looking at a screen was about six hours a day, with a quarter of the respondents reporting ten hours a day. The same study shows that “nine out of 10 of us say screens are a necessary part of everyday life and more than a third of people say they couldn’t live without screens,” which I find to be true for myself as well. During the week prior to writing this, I actually recorded my screen time, and my average was a solid 12.6 hours a day. That may seem like a lot (alright, it’s definitely a little too much), but it’s not like I’m watching Family Feud all day – most of it I would classify as cerebral activity. That is to say, anywhere from 4-10 hours of daily screen time is spent on programming and work-related stuff, with another few hours spent on other cerebral hobby-related stuff, such as using music making software, reading online articles, etc. — not video games. Still though, that leaves a good chunk of screen time left, and I found that I spend anywhere from 3-6 hours a day on leisure screen time, like watching youtube or playing video games. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I spent twelve hours slaying virtual rats this past Sunday.
Regardless, the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not so much the amount of time you spend that influences your brain, it’s how you spend it. It’s more complex than just “blue light ruins your sleep cycle” (which it can, but that’s the reason blue light filters exist). The truth is there are many variables that can sway how screen time can affect us:
- Characteristics of the person – e.g., age, sex, personality variables
- Characteristics of the context – e.g., playing a video game alone vs. online with strangers vs. in-person with friends
- Format – e.g., tablet, Xbox, smartphone, VR headset
- Type of media – e.g., social media, video games, Netflix, blogs, YouTube tutorials
- Characteristics of the media – e.g., violent movies and video games, pornography, sexting, high action vs. low action, strategy vs. action
- Consuming vs. creating – e.g., watching YouTube videos of people being slimed vs. how to play chess, playing a video game vs. programming/developing a video game
- Time/frequency involved – e.g., 2 hours per day vs. 10 hours per day, checking a phone 30 times per day vs. 200 times per day
- Timing – e.g., Snapchatting at home while sitting on the couch or while driving down the freeway at 70 m.p.h., a college student texting friends between classes or during class lectures
So, it’s not as simple as many people purport it to be and it should be judged on a case by case basis. I’m not saying 12.6 hours a day is completely justified (and I could probably spend some of that time reading books about rats instead of slaying them), but there isn’t clear evidence to suggest that a large amount of screen time alone impairs cerebral function. There’s a huge difference between spending four hours browsing Instagram and spending four hours working through the many logic puzzles that programming has to offer. The individual is responsible for making sure they do what’s best for them — a fact that seems to get lost in today’s overabundance of online group-think. If you think you’re spending too much time in front of a screen, then address that accordingly. If not, then keep doing you.
In my opinion, it’s totally fine to spend upwards of 10 or more hours a day staring at screens, as a quarter of the population already does. Just make sure you’re using a good amount of that time to engage your brain – play some virtual crossword, program a tic-tac-toe game, write a blog post about screen time. But take breaks too – go outside and look at birds doing bird things, go jog for an hour, make some macaroni, and for crying out loud, don’t pull your phone out in the middle of a conversation. Talk to other people in real life instead of just your facebook/twitter echo chamber. Ultimately, like with everything, you get what you give.
I’ll end with a semi-relevant quote from a school principal’s publication in 1815: “Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”
This opinion piece is brought to you by the letter Z and Eli Anderson, KHIT’s lead software engineer.