January 2015

Screens Vs. Reality

Author: Kent Thune

Would you feel lost if you lost your iPhone? Do you feel disconnected when the cable goes down? What would children play with if there were no such thing as an Xbox? How did the world communicate before televisions and personal computers?

Most importantly, are these digital devices advancing our overall well-being, or could they be detracting from it? This question is not easily answered, but there is no doubt that we are spending increasingly more time looking at our screens.

According to a 2014 US digital consumer report from Nielson, Americans now own an average of four digital devices and the average U.S. consumer spends 60 hours a week consuming content on their various screens. And using social media on a daily basis is now standard practice, with almost half (47 percent) of smartphone owners visiting social networks every day.

Recent Pew research found that cell owners are extremely attached to their phones, although most don’t see that as too big of a problem. Sixty-seven percent of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls, even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.

This research also found that 44 percent of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night. Twenty-nine percent of cell owners describe their cell phone as “something they can’t imagine living without.”

All of this screen viewing and information consumption is a not-so-surprising byproduct of the Information Age, which started with the advent of personal computers in the late 1970s and expanded with the Internet in the 1990s.

Today, we increasingly obtain our knowledge and see our world through various screens: We send and receive personal and professional messages by e-mail; world events are captured in almost real time and transmitted in a 24-hour news cycle; life events, both momentous and trivial, are captured on hand-held devices and shared through other screens.

Like many forms of technology, screens can be either a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to our health. At our fingertips, and with almost instantaneous results, we can search for and read the works of history’s greatest thinkers, such as Plato, Shakespeare, and Thoreau. But that’s only if we can make it past the more accessible stories of what celebrities are doing and wearing (or not) and the images of what our online friends are having for lunch today.

Furthermore, the depictions of real things and events are gathered and consumed, delivered and received, through non-real sources, and thus the experiences, the connections to reality, become veiled by screens. Therefore it is highly possible, and all too common, that life today is seldom fully experienced.

Even when in the actual presence of something real, or when in the midst of an otherwise wonderful experience, it is often viewed through a screen, with the intention to capture the experience for later viewing on yet another screen (or perhaps hundreds, thousands or even millions of screens shared with others through the means of social media).

Now consider the irony of having and viewing more screens, which in this context is a term that collectively describes anything requiring a screen for viewing, such as a television, a personal computer, a video game monitor, or any variety of handheld devices, such as the oxymoronically named smartphones.

But the word screen has another meaning (and not just in context of keeping mosquitos off of your Hilton Head Island porch): Screens are things that are generally intended to conceal or filter out something else. And, if we are not mindful, that “something else” is reality.

Therefore, with regard to our digital devices, to receive images and words, and to connect with the external world, we will often need to look at screens. But we are wise to remain aware of the unintended consequence of screening out reality, of disconnecting ourselves from what is important and necessary for a happy and meaningful existence.

And this is not to mention other known health hazards, such as vision problems or sleeplessness, or the potentially negative psychological and cultural impacts of video games that blur the lines between fantasy and reality, all of which can arise as a result of spending large amounts of time looking at screens.

In summary, as with all matters of health, there is a balance to be struck. Spend more time in the presence of others; put down the phone, turn off the TV, and go for a walk. Engage in happy events more often by seeing them through your own eyes rather than through the screen of your iPhone or iPad.

Yes, by recording the event on your digital device, you can see it and share it later on some other screen. But remember: to do this, you remove yourself from the experience, from life. And yes, you may exchange e-mails with family, or “like” a friend’s Facebook image, or respond to their Twitter “tweets,” but these are not healthy replacements for the physical reality of your personal presence or even that of hand-written letters and phone calls.

In the game of life, you must be present to win. The personal experience cannot be replicated on a screen. Use your screens as tools to enhance reality, but be mindful not to disconnect from it. 

Kent Thune stays connected to reality by spending time with his family and taking frequent walks on the beaches and trails of Hilton Head Island. On “screens,” you can find Kent’s musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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