The Perils of Screen Addiction (and How to Beat It)

Do you stare at a screen for a huge portion of your day? Descend into panic when you misplace your cell phone? Feel compelled to check your e-mail or IM incessantly?

When you pick up a book or pause with a deeper reflection, do you easily succumb to the glow of a screen, or the chirp of a newly arrived text?

If you do, then you are part of one of the most significant cultural phenomenons in human history: screen addiction.

This infatuation with the screen is precipitating a transformation—much like the one unfolding within our libraries.

The library used to be an asylum for thought. Nestled amid the bustle of the campus or city center, it was once a place of refuge, a cocoon of tranquility, a haven for reflection. Sprawled on the floor, concealed among the forest of shelves, a person could spend undistracted hours buried in a book, lost in thought. The library was a place where thinking citizens could go to escape the rat race, where time stood still and new worlds and intellectual frontiers opened, where nuggets of knowledge could be discovered, mined and then locked away like precious stones in the mental vault. For thinkers, the library was utopia.

Today the most popular service offered by most libraries is Internet access. Ninety-nine percent of public libraries in the U.S. provide computers that connect to the Internet; more than three quarters offer Wi-Fi networks so patrons using personal laptops can surf the Web. These days the “predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys,” writes author Nicholas Carr, “not the turning of pages.”

Take the Bronx Library Center in New York. “On the library’s four main floors,” noted an article in the journal strategy+business, “the stacks of books have been placed at each end, leaving ample space in the middle for tables that have computers on them, many with broadband access to the Internet. The people using the computers are young and aren’t necessarily using them for academic purposes—here is one doing a Google search on Hannah Montana pictures, there is one updating his Facebook page, and over there a few children are playing video games …” (Spring 2009).

Instead of shushing patrons, librarians check out dvds and “organize gaming tournaments.” In Toronto, teens swing by the public library on Friday afternoons for online games and music. The Stanford University Library created an online identity in Second Life, the online “virtual world.” The modern library “is in the gaming business or the entertainment business or maybe the information connectivity business” (ibid.).

In libraries around the world, books are being pushed aside and screens erected.

Why should we care? Because screens are also refashioning our minds.

Like the public library, our minds are being overhauled by screens, and more specifically, the perpetually connected, superficial world they open to us. Mentally, moments of peace and solitude are few and far between. Our minds are devoid of quiet nooks. There’s nowhere to flee that is free of noise and distraction.

In many cases, this screen-induced overhaul of the mind is changing the way our brains work, the way we absorb and digest information, the quality of our thinking—and ultimately, the nature of our lives.

Screen Addiction

In January, the Kaiser Family Foundation published the results of a study that found that 8-to-18-year-olds log an average of 7½ hours a day with media, including television, computers, cell phones and music players. When you take into account that they spend much of this time media multitasking, the total daily exposure to electronic media rises to an almost unbelievable 10 hours per day.

In 2000 there were roughly 500 million cell phones in the world. Ten years later that number is nearing 5 billion. And these phones aren’t merely devices for talking with friends; they take pictures, send e-mail, play movies and surf the Web.

They send texts too. Eighty percent of all 15-to-18-year-olds own a cell phone and their texting has skyrocketed 600 percent over the past three years. The average teen sends 3,000 text messages a month; 42 percent of teens say they can text blindfolded.

Not shocked? Then consider how much less time these youths are spending in more productive and important activities. While the average teen is exposed to more than 70 hours of electronic media per week, he spends less than 16 hours with parents, less than 10.5 hours in physical activity and just over five hours doing homework, per week.

But it’s not only the young who are addicted to their screens. At work, many of us stare at computer screens all day every day. Everyone carries a cell phone, or two. We instant message and e-mail. We chat and text. At home, screens in every room emit an enticing glow. The average American home has 2.9 televisions. Nearly all of us have at least one computer, most of which are connected to the Internet. We go online for nearly everything: to shop, pay bills, find work, check the weather, watch videos, play games, download music, join clubs, read, skim, vent, connect.

Then there’s the ubiquity of other gadgets—the iPhones, iPods, iPads, dvd players, gps units, portable video games, laptops. Next time you’re driving, set down your cell phone and absorb your surroundings: the vehicles with built-in dvd players; the driver checking sports scores on his iPod; the people engrossed in phone calls or shooting off text messages while driving.

Americans send more than a billion text messages each day. Last year, the average American cell phone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts per month. Facebook has more than 500 million active users, 50 percent of whom log on every day. Nearly 10 percent of Facebook users update their profile every day.

Mentally, gadgets plus perpetual connectivity equal information overload. According to research performed at the University of California–San Diego, the average person today consumes nearly three times as much information as the average person in 1960. “At one time a screen meant maybe something in your living room,” says New York Times technology journalist Matt Richtel. “But now it’s something in your pocket, so it goes everywhere—it can be behind the wheel, it can be at the dinner table, it can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today” (npr, August 24).

We sure do—and people are beginning to wonder if this screen addiction is not altering our minds and behavior in elemental ways. “A lot of people seem here but not here,” observed Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “They’re pecking away on a piece of plastic; they’ve withdrawn from the immediate reality around them and set up temporary camp in a reality that exists in their heads” (August 20).

Rewiring Our Brains

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explores the impact that our perpetual connection, specifically to the Internet, is having on the way we think. Dozens of studies point to the same conclusion, he writes: “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (emphasis mine throughout).

We’ve grown quite adept at scanning and skimming, Carr says, but “what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation and reflection.”

Our children especially are being affected. In 2008, research firm nGenera conducted a study into the effects of the Internet on the brains of “Generation Net,” the generation that has grown up latched to the teat of the Internet. “Digital immersion,” concluded the lead researcher, “has even affected the way they absorb information. They don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest.”

According to Carr, screen addiction is rewiring our brains.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist, agrees. Referring to the popularity of Twitter, Facebook, texting, video games, and to technology addiction in general, Greenfield told the Daily Mail, “My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment” (Feb. 24, 2009).

Deep down, it appears many of us know and fear the effect screen addiction is having on our minds. In a nationwide New York Times/cbs poll in May, nearly 30 percent of those surveyed under 45 admitted they felt like their use of gadgets was making it harder for them to focus. By becoming addicted to the screen, Carr observes, we have “rejected the intellectual tradition of solidarity, single-minded concentration”—a state of mind often induced by reading a book, for example—and “cast our lot with the juggler” (op. cit.).

Increasingly, our minds are like the cursors on our computer screens. They dart here and there, up and down, rarely settling, constantly moving, clicking and dragging. Like the modern library, the modern mind is devoid of nooks, places to go for prolonged, single-focused, undistracted thought. Screen addicts are finding they lack the mental capacity for sustained concentration on a single task, be it at work, on a homework assignment or in productive conversation with friends and family.

The nature of our lives is being fundamentally altered. Our captivation with gadgets is making life more “frantic and rushed,” writes William Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry. This is causing us to lose “something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth.”

Not only are we losing depth of thought and feeling, we’re losing “depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do,” writes Powers. And “since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.”

Screen addiction is refashioning the way we think—and we’re allowing it!

What is the way out of this maze? How can we reclaim control over our mental processes and salvage our capacity for depth? If you want answers, you are not alone. More and more discontented screen addicts are seeking them too.

Consider Your Ways

When was the last time you took stock of your connection to the screens in your life? When was the last time you evaluated your capacity for deep thinking? To beat screen addiction and reclaim your mind it is important to, as the Prophet Haggai put it, “consider your ways” (Haggai 1:7).

Count the number of screens in your life. Calculate how much time you spend with each. Then consider how that time is spent: What percentage is for important, engaging activities—perhaps reading serious news or researching for a term paper—versus being wasted on mindless or thought-destroying surfing?

How many texts do you send and receive per day? How many of those texts make a valuable contribution to your life? How much television do you watch? How many times do you check your e-mail? How many times do you need to check your e-mail? Do you visit a website 10 times a day when once or twice is enough?

Now, consider how much time you spend in activities that deepen the mind, that lend themselves to focused, undistracted thought. How much time do you spend reading each week? How much time in meditation? How much in conversing with your family?

Next, think about your ability to think. Would you call yourself a deep thinker?

In his bestselling book The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet says that the thinking mind is like the eye: “It must be single.” Great thinkers—or as Dimnet calls them, “people possessed of a mastering purpose leaving no room for inferior occupations”—stand apart for the “directness of their intellectual vision.”

How direct is your intellectual vision? When an original or creative thought comes to mind, are you able—do you in fact have an urge—to mull it over, to flesh it out, to tie it down, to lock it away in your mental vault? Do you love being alone in thought? Is your environment conducive to in-depth thought?

The mind of the weak thinker, Dimnet writes, has a “fatal capacity for letting in extraneous thoughts or mental parasites.” Used unwisely, gadgets and the Internet can easily become conduits through which our minds are filled with mental parasites.

Evaluate your mind against Dimnet’s criteria for a thinker: “If we are bored by a topic above those which give food to our small dislikes or even smaller likes, we do not think. If, the moment a book or newspaper raises a question demanding some supplementary information or reflection, we yawn, fidget or hurriedly do something else, we abhor thinking. If, when trying to reflect, we at once feel weariness, drowsiness or a tendency to repeat mere words, we do not know what thought is. If we do know what it is, but as Montaigne says, are too lazy to tackle a problem with more than a ‘charge or two,’ we are feeble thinkers.”

Stop! If you bounced through that paragraph without pausing to reflect on each point, you might be a weak thinker.

Perhaps you’re more addicted to the screen than you thought. Or maybe you lack the mental prowess you desire. What can you do? Everyone’s circumstances and minds are different. What follows are some principles that may stimulate your own thinking on how to balance your use of gadgets with becoming a better thinker.

Create Solitude

A study recently conducted at the University of Maryland asked 200 students to refrain from using electronic media for a day. After the exercise, one student commented: “Texting and im-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. For this student, not being able to communicate “via technology was almost unbearable.”

Screen addiction had groomed him to fear solitude. His mind had been conditioned to find comfort and solace in friends. His existence was defined by his place in the crowd.

This is what screen addiction does: It causes people to fear being alone with their own thoughts!

Living in the crowd is not conducive to deep thinking. “The art of thinking,” writes Dimnet, “is the art of being one’s self and this art can only be learned if one is by one’s self.” Just as the reader loves quiet nooks in the library, the thinker cherishes quiet nooks in life. He creates solitude.

This is not easy. If we carry a cell phone or iPod, we are not alone. If we’re logged into Facebook or Googling, we are not alone. If we’re sitting in a silent room pecking away at the computer but have e-mail or instant messenger open, we are not alone. Chances are, if we have a screen and it is switched on, we are not alone.

Creating the solitude needed for thinking requires flicking the off switch on every screen in our lives!

Try it.

Consider also: Whether you’re using a gadget or creating space for serious thought, budget your time. Put a limit on your recreational Internet use. When you’re on the computer, set the timer so you don’t lose track of time. Limit the number of texts you (or your teenager) send each day. Force yourself to only check your e-mail once an hour, or once a night. Turn the television off after the specified maximum time each day or week. Carve out blocks during the evening when all cell phones, or all gadgets, are off.

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, Powers explains the value of what he terms the “Internet sabbath.” A few years ago he and his wife began turning off the modem on Friday night and not switching it on until Monday morning. For the entire weekend, the family was disconnected from the Internet and the digital crowd. It wasn’t easy at first. But as time passed, the impact of the Internet sabbath was noticeable and welcomed.

On the weekends, Powers writes, the house became a “kind of island away from the madness.” Instead of each family member retiring to a room with a gadget, they gathered for board games and conversation. Naturally, the family grew closer. During the day they spent more time outdoors and grew to love nature. They got to know their neighbors.

Consider instituting a rest day from the Internet, or even all gadgets in your household. If switching off gadgets for an entire day isn’t practical, then carve out time—perhaps during dinner and for an hour afterward—when all screens must be off.

Here’s something else to consider: Create within your home nooks of solitude—areas where family members can go to be free of noise, distractions and screens. Teach the family to respect these as places where the stressed can unwind and read a book or poem, or simply reflect and contemplate.

Realize, though, that you can be isolated in a silent environment and still be plagued by thought-destroying noise and bustle within. The mind that is overloaded, filled with commotion and unorganized, unfiled information, is incapable of in-depth, concentrated thought.

To think and reflect, we also need interior solitude.

This means switching off any extraneous programs running in our minds. It means removing mental distractions, obstacles that will divert us from focused concentration. If you’re distracted because you haven’t paid a bill, go online and pay it. Forget about the tv show you might be missing. When you sit down to read a book, switch the computer off so it won’t entice you with its alluring glow. Switch off your cell phone too. Do whatever it takes to purge the distractions from your mind.

“To lead happy, productive lives in a connected world,” writes Powers, “we need to master the art of disconnecting.”

Feed Your Mind

Okay, the screens have been switched off, the children are asleep and your mind is clear and alert. You’ve managed to create conditions conducive to thinking deeply and singularly. Now what? What should you think about?

In Philippians 4:8, the Apostle Paul provides valuable instruction on this point. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

That’s awesome advice. Be determined and be active in feeding your mind a healthy diet of information and knowledge that is true, honest, just and pure. Develop a reading list of quality books that will uplift and inspire and educate your mind. As you read, stop and meditate on what you’re consuming.

Start keeping a journal. Make time to write in it regularly. Record your goals and aspirations, for you personally, but also for your family. Take notes on a conversation you had with a friend. Flesh out a creative or original thought sparked earlier while you were reading or driving.

Take time to write a handwritten letter to a friend or distant relative.

All these activities will contribute to you developing the habit of thinking.

How much thinking should we strive to engage in? Ideally, the more the better. But strive for balance. Aim to devote at least the same amount of time (if not more) to serious, thought-provoking activities as you do to shallow, superficial activities like watching television, surfing the Internet or playing video games.

Remember: Thinking doesn’t mean only reading or writing, or sitting cross-legged in still silence on the living room floor. Abraham Lincoln took long walks on which he would meditate deeply. Nothing inspires original, creative thinking like an in-depth conversation with friends.

Embrace a hobby that lends itself to solitude and meditation, like gardening or painting. When you do these activities, strive for interior solitude. Turn the cell phone off. Have your own mental conversations. Sometimes background music is nice, but don’t be afraid to switch off the iPod or radio. Create your own mental music.

For those interested in pursuing some of the deepest, most profound thoughts available to man, study the Bible. No other knowledge on Earth will stretch and strengthen your mind like that found in this book. Why? Because the Bible is the mind of God in print.

It’s filled with what the Apostle Paul termed “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10).

In Romans 12, Paul wrote: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind ….” Do you ever feel like your mind needs renewing? The more we study the Bible, the more we give God the opportunity to renew our minds, to wash our thoughts in His truth and His deep thinking.

For many, the Bible’s archaic language and seemingly illogical flow make it almost impossible to understand. (Scripture itself reveals that there is a profound reason for that.)

Let us help. We have a smorgasbord of literature explaining all of the deepest truths of the Bible. For those interested in understanding Bible prophecy better, there is our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. If you’d like to learn more about the Christian Sabbath, why it was created and how to keep it, request and study Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?

We live at a time when traditional marriage and family is under assault. Now would be an ideal time to investigate what the Bible says about marriage and family. Just request The Missing Dimension in Sex, or Why Marriage! Soon Obsolete? If you want a more detailed understanding of the Bible, including all the major doctrines and prophecies, consider enrolling in the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course. This course has been designed to guide you through a systematic study of your Bible—the Bible is the only textbook. And best of all, it’s free!

Lastly, if our cultural infatuation and addiction to screens—and the fundamental impact this is having on our brains—really concerns you, you need to study our free book The Incredible Human Potential.

The more you study this book, the better you will see how screen addiction and its effect on our brains are actually damaging a masterpiece of God’s creation: the human mind!

This book explains the magnificent difference between the human brain and the animal brain. It reveals the human mind for exactly what it is: an instrument that has the potential to receive God’s greatest gift to mankind—to be joined with the very mind of God! The Incredible Human Potential will teach you how to take care of your mind, how to build and strengthen it, and, most importantly, how to add a spiritual dimension to your life that will truly expand your mind so you can embrace your full, incredible human potential!