We’ve all heard the warnings about too much screen time. Many reasons have been given to Beware The Screen (protecting our eyes, backs, moods, social skills and mental agility amongst other things). Yet since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, these warnings have battled necessity as we’ve adjusted to a new pace of life online.
What to make of this conflict? Were the experts wrong? Or did they identify a real but necessary evil for pandemic life?
Spending 16 hours a day staring at a screen is not good for us, for many reasons. But that’s not necessarily what’s happening – and recent research has found that the time we spend on our devices is less significant than what we’re doing whilst we’re on them.
All foods contain calories. One apple, four carrots and three-and-a-half squares of chocolate each 100 calories, and so does 1/3 of a McDonalds cheeseburger. Most of us know that we’re not going to do ourselves any favours by using all our calories up on cheeseburgers: a daily meal allowance of 6.6 cheeseburgers isn’t good! But neither is a daily allowance of 80 carrots. A friend of mine once overdosed on carrots and turned orange! Additionally, a daily diet of just carrots or cheeseburgers would soon get boring. We live in a world of huge variety when it comes to food.
When it comes to our diet, the key is variety and balance, and it turns out, that’s true for screen-time as well. Some of your screen-time is going to be carrots and apples: good for you, helping you to be productive and important as you study. Some of your screen-time is going to be more like chocolate or cheeseburgers: a sweet treat that makes life a bit more enjoyable. We need both in our diet.
Some of our screen-time is like carrots and apples: helping you to be productive as you study. Some screen-time is more like chocolate and cheeseburgers: a sweet treat that makes life enjoyable. And the truth is it’s good to get both these kinds of screen-use in your life.
If you’re like me, in recent months you'll have appreciated the remarkable technology available to us. I’ve met friends on Zoom to celebrate my birthday, joining in pub quizzes, watching YouTube church and met for ‘post-church-Zoom’. I’ve used Instagram and WhatsApp to keep up to date with my sisters (their various decorating triumphs and disasters have been hilarious), played Scrabble-Go with friends, and watched my way through eleven seasons of Modern Family (thanks Wi-Fi!).
But there are limits to these benefits. A day on Zoom is exhausting. It’s hard to stay focused when engaging online. And a video-call just isn’t the same as seeing friends face to face.
Virtual learning may seem formidable. You might be apprehensive about using it for your degree. It may have prompted questions about how you’ll going to cope with your new workload.
My advice is not to panic. The situation is new for everyone, including your lecturers. Everyone will need to be patient. Your courses will eventually to make their way offline, back into the lab and lecture theatre.
Here are two important ways in which we can think well about screen-time in the meantime.
We are designed for relationship. I’m not talking about romance here (though you may be one of the 1 in 5 who meet their future husband or wife at university). I’m talking about connection in general: friendships, family and acquaintances are part of what it means to be human.
Perhaps like me you appreciated this afresh during lockdown. But even as restrictions have eased, we still feel the ache of the closeness withheld. Sometimes two metres feels like two miles. We are made for one another.
It’s worth prioritising using technology that helps us to connect with and relate to others well. That might mean planning weekly catchups with family and friends at home, using FaceTime or just a phone call. When it comes to taking part in small groups or seminars, Zoom is fantastic. You’ll build relationships more easily if you keep your video on, but turn ‘self-view’ off. Not constantly seeing yourself will help you focus on others and is generally a much more relaxing experience.
We’ve humans with bodies and it’s important to take care of them. You’re not a brain in a jar designed to stare at a screen all day long. Your spine needs movement, your cells need food and water, and your body and brain need to be refreshed in sleep. All this means taking time away from your screen. Here’s some advice I’ve found helpful.
Though we might like to think of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient, our need for relationship and for rest are part of who are we and God has been made to be.
We’re not God. He knows everything, can see everything and is able to do everything he wants. But that’s not how he’s made us as humans. We can’t spend our lives alone; we need to interact with others. We can’t exist without food and sleep; we need to look after our bodies. We can’t expect instant friendships with our flat mates; we’re need to spend time hanging out, chatting, listening and getting to know them.
Sometimes it feels easier hiding in our rooms. It’s less effort – and perhaps we can justify it more easily to ourselves in the present moment.
But it’s also less human.
So, as you approach the beginning of this new stage of life, embrace your God-given humanness afresh. Embrace technology thankfully, all the while pursuing rest and relationships with those that God has placed you amongst. Be brave enough to sometimes switch off the screen, stepping out of your room and your comfort-zone, praying for opportunities to introduce those around you to the God who loves them and makes sense of their humanity too.
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