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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Loneliness and Going Screen Free

This week the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood celebrates screen free week "an annual celebration where children, families, schools, and communities turn off screens and turn on life." Screen free week was once TV-free week, a much easier task for me personally. According to recent Nielsen data, the average American household has 2.5 televisions and the average American watches 35.6 hours of TV each week, close to the equivalent of a full-time job. My one-TV household is clearly an oddity in modern America. As a mom of two very active boys and working full-time both outside and inside the home means TV simply isn't a significant part of my life. In fact, a week without a single hour of television is standard for me. I have no idea what shows are "hot". I have never seen a minute of any "housewives" show nor can I even guess who the latest contestants are on the current season of "Dancing with the Stars." In fact, I'm clueless on most celebrities or anything happening in their lives.

But when we're talking all screens, it's a different story. Just to keep up with all that I do, I sport a PC, a laptop, an iPad and an iPhone every single day. Being in front of screens - often more than one at a time - is not usual, it's my life. Although 90% of it revolves around work, I do use my "screens" for social networking, making dinner reservations, checking the weather, and catching up with friends. And when I sit back and consider the amount of time I spend in front of them, I am more than a little alarmed.

Yes, I'm concerned about my vision (it has definitely gotten worse as I spend more time in front of screens), about EMFs, and that most of my screen time is spent sitting instead of being out and about. But more than anything else the quantity of time that I - and others - spend in front of digital screens concerns me for the sake of community and interpersonal relationships. Sure, we all feel so connected. Facebook brings us back in touch with friends that span our entire lifetime and every facet of our world. Twitter keeps up the chatter and LinkedIn connects our professional world online. YouTube and Pinterest make it all visual. But none of it - not a single platform - truly, authentically helps us to connect in the ways that really matter. Not with our spouses or partners, our kids, our family members, our friends, nor our colleagues. And I personally think that all this screen time is a danger to our happiness and to our future.

Why? Because we are losing our human interpersonal skills. We have a harder time communicating, empathizing, and sharing in person. We are more challenged to understand voice tones, facial expressions, and body language because none of them are present in our digital world. We feel detached and disconnected, despite our hundreds of online "friends" and our hours of being linked.

A sobering article in this month's Atlantic Magazine tells us the statistics: a 2010 study shows a 15 percent increase in chronic loneliness among older Americans in just the past 10 years. Another survey indicates that "in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant." Yet more than 845 million of us are connected to "friends" on Facebook alone. But still the indicators of loneliness and unhappiness are on the rise. Even the casual social networker's screen time correlates with a growing lack of connection, according to Atlantic Magazine: "non-personalized use of Facebook—scanning your friends’ status updates and updating the world on your own activities via your wall, or what Burke calls “passive consumption” and “broadcasting”—correlates to feelings of disconnectedness."

How do we read these results? As the Atlantic Magazine surmises, "It may be that Facebook encourages more contact with people outside of our household, at the expense of our family relationships—or it may be that people who have unhappy family relationships in the first place seek companionship through other means, including Facebook." Perhaps the loneliest of us spend the most time in front of screens, desperately trying to connect and feel connected. Or perhaps the lost time we spend there is the very ironic factor that is growing our sense of disconnection. In either case, walking away from your screens - at least for personal connections - may be one of the healthiest things that we can do. Lonely people are more likely to be obese, to exercise less, to have higher rates of inflammation, and to have poor memory, among other conditions. What's more is that the loneliness and disconnection we have created impacts our social and political culture as well, with lower rates of participation in voting, volunteerism, and community groups. And this growing pattern of loneliness is starting younger and younger.

As the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood points out, children spend "an astonishing average of 32 hours a week in front of screens." High screen time correlates with poor school performance, obesity, and behavioral problems among children. It also sets a pattern for disconnection at a critical time where children are learning and integrating social skills.

Hard as it may be, it's time for all of us - as adults and as parents - to step back and take a critical look at how our screen time is impacting our lives. It's time to redefine our family connections, rediscover our relationships and put the screens away. Remove the screens from the dinner table, from family time, from your personal lives. Put away your phone when you're standing on line and chat with someone nearby intead. Smile, don't send smiley faces. Happiness doesn't come from a screen. Even for one week, you can take back your life and see what a difference it can make.

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