Pete is a drywall contractor friend of mine who’s always quick with a joke and a smile, and he mentioned something once that I won’t forget. “If I hire a drywaller who smokes, I should pay them $2 an hour less because of smoke breaks. If that smoker also has a smartphone, they’re worth $10 an hour less because of screen breaks.” Pete laughed as he said this, but it was the kind of laugh that covers something big and tragic.
In the same way that smoking was once mistakenly prescribed by some doctors as a health-boosting habit, and toxic lead water pipes were routinely installed in new homes and considered “safe” until the 1920s, screen addiction is stealing the social skills, productivity, creativity and hands-on capabilities of millions of people. So many folks don’t seem to realize the debilitation. According to MTM Media Technology Monitor, in 2016 the average Canadian spent 3.5 hours per day online; 5 hours per day for people 18 to 34. I’m sure the numbers would be similar for many places around the world. Based on what I’ve seen, these numbers seem understated. What would the developed world look like if everyone redirected just half their screen time to something physical, productive, face-to-face and hands-on?
I should mention up front that I’m a big fan of the productive possibilities offered by the internet. I earn most of my income online while living on a remote rural island in Ontario, and the internet makes countless things better in my life. The ice maker in my fridge broke recently, but I wasn’t worried. The internet let me troubleshoot the problem and buy parts easily and at a reasonable price. My dog is alive today because the internet helped me diagnose and successfully treat her condition as blastomycosis when vets were baffled. I’m working remotely with a family from Oklahoma right now designing their dream home. One reason I can keep my old, beloved 1990 F-150 pickup truck running well is because of what I learn on the internet and the parts I can buy. Last night I replaced the drum rollers in my dryer with parts I ordered online, following a repair procedure video. I could go on and on about the benefits that the internet has brought to my life. So, if the internet is so good, why am I worried? Simply because there are two sides to every coin.
While the internet is the biggest and most powerful force for worthwhile learning and productivity in human history, it’s also the biggest and most powerful force ever for killing time, talents, morals and relationships. This is especially true since the advent of the smartphone. Like a lab animal conditioned to get another dose of morphine with every push of a button, the insatiable draw towards social sharing, games and the latest “news” has all the hallmarks of chemical addiction. Am I overstating this? I don’t think so. I know a clinical psychologist and she tells me that the symptoms of digital addiction she sees regularly in her practice are identical in nature and physiology to chemical addictions. No responsible parent would give a loaded syringe of heroine to their child, yet it’s common to find kids under 10 with phones and unrestricted internet access. I know of grade school children at recess in schoolyards who’ve been introduced to hard-core porn via their phones that’s worse than what was illegal to sell out of a trench coat in a back alley a few decades ago. Smartphones are the lead water pipe of the 21st century.
So what can you do? I figure it comes down to one old-fashioned personal trait. Discipline. Are we disciplined enough to use the great and productive things the internet has to offer, without having our lives and kids waste away in destructive digital past times? I sure hope so.