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 practice, 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?
The Internet Is Both Great & Terrible
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, Canada, and the internet makes countless things better in my life. The ice maker in my fridge broke a while back, 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 veterinarians were consistently baffled and had given up. A while back I was working remotely with a family from Oklahoma 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. A while back I replaced the drum rollers in my dryer with parts I ordered online, following a repair procedure video. In my 30+ years deep in the country, I can say for sure that the internet has made life out here much, much better. Entertainment, shopping and learning is all much, much better than when all we had for communications here was a four-household party line. 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 dopamine 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 she also sees. 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. In fact, it’s not only common, it’s the norm. I know of grade school children at recess in schoolyards who’ve been introduced to hard-core pornography 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.
Control the Internet Or It’ll Control You
So what can you do? I figure it comes down to one old-fashioned personal trait that’s fallen out of favour. Discipline. Are you disciplined enough to use the great and productive things the internet has to offer, without having your life and your kids’ lives waste away in destructive side of the digital world? I sure hope so, and there’s one idea that I find helpful in this regard.
All online activities can be slotted into one of two categories: productive and consumptive. Productive use of the internet involves learning, earning and discerning.
Learning: When you need to understand something for a useful purpose, the internet can’t be beat.
Earning: The best money-making opportunities in human history for ordinary people depend completely on the internet.
Discerning: In a world filled with more lies and distortions than ever before, the internet can be a source of verifiable truth in a way that was not possible before, when the only stories were those told my mainstream media.
Consumptive use of the internet is another matter entirely. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you with nothing except astonishment at how much time elapsed since you clicked down that last “interesting” rabbit trail. These pointless diversions are mostly about entertainment, or seeking the superficial approval of others, or feeding various activities that were considered vices not so long ago. Do lives get wasted in such endeavours? Yes, absolutely they do. I know several promising young people who know what hard work is, they have plans and aspirations for the future, they have intelligence, good health and a massive family support system. Despite all these advantages, it’s common to see people accomplish only 10% of what they set out to do, and even then it takes twice as long as it should. “I’d love to do that”, or “I’m going to build that XYZ”, “I want to travel”, “I want my own business”, “I will fill my yard with birdhouses!” Years worth of these comments with no significant achievement to show for it is the most common outcome that I see. This is what happens when most of each day gets swallowed up in funny videos, or the latest instalments of a series that’s too good not to binge watch, or some Tweet that needs to be responded to immediately, or the latest Facebook message that needs an answer.
When it comes to the big issues of life, there are no completely effective guard rails around danger. Ultimately, it comes down to personal responsibility and how each of us chooses to spend time. Like I said, “discipline”.