Gary Horton | The Solution to Screen Addiction? Just Do Things

Gary Horton

Apple has an interesting feature on its cell phones. The operating system tells the phone owner how much “screen time” they’ve used each day and how their screen use time is trending. It even suggests whether your screen time is healthy … 

Now, this is an interesting 2024 artifact. Imagine: We live in a day where each of our handheld super computers tells us whether we’re being healthy about how we use them …  

Our phones themselves know we have an attention problem. Our phones know the constant scrolling through news sites, social media, Tik Tok, X, and all the rest can be too much and overwhelm our mental and physical health. Consider, 25 years ago kids didn’t have phones and most free time was spent playing baseball in the street or hiking in the hills or some community sport or going to the library or Boy or Girl Scouts or something. Kids back then might have volunteered as “candy stripers” in hospitals or helped in a senior home or perhaps worked on Eagle Scout projects. 

No matter what it was, just a generation ago, kids and adults were far more involved in the real, physical world, usually directly interacting with other living, breathing objects, either human or animal. 

Today humans rack up hours upon untold hours, heads tilted 40 degrees downward, staring at mini screens. Some go from their cellphone to their 65-inch or 80-inch flat screens with hardly a pause to come up for air. Some 50%-60% of American preteens have smartphones. NPR reports that average Americans use smart phones between four and five hours per day. 

Smartphone addiction is a real thing.  

Consider a device with an appeal so strong it sucks living, breathing humans out of their real world into a screen approximately 2.5 x 5 inches of size. Evolution has brought humans to the point where we’re hyper-intelligent, super mobile, many with free time never imaginable before – and what do we do with this once-on-a-planet gift?  

We spend our days staring down 40 degrees at our 2.5 x 5-inch screens. 

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours per year, once spent bumping shoulders, playing, working, talking with others in the real world, has now been replaced by the virtual.  

Why is the virtual world gravitational force so strong? Because it gives us what we want. This is where we all must be especially cautious and self-aware. Because unlike at any prior time, we can custom-define content to give us content perfectly curated to our preferences.  

The easy example is CNN or Fox News. To look at one then the other, is to view nearly opposite worlds and messages, often considerably removed from the actual physical world we live in. 

But these are blunt tools: One targets mostly aging suburban white folks, and the other aims at urban mixed-culture younger types. Stories and messaging are curated per scientifically calculated formulas of fear, excitement, seduction and even news – to keep their respective target eyeballs glued to the channel. 

Even more powerful is the Wild West of the internet. Most folks go to the same sites over and again. Facebook, Tik Tok, and other social media feeds adapt to users’ clicks and soon feeds become custom adapted to reinforce the viewer’s preferences. Right-wing eyes see only right-wing content. Left-wing eyes see left. You’re a senior? Soon you see almost only senior issues. Like Teslas? Soon your whole world is electric. Like a given sport or hobby? Again, the algorithms feed and reinforce your preferences. Oh, it’s handy – but auto-limiting as well. 

And with each scroll or click, our individual worlds become smaller, our exposure to new ideas reduced, and our biases increased. Few sites suggest we consider opposing opinions, do they?  

A generation ago we already had the antidote to smart-phone mind-melting disease. We called it, “doing things.” We did stuff. We got up, went outside, played with friends, had book clubs, discussion groups, social clubs, volunteer groups. Often, ideas and views were up for grabs, as federal laws required views and opposing views to share time on public airwaves. Since there was no mind-control algorithmic internet back then, we constantly heard opposing views, whether we liked them or not. Maybe we didn’t like what Walter Cronkite said, but we heard it and we had to deal with it.  

Nowadays, most are pretty much fully plugged into their respective thought-sockets. We’re not going to change. Reinforced by our four to five hours of daily screen time, we learn to vilify “the other.” 

And today, we find an America far more divided than in any history we’ve encountered.  

“Doing things” helps solve our 2024 cyber-world conundrum. Unplug, and instead, join clubs. Do city-sponsored activities. Volunteer – anywhere. We have the Senior Centers, homeless shelters, city sports programs, libraries, public schools and College of the Canyons, hospitals – a nearly endless list of highly beneficial community programs you yourself can help. Just get outside and enjoy the sun – meet folks in the parks or paths and … talk. 

“Doing things” breaks screen addition. “Doing things” breaks down our ideological differences — much of which were manufactured by algorithms in the first place.  

“Doing things” brings human evolution back to where it was meant, where we use our gift of time and freedom to experience life itself and to help move society forward, together as a species. 

So just do it. 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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