Erin Baird

Words by Phil Pappas
Illustration by Erin Baird

According to the Council for Research Excellence, in 2009, the average American adult spent upwards of eight hours per day in front of a some type of screen, a number that has surely since risen.

I considered regurgitating numbers and analyses of the various amounts and ways – computers, phones, in front of television (the longest on average) – that we stare into screens, in some attempt to convince you that I’m smart and know what I’m talking about, but for the purpose of this article, none of these specific statistics matter. Eight and a half hours. Rather, eight-and-a-half hours per day, as in, the average American adult now spends a third of their life staring at a screen. Which, to put lightly, means that you are past the point of consuming media, news, sports, videos, movies, or re-runs of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Top Chef, and, instead, screens are consuming you.

The necessary exclusion of “work” from the disappointing and disconcerting trend of rising amounts of screen time is noted. If someone pays you money to stare at a screen, then you can feel good about yourself, because, hey, you’ve got to make that paper. Of course, if you are paid to stare at a screen, and then you go home and, while off the clock, stare at a screen some more, my friend, you need to figure out why the fuck you are staring at a glowing box[1] all god damn day long.

Relaxing after a hard days work is nothing new. Prior to the existence of the internet, Joe America would grab a seat in his favorite chair and decompress by watching a ball game on TV or some local news and then drink some cheap beer and pass out. And before TV, younger generations such as myself envision a family gathered around a radio listening (listening!) to a serial mystery program or whatever Shadow-like program you care to imagine existed. Before the radio there was the phonograph (!), and well-to-do families gathered around the wood-burning stove, and their fancy new light bulbs, and they fucking phonographed for a few hours. And, certainly, before the phonograph, a family of malnourished coal-workers gathered in a circle and talked, or played games[2], or read (!!).

These days, however, we are blessed with the all-new, wondrous relaxation technique from screens with more screens (let that box glow, baby!). On the computer and watching TV at the same time, with your phone right next to you, ahhh, yes, I can feel the muscles in my back loosening already. All day coding at the office or editing videos, well, you might as well get home and watch six hours of NCIS and get rid of that migraine. It’s really not a pretty sight. A fleshy, slightly-overweight human wakes up to an alarm clock that, in all likelihood, comes from a screen (might even check a few emails before leaving bed), takes a shower, brushes and flosses, gets dressed, and goes to the office where the human stares at a glowing box for eight or more hours, breathing steadily the entire time – but remembering to keep terrible posture – goes home after work, shovels some slop into the facial region and under-masticates until their ego kicks in and reminds them that they’re getting fatter, and then the human lays on the couch and clicks through hours and hours of endless shows, reruns, videos on Youtube, news on the computer from a variety of blogs, websites, magazines, social media, etc., and, finally, goes to sleep – waking up the next morning to do it all over again. From time to time the human takes a night off from staring at the rectangles and gets completely fucking shitfaced.

The above description may not actually resemble who you are, and it doesn’t fit the cut of my amazingly ripped abdominals, either, but our fleshy human does exist based simply on the numbers. Even as an extreme extrovert with ADHD, I still find myself spending a couple hours here and there reading the contents of thirty websites and blogs, watching some bullshit on Youtube for thirty minutes, and then approaching the digital manifestation of Satan himself and spending 15 minutes on Facebook. And, when it’s all said and done, my screen addiction isn’t all that bad. Not comparatively. Even at two or three hours a day in front of a computer (you can throw movies and writing onto my list of computerized activities), I still get this feeling in my stomach that resembles guilt, shame, and underachievement – as if, with the exception of emails or writing, anything I’m doing online is a fucking waste of my time. And, of course, it is.

The psychological implications that accompany different types of screen use are intriguing (and someone with some grant money and a Ph.D. should be researching this shit). Facebook helps you increase narcissism and gives your FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) a healthy boost. It’s tough to list how many comments exist on Youtube declaring, “What am I doing with my life?” which shows an obvious negative correlation between time spent on Youtube and self-worth. There’s the screen on your phone that habituates you to believe that communicating through a series of text messages, or arguing with someone in 140 characters, or ignoring your best friend because you need to “check in” at 7-11[3], or that you can possibly express nuance and emotion through emoticons. And then there’s always premium cable, satellite, and DVR that can suck up so much of your time that you won’t need to use an emoticon in a text message, because your mind is filled to the brim with five seasons of Dexter straight, and you no longer communicate “emotionally.”

Is any of the time spent in front of a screen adding to your life? Maybe some laughs or some social-media connectivity, information, etc., but you could probably knock the actual beneficial stuff out in 30 minutes a day. And since we’re spending eight-and-a-half hours staring at screens, are we really doing anything more than feeding and strengthening the addiction to staring at a glowing rectangle?

But videos of Russian drivers make me laugh, and so I feel happiness (“Look, a giant drunk guy has a bucket on his head and is running over a car!”).  My brain sends a small amount of dopamine through the reward circuit and lets me know that things that make “us” laugh are appreciated, so I click on the next video in the related video column. And, after enough time spent in front of the glow-box you have created and strengthened a pathway that resembles that of drug addicts. Congratulations, you have successfully fucked your head up! Now, the important part is to keep feeding that monkey. You should probably get to some sort of phase where your dependence on the glowing rectangle is strong enough that you can actually spend an entire day in front of it without leaving your couch and then wonder where the day has gone. And, when you do finally leave your couch to, uh, go do something, you have this nagging voice in the back of your mind telling you how much you wish that you were just back on the couch, relaxing.

And all the while, you have accomplished nothing. You might be reading a bunch of cool stuff, or watching hilarious videos, stumbling, Facebooking, watching porn, or CSI Miami, but isn’t it kind of all the same at some basic level? You are staring at a rectangle of some size, where strong, bright light, movements, and images are emitted and then perceived and, as a result, certain pathways in the brain are strengthened, like a drug.

Research is being conducted to answer some of the questions as to the what, how, why, how much, and how bad people are being rewired by the glowing rectangle, but what’s clear, as the results are coming in, is that it’s actually fucking people up. Of course, if everybody is doing it, then we’re all kind of oblivious to it, right? Oblivious to a certain point, because I know you heard about that Korean couple who let their baby die because they were too busy feeding a virtual baby – too busy too feed an actual baby… because of… a virtual baby… virtual.

The processing and sharing of information with the proliferation of the internet and screen related technologies is the most impressive facet of human ingenuity in my lifetime[4], and the ability to connect and consume information with such ease that has resulted from the development and advancement of glowing rectangles (computers, TVs, and phones) is nothing short of incredible. And as we spend hour after hour in front of a glowing rectangle sharing images, photos, videos, thoughts, messages, memes, likes, affirmations and negations, doing whatever it is we do, we have transcended consumption, and have now entered an existence where, on average in this country and as a member of the collective unconscious, a screen is consuming a third of your life. ◥

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[1] Glowing box: an illuminated screen of some type.  Common misuse: a bioluminescent vagina.

[2] The invention of charades occurred in these dark ages.

[3] Fucking 7-11. Who gives a shit?

[4] Okay, that space-crane that lowered the Mars rover was also pretty cool.