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Taking Stock on Screens – and a challenge to take charge

by Sarah Piper, Psychologist

It’s like we’re being ambushed. They’re coming at us from all angles, and in all sizes. Like an army that just keeps storming new fronts: first it was television,then it was video games, then came computers, mobile phones, fancy i-pods, i-pads, laptops, tablets…the list goes on and we’re surrounded on all sides. Irrespective of all their fantastic uses, they’re all SCREENS, compelling our eyes to watch and dominating many aspects of our lives. It’s like they arrived first and foremost as an exciting piece of technology to ‘help us’ and to ‘make our lives easier’. Somehow they came disguised as a friend, yet increasingly they seem to manipulate; demanding much of our attention and complicating a lot of our time. Now, many years on, as I reflect on the impact of screens, I’m left feeling that the ‘friendship’ they offered didn’t really have our best interests at heart.

So what’s the problem with screens? We’re all adapting pretty well to them, and let’s be frank, they’re pretty useful and efficient (when they work). Technology has been a great connector on many fronts and it has enabled all manner of things to progress faster than we ever dreamed of. What is it exactly that I think is a stumbling block to our human development?

It’s the simple fact that the screen is not a human face and the screen is incapable of feeling. Forgive me for stating the obvious but, in order to develop as relational beings, we need regular contact with real people. This includes all people we come across, in all of their human-ness, whether it be appealing to us or not. To be able to see someone’s face and their expressions (real time), to be able to hear them exactly (irrelevant of a microphone’s quality), to touch and to feel, to smell them (for better or worse), and to taste (in more intimate cases) is something a computer cannot replicate. A while ago, when our family went overseas to live, it was the easiest farewell comment to friends and family: “I’ll miss you but we’ll keep in touch over Skype”. It temporarily alleviated the pain of being separated from those we loved but in reality we realized that computers were a poor substitute for real human contact. As much as we encouraged the children to keep up with their friends and extended family, the complaint was always “it’s not the same”. More than anyone else, it’s the very young and the very old who notice these things most accutely. On a screen there is no human company in the flesh: and that means no hugs or handshakes, no eye contact or kisses, and no distinctive smells (whatever their aroma!).

This lack of real human contact can be seen in many areas of life that the screens seem to have invaded. The part that I see most often is for young people and adolescents. All their friends are using social media and this results in many of them communicating late into the night. This in turn affects how they sleep; whether it be from the screen light that has decreased their natural melatonin levels thereby making them feel quite awake or perhaps it is the conversations that have been going around on the group chat leaving them to lie awake in bed trying to process what was said. In addition to this, if there is an electronic device in the bedroom, there’s a high probability of being woken by a ding or a beep. That is certainly an interruption they don’t need! It can be lonely in a bedroom doing study for hours on end and it’s possibly made lonelier by the pressure to keep up with social media. For a young person going through a tough time, the absence of a comforting or even distracting human presence may only serve to make things worse. Any adolescent is unlikely to be aware of this themselves, but a caring adult in the house might have a ‘sixth sense’ that too much time alone in one’s room with a screen might just be a toxic combination.

Only five to ten years ago, I’m sure it was quite a relief for many parents to send their offspring to school knowing that they’d have to talk face to face to their friends and not rely on other digital devices. Now that many students need a laptop or similar for school, the whole game-plan in the playground seems to have changed. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see groups of kids or even kids on their own just glued to a screen. Is there no respite? If, as Andrew Fuller suggests, “it is the skills of negotiation, problem solving, lateral thinking and emotional intelligence that predict young people’s ability to be successful” then how does this all pervading use of technology assist them? Perhaps we are doing them a dis-service by allowing these devices to be such a huge part of our lives? No doubt you’ve felt a similar hunch yourself; that this embracing of technology may not be to our benefit.

One of the most moving experiences I had in a counselling job overseas was with a 13yr old girl named Jacquie*. As the oldest of three in a fairly affluent, stable family, she had a father who was quite good with technology and a mother who wasn’t. When Dad was at work, Mum was happy to have her children using the screens ‘a lot’ as this afforded her large chunks of time get all the domestics done and keep her house pristine. Consequently, each of the 3 children tended to go off on their own and play on their phones or I-pads. Jacquie, meanwhile, was having some social difficulties at school, often feeling like she didn’t fit in. She strongly disliked the tendency of many of her friends to play on their phones at lunchtime and she wondered why people couldn’t just talk anymore. To make things worse, she would arrive home to find that her younger sisters were playing on their screens and didn’t really want to do anything and her Mum just looked busy. She had heaps of fun and interactive ideas but it was made pretty clear to her that she’d be doing them on her own. It became obvious that Jacquie was lonely and this was a significant part of her very low, sad mood. Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. Not many sessions later, I had the joy of seeing her smile and even look me in the eye as she recounted a recent day trip that the family had taken. It turns out that she had courageously told her father how she was feeling and suggested that sometimes the wi-fi be turned off and perhaps the family could start doing more things together. The next session was my first experience of her beautiful smile, as she described an outdoor day trip that the family had taken. This tentative step of openness had made a massive difference in her ability to make changes for the better. The best thing being, in Jacquie’s words, that “we talked”.

All the research on this topic is interesting but somewhat inconclusive. It would certainly make things easier if some hard and fast rules were laid down as a result of some significant findings. Or would it? I suspect that we can come to our own conclusions about what is right for us and what is appropriate for our children; what helps and hinders our sense of well-being and connectedness. That wistful question about why the family doesn’t talk as much anymore and that niggling feeling that it might have some connection with the dominance of screens in the household just might be addressed by the old saying “all in moderation”. We can’t ignore technology altogether yet we can be deliberate in how we use it or perhaps how we engage together on it. Here are a few simple questions as you take stock of your personal or family situation in this area:

– What are my boundaries around screens both for me and for my family?(when, where, how, who with, why etc…).
– How can I actively promote more opportunities for human togetherness

so that significant relationships might have the opportunity to develop? And finally, a question to be answered without Google: If there were 100 things to do before screens were invented, and now there are 101, what are your other 100?


* name has been changed for confidentiality

Creating Resilient Families http://www.tps.vic.edu.au/2013/PDFs/Resilient-families.pdf

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