There has been a lot of concern in recent years about the amount of time kids spend on their electronic devices. Some social scientists have made a cottage industry out of sowing moral panic on the topic, claiming media effects on everything from sexual behavior to suicide risk.
But it’s not just kids who are constantly tethered to their electronic lifeline. It’s us grown-ups, too. According the Nielsen Total Audience Report, American adults now spend 11 hours per day engaged in some kind of electronic media use—mostly smartphones and other digital devices for younger adults, mostly television for older adults. Should we be worried about how adults are affected?
Certainly, some aspects of media use are cause for concern. Perhaps most obviously, time spent mainly engaged with electronic media is time spent NOT doing one of the many other things life has to offer: taking a walk with a friend, reading a short story, playing a sport, or enjoying a quiet meal with someone you love, among many possible examples. Who hasn’t witnessed—or been guilty of—the pathetic spectacle of two adults at a fine restaurant, each of them staring at their phones, oblivious to each other? Our devices even disrupt our sleep: according to a recent survey, 26% of American adults wake up to check their devices at least once during the night. The same survey found that about half of adults believe they are “addicted” to their mobile device and check it several times hourly, desperate to see what words of wisdom some bubble-headed celebrity has lately shared with the world on Twitter. OK, I added that last part, but the actual data are disturbing enough.
Still, one thing I’ve learned in 30 years of studying and writing about media use is that it’s always more complicated than it seems. There’s always more research attention given to the potential perils of media use than to its benefits, but there are plenty of benefits. Otherwise, why would we be devoting 11 hours a day to it? There’s the entertainment value, obviously, that we get from television, video clips, and music. There’s a limitless world of information, too. We hear a lot about the misinformation, the “fake news” and false narratives, but there is also plenty of fact-based knowledge from reputable sources about every topic imaginable. For social media, there’s the benefit of connecting with people we care about. For example, in a national survey of 18-29-year-olds that I directed, about half (47%) agreed that “Sometimes I feel like I spend too much time on social networking websites,” but about half (51%) also agreed that “I rely a lot on the support I get from friends and family through email, texting, and social networking websites.” It’s easier than ever before to have daily contact with a wide network of loved ones, no matter how far away they live. That’s a wonderful thing, I think we can all agree.
So, although it’s important to recognize the threats to our well-being that excessive media use represents, it’s also important not to overreact, and to appreciate how much good comes into our lives via media. Let’s remember, too, that our main forms of media use are still new. We’re still getting used to the ubiquity of social media and smartphones. Even internet use is barely 30 years old, a blip in historical time. Perhaps as the novelty of the limitless electronic media world wears off, we’ll get wiser about how to set our own limits on it, and get better at enhancing its benefits while protecting our children—and ourselves—from its threats.
As a first step, how about if we all agree that when we go out to a meal with someone we love, we all turn our phones off?