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If the pandemic doesn’t kill us, will screens?

Imagine if in March 2020, suddenly every workplace required constant chain smoking. Children were required to smoke for six hours a day in school, people stopped bothering to avoid smoking in their kitchens or bedrooms, and smoking was a legal requirement of seeing your friends or dating.

Comparing screens to cigarettes may sound dramatic, and perhaps it is. But we know screens and the internet are bad for us. Screen time stops children from developing emotional understanding (The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2019), and smartphone addiction actually shrinks the grey matter in your brain, which makes you worse at cognitive performance (Addictive Behaviours, 2020). Many, many studies have linked screen time to depression, and blue light from screens stops you producing melatonin, which is causing an epidemic of insomnia. It also just makes you die earlier. A 2012 study from The British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that sitting in front of a screen for long stretches significantly increases your mortality rate, whether or not you do adequate physical exercise outside of that time.

Aside from the physical effects of screens, we also all know that social media is manipulating us. We are choosing to spend vast swathes of our time, and have all our interactions, from the deeply intimate to the mundane to the professional, in a weird kind of land where Mark Zuckerberg is the unelected supreme leader. We let him perform mind control on us, where he tells us what to buy and who to vote for. But most of all we are letting him rewrite our neural pathways, so that we scroll and scroll and scroll forever and never leave his vice-like grip.

Of course we were already on this deadly path before the pandemic, but we’ve zoomed (literally Zoomed) ahead about 20 years in 8 months. In 2019, Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö spent six months living in a studio in Somerset House, in the heart of London, without using the internet. She wrote letters, paid for things in cash, and encouraged people to visit her spontaneously. She got hundreds of letters and visits from strangers, interactions that were far more intimate and meaningful than emails or social media posts. I saw her exhibition about it in Christmas 2019. At the time a life without screens seemed radical, but post-pandemic? It just seems impossible. 

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The collective wisdom about addiction, proven over and over again, is that you can’t escape an addiction unless you give it up completely. But we’re all addicted to scrolling and notifications, and there is no way to function in the world without them. If you wanted to go cold turkey from screens, you couldn’t go to school or university, or have a job, let alone have a social life.

So what about the future? It’s hard to imagine we can go back from spending a year or more gorging on screens in a collective brain-melting binge, and then return to a healthy relationship with the internet. As screen addiction becomes more and more of a problem, we need to think about carving out space for a screen-free life in the modern world. Will people have to go to screen rehab? How would you even book it? On a landline?

Image: Wikimedia Commons