View from Rue Saint-Georges

Too Much of a Good Thing

Americans spend most of their waking hours staring at screens

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | February 14, 2018
Balazs Koren/Flickr
Balazs Koren/Flickr

A couple weeks ago, walking back from the épicerie in the light rain, I was scrolling absentmindedly through my Twitter feed, glancing up now and then to cross the street or maneuver around a slow-going stroller. At some point, I might have switched over to Facebook or Instagram—I don’t remember.  What I do remember is an astonishing pain shooting through my face, snatching me back into the material urgency of the here and now, where people were staring at me. I had walked straight into a metal pole along the rue Saint-Lazare and banged my forehead, which started to swell so fast that I had to ice it with a can of beer. I was lucky not to have broken my nose. If ever I needed a screamingly obvious metaphor for the hazards of too much smartphone use, there it was.

Even so, I don’t know how to free myself from it—this all-encompassing device that keeps me in touch with family back home and helps me disseminate my work and uncover new ideas while simultaneously making it ever more difficult for me to think and concentrate on either. I worry about the world I’m complicit in normalizing for my child. There was an alarming op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times about the discrepancy in screen time between disadvantaged and more affluent youth:

If you think middle-class children are being harmed by too much screen time, just consider how much greater the damage is to minority and disadvantaged kids, who spend much more time in front of screens.

According to a 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University, minority children watch 50 percent more TV than their white peers, and they use computers for up to one and a half hours longer each day. White children spend eight hours and 36 minutes looking at a screen every day, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, while black and Hispanic children spend 13 hours.

Thirteen hours a day! It boggles the mind. Even the eight and a half hours white children spend in front of screens is outrageous. Yet most adults I know—myself most certainly included—can easily get it up to 15 or 16 hours some days. Of course, my wife and I, like most parents we know, try to limit our daughter’s iPad time, but soon she’ll be old enough to point out the enormous discrepancy between what we say and what we do.

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