by David Murrow
Billions of people are under stay-at-home mandates, “socially distancing” from one another to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The global economy is buckling. Schools are closed. Freeways are deserted. Airports are empty. Businesses are sliding toward bankruptcy, and millions of workers find themselves suddenly unemployed.
What’s holding the world together? Screens.
People are working from home via screen. Children are attending class via screen. Churches are worshipping via screen. Entertainment is pouring into our homes via screen.
But even before the virus lockdowns confined us to our homes, humanity was drowning in screen time. A pre-virus survey found that the typical American consumes nine hours of screen entertainment each day. Screens have been socially distancing us since they began entering our living rooms in the 1950s.
I write not as an academic, but as a man who almost drowned in screen time. I didn’t realize I was in over my head, neglecting the important things, and hurting the people I love.
I was born in 1961, just as screens became ubiquitous in American homes. My father bought his first black-and-white TV a few months before I arrived. If we were home and awake, the TV was on. The Murrows started each morning with the Today show and fell asleep to The Tonight Show. We were the first family on the block to own a VCR.
My father’s screen obsession disgusted me. He spent most of his free time absorbed in his TV, avoiding real life. I’ll never do that, I told myself. I pretty much stopped watching television when I became a teenager. I was proud of myself for conquering Dad’s compulsion.
Ironically, I graduated from college and went immediately into the TV business. For the next two decades, I produced screen content but rarely watched it.
Then in 2003, my screen addiction came calling in the form of a PowerBook G4 laptop computer, broadband internet, and a wireless router. The combination of portability, Wi-Fi, and the World Wide Web proved irresistible. I carried that laptop to my easy chair in the evening and into my bedroom at night.
By the late 2000s, more and more of my attention was absorbed by that little thirteen-inch LCD panel. In the process, I was slowly losing touch with the real world. My body was home, but my mind was in cyberspace. I didn’t notice my absence, but my wife and kids did. One autumn day, they confronted me about my obsession with screen time. I faced the truth: I was trading away real life for screen life, just as my father had.
I wish I could say I declared victory that day, but each new screen technology has brought with it unexpected temptations.
About three years ago, a buddy invited me to try Words with Friends. It’s like Scrabble, but you play it on your phone. It was an entertaining way to pass the time whenever I had a few minutes to kill. I reckoned I was playing about twenty minutes a day, so it was no big deal.
Then Apple introduced iOS 12, which automatically issues a weekly screen time summary. When I saw my first report, I dropped to my knees. I had blown more than twelve hours that week playing Words with Friends.
I immediately deleted the game. Those first few days were difficult. I instinctively reached for my phone dozens of times. I felt as though I was disappointing my friends for dropping out of matches already in progress. But over time, my desire to play faded. And what did I do with those extra twelve hours a week? I began researching [this] book.
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