We love our screens, and certainly they offer many benefits. But there is a fundamental problem with screens that might be leading to some negative effects. I was recently asked by a tween girl at a presentation whether I wished that we didn’t have technology. No, I’m NOT anti-tech (as I blog this…yeah, I get it). There are SO many benefits of screens & technology. They offer endless entertainment options, as well tools for creativity, productivity, education, science, medicine, and so on. Humans, in general, have benefited from science and technological innovations.
Yet, there are many downsides to our “progress.” For example, nuclear bombs, deforestation, polluted oceans, smog, and global warming, just to name a few. With regard to our technology, some of these negative outcomes include increased anxiety, depression, obesity, sleep deficits, and loneliness. How could our screen use be contributing to such negative outcomes?
The Goal of Life?
While we can point to many goals in life, a strong argument can be made that the overall goal is happiness. I am not talking about stimulating our nerve endings, which might more appropriately be called pleasure. But we all probably know that seeing a lot of pleasure can lead to a LOT of unhappiness! I am talking more about a deep level of contentment.
Happiness, in a sense, is the only goal that we pursue for itself. For instance, we aim to go to college, get a good job, make a good income, have a good career, marry the “right” partner, etc. Why? The answer, in some form, would be because we are seeking happiness. Yes, sometimes we endure many unpleasant things (e.g., grinding away at a difficult college major, low paying internships, training for a marathon). But, ultimately, we hope that in the long run that there will be a “payoff” in the form of satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, etc. It can be argued that those are forms of happiness.
In order to be happy in life, we have to meet our needs. We must meet our physiological needs (e.g., air, food, water) as well as our psychological needs. According to self-determination theory, our psychological needs are for relatedness (i.e., connection to others), competence (i.e., sense of power, esteem), and autonomy (i.e., sense of agency). When we are meeting these needs effectively, we tend to be happy. How can we best meet these needs? I share a view espoused by many others that we meet these needs best when we live in a way that’s congruent with our evolutionary heritage.
Our Evolutionary Heritage
We evolved to interact with people face-to-face. We are going against millions of years of evolution by trying to interact socially primarily through screens (e.g., texting, Xbox Live, Facebook). Our happiness is nested within relationships. Relationships, from an evolutionary standpoint, were ALWAYS in-person. Homo sapiens first appeared about 300,000 years ago. Throughout most of our history, we were nomadic and lived in tribes of about 100-150 people. Thus, our needs were met within the context of relatively small social groups. Also, we evolved to be physically active. We suffer countless “mismatch diseases” (e.g., obesity, heart disease, joint problems, eye problems). This means that we suffer those ailments because, in effect, we are living in a way incongruent with our evolutionary heritage.
The Problem with Screens?
I would say that fundamental problem with screens is that the pull of our screens is causing us to live in a way that is in disharmony with our evolutionary heritage. The amount of time we spend on our screens means time that could be spent in other need-satisfying activities is being displaced. So, we aren’t being physically active, getting enough time outdoors, aren’t out in nature very frequently, and are getting less sleep. The many health benefits of being in nature are, most likely, because that’s how we evolved to live.
Health and happiness are, in a sense, the “payoff” for living in a way in which we can effectively meet our needs. We evolved in engage in relationships in-person. Healthy relationships are key to our happiness. So, our screen use is disrupted our in-person relationships. The research is there, but we also know this from our personal experiences. We are seeing greater levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness in society, especially in teens. In part, this seems to be because our screen use is interfering with our ability to effectively meet our needs.
The fundamental problem with screens is that it is interfering with our ability to effectively meet our physiological needs (e.g., sleep, physical activity) and our psychological needs (e.g., in-person connections). Ironically, phones offer so many ways to connect with others electronically that we disengage from our in-person social interactions to check them. Also, social media is displacing in-person relationships and fostering unfavorable social comparisons. So, our happiness is taking a hit because our screens are interfering with our ability to meet our needs. What’s the answer? Well, there’s not an easy one, but I’ll try in my next blog!