News Article

My Screen Addiction

The author compares his symptoms with the Nielsen Company-commissioned study on technology obsession

Can we talk — calmly, and without raising our voices — about screen addiction? I put it that way because no one is quicker to fall into a defensive crouch than a junkie. This is something I know from personal experience. Accusation breeds denial. I'm a social user, the addict says. Besides, I can quit anytime I want.

But can you? Can I, for that matter?

I thought of this when I saw an article from UPI.com (yes, I read it on my computer) that claimed the average American adult spends 8.5 hours a day staring at various screens. The study was commissioned by the Nielsen Company. My initial reaction was classic addict-think: They can't be talking about me; I don't spend anywhere near that much time gaping at screens. At first, it seemed a reasonable conclusion. I don't Twitter, I'm not on Facebook (unless someone else put me there), I've never shopped on Craigslist, and I've made exactly one eBay purchase (someone else did it for me, because I have no grasp of the protocol). I own a cell phone but don't use it — I keep it in the car in case I break down in East Overshoe and need a tow. I think it takes pictures, but I have no idea how that function works, and I've never texted anyone in my life.

So when I started to add up my daily screen time, I did so with confidence, and — Uncle Stevie admits it — a sense of superiority. That feeling soon melted away. For me, it breaks down like this: 3.5 hours a day writing in front of my desktop Mac; one hour a day writing and answering e-mails; one hour a day visiting my favorite websites (Drudge, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Kos, EW, The Filthy Critic, The Smoking Gun, etc.); two hours a day watching TV (mostly stuff I've downloaded from iTunes or gawped at on Hulu). I'm below the Nielsen average, but still — seven and a half hours per day of computer-related activity? That's a lot of voyeurism. Put another way, I'm spending almost half of each day's consciousness right where I am now — with my face bathed in electro-light. It's hard not to think of George Orwell's Big Brother telescreens when you realize a thing like that.

The National Institute on Media and the Family (''Find Me on Twitter!'' is prominently displayed on their website) lists some key symptoms of screen addiction: Playing computer games generates roughly equal feelings of pleasure and guilt; users sometimes put off meals because of computer activity; users incur large bills for online services (thankfully iTunes and Amazon in my case, rather than porn and gambling).

PurpleSlinky.com lists addiction symptoms that strike even closer to home: Is my entertainment center hooked up to my computer? (Uh...yes.) Have I ever taken quality time away from my family to spend quality time watching YouTube video clips? (Welllll...) Have I ever gotten computer-generated headaches? (Er...) Do I get mad when my computer malfunctions? (Are you kidding?) Does the thought of not having computer access make me nervous? (Duh.) Do I feel that checking my e-mail first thing in the morning is a priority? (Doesn't everybody?) Do I check my e-mail more than six times a day? (I take the Fifth on that one.)

You may notice that I'm talking about myself here — that's something addicts like me learn in the various Twelve Step programs. If I talk about you, then denial is going to kick in. Besides, Uncle Stevie doesn't do advice. If you need to make changes, that's pretty much between you and your Mac or PC. As for me? I'm closing in on 62. I might have 10 productive years left, 20 if I'm lucky and don't get hit by any more minivans. When I ask myself how much of that time I want to spend playing online cribbage or watching cute-kitty videos instead of visiting with my family and friends, goofing with my idiotic dog, or out riding my motorcycle, the answer is not too much.

When I read that 8.5 number, I thought about the old saying ''No man on his deathbed ever said, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.''' (I Googled it — another compu-crutch of mine — but couldn't find the source.) I don't think any man or woman on his or her deathbed ever wished he or she had spent more time sending IMs or playing online poker, either. But hell, I could be wrong.

Originally posted Jul 24, 2009 Published in issue #1059 Aug 07, 2009 Order article reprints
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