Each week on a Sunday I get a message on my iphone (and another on my ipad). It tells my my Screen Time has gone up or down this week by a number of percentage points. The time itself varies but is never less than an hour a day. Sometimes it’s a good deal more. I usually dismiss this as unimportant. It’s where I read the news, which is just like reading the paper, and check Twitter. I don’t have Facebook or Instagram or any other social media so I don’t consider myself in thrall to this stuff.
I begin the day with the Guardian over breakfast. I’ll read the main news stories and any article that grabs my attention. Then I’ll check Twitter to catch up on the people I follow. Only when that’s done do I find my way to the desk and start work. This seems harmless enough but by this time I open the computer I will already have engaged with more than 50 different items. News stories, a bit of audio attached to a report, an opinion piece by someone I will almost certainly agree with, videos of earthquakes in Indonesia, a fire in the Australian bush, a cuddly dugong calf. There will be hyperlinks to click through to other linked stories or images I might save for later.
What all these things have in common is that by the afternoon I won’t be able to recall more than about 5% of them and by tomorrow or the next day that proportion will be so small as to be insignificant. Yesterday’s news is a dead thing. But it doesn’t matter because the redundant information will have been displaced by fresh information and so on, over and over. The 24hour news cycle ensures that this refresh is available – and clamouring for our attention – every hour of every day.
It’s not as if the news I consume can be taken at face value. I go to what I consider a reliable source (but then so do readers of the Daily Mail and Fox News). But in today’s media landscape the main purpose of much of the news is to deliver eyeballs. Even on reputable news sites a dramatic video will trump serious analysis 9 times out of 10. It’s becoming harder to separate news from advertising. From news which is not news at all but is entirely fake. The most egregious crap leaks into the mainstream media because of the pressure to be first. Publish first, check later. More significantly most of it does not impinge on my life at all. The news delivers nothing but unease about things I have no control over and can do nothing about.
If then all this news and other ephemeral digital content doesn’t actually contribute anything to my life then it would wise to question the hour day I’m giving over to it. But it’s worse than this. Given what we know about the plasticity of the brain this constant and repeated short-term engagement it’s clear that the effect will be to bring about physiological changes. The brain will be rewiring itself to handle this deluge of stuff. And in the process it will make it more difficult to engage with information on a deeper level. Out concentration spans are being reshaped. Which is why people argue they find it difficult to read a novel or to engage in anything that involves concentrated attention.
So that’s two strikes against my harmless online routine.
But let’s go back to our original observation that I am giving over an hour a day to an activity which might actually be harmful and do some sums. It’s easy to dismiss an hour a day. But over the course of a month it adds up to 30 hours. That’s 2 1/2 twelve-hour days. Over the course of a year it means that I am giving an entire month (weekends included) of twelve-hour days to Twitter and the papers. Over a decade I am giving almost an entire year to my devices. And this on a very modest estimate of my daily screen time. It might easily be double this. Imagine that. Imagine someone saying the next decade is going to fantastic for you – except 2028 and 2029 because you’re going to spend those two years in a room looking at your phone.
This is not an original observation. It was brought on by reading Rolf Dobelli’s book Stop Reading the News. For the next month I’m taking his advice and running an experiment. I’ve removed all the news apps and Twitter from my devices. I’m going cold turkey.