Thoughts on Screen Addiction—40 Years Later

Screen addiction worries me so I was excited to receive the April 1976 Psychology Today magazine I had ordered through Back Issues.

screen addiction

I leafed through “The Benefits of Boredom,” “Our Failing Reverence for Life, and “Guru Bawa and His Disciples: The Mind is in the Heart,” and there it was—what I was looking for: “The Frightening World of the TV Addict.”

George Gerbner then dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleague, Larry Gross, discovered that “heavy viewers,” who watch four or more hours of television daily, are more fearful, less trusting “of their fellow citizens” and see the world as a much meaner place than those who watch less TV. Dubbed, “the mean-world syndrome” their research broke new ground, demonstrating that adult perceptions and behaviors could be shaped by TV’s influence (Gerbner and Gross, 1976).

Heavy viewers have a hard time separating their world from the TV world. Sometimes that results in becoming a scary person, more aggressive or a more scared person, more fearful than one might have been without all that programming. Other times, TV can make seemingly sane people do bizarre things. If you ask those 250,000 adults who wrote and sent letters requesting medical advice from the fictional Dr. Marcus Welby why they would do such a thing, they may not be able to give you a reasonable answer. (You may be too young to remember the venerable man. Played by Robert Young of Father Knows Best fame; Dr. Welby embodied the heroic essence of “the good doctor.”)

Those youngsters who ran around lifting up sewer grates, looking for the Teenage Mutant Turtles, (Grossman and DeGaetano, 2014) have an excuse, after all, children’s brains aren’t fully developed and what is imagined in mind easily becomes real-life. But adults who actually take time to intentionally pen/type a letter to someone who doesn’t exist? (Back then the letters had to go through US mail and took more time and thought to construct and deliver than today’s three-line e-mail.) And yet…maybe these folks weren’t all crackers. Maybe they sincerely wished like mad that the good doctor would/could/if only exist?

Whatever the reasons adults can’t separate reality from fantasy, the fact that these things happen shows the power of the screen to influence. That was true in 1976 and it’s still true today, despite all the massive changes. 40 years ago, as the article points out, “Television, unlike theater or the movies, does not require leaving your home.” Today, of course, you carry all your favorite TV shows and movies with you, accessing them anyplace with Wi-Fi, which is just about anywhere.

40 years is a long time. 40 years can turn a toddler’s tantrum into a mid-life crisis. He’s gone from throwing red convertibles to buying one. 40 years mellows many turbulent teens into earnest moms—now arguing with their turbulent teens. A lot happens in 40 years. We aren’t the same people we were (unless of course, we are the Rolling Stones and we continue to live as if it still were 1976).

So while so much has changed in the technology world over the past 40 years, and we aren’t the same people we used to be 40 years ago, actually little has changed to prevent or eradicate screen addiction.

With the ease at which screens flitter through our lives and fill up our time, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the average time spent with screens for today’s kids is 7.5 hours daily (Rideout, 2010). One out of eleven are addicted to video games—that’s at least three million kids whose lives revolve around video games (Grossman and DeGaetano, 2014).

The fours hours-a-day-1976 description of the “heavy viewer” now seems quaint by comparison, nostalgic even. And if we want to get technical—fours hours was the average time adults spent viewing. Children back then watched TV an average of 2-3 hours day.

Stephen King calls TV “the glass teat” and he has a point—these days media use begins in infancy.

On any given day in the US, 29% of babies under the age of 1 are watching TV and videos for an average of about 90 minutes. Twenty-three percent have a television in their bedroom (Linn, et. al., 2012). Time with screens increases rapidly in the early years. Between their first and second birthday, on any given day, 64% of babies and toddlers are watching TV and videos, averaging slightly over 2 hours. Thirty-six percent have a television in their bedroom (Linn, et. al. 2012). Many parents now offer their infants and toddlers their cell phones as a way to calm them; families dining out often are paying more attention to their digital devices instead of conversing with each other—as you probably observe everyday.

While we progress from toddler to mid-life; from being a teen to parenting a teen—in 40 years as a collective intelligence we haven’t figured out how to prevent screen addiction.

While the information necessary to make positive changes to prevent screen addiction exists, (tons of research; loads of best practices) it is not in the hands of enough parents. When children are on the “glass teat” more than they are doing things in real life, it demonstrates to me that the parents do not understand the negative consequences of too much screen time on developing brains. They don’t think that creating a habit of quieting youngsters with devices can result in a screen addiction a few years later. But once parents do understand the immense fragility of the young brain, they often need help to implement new parenting strategies in their day-to-day. (I will put in a shameless plug here: That is why I started parent coaching as an effective solution for helping parents align their parenting decisions with what’s best for optimal brain development. It works!)

I don’t want to be coaching parents ten or even five years from now because they lost their children in virtual reality. I hope in the future I don’t hear a mom or dad complaining, “Gloria, the holograms are taking over every nook and cranny of the house. What am I to do?”

I long for a high-tech world that we manage well and use for the highest and best purposes of humankind.

Who will create our a high-tech/deeply human world?

Your children will. Teach them to love the natural world, to be at home in the world of earth, sun, sky, breath and life. Teach them that the screen world is for new information to better the natural world; for entertainment—times to escape and have fun; for communication—to stay connected to those you care about and most of all, the screen world is for their creative expression—to design new forms that enhance the natural world and life and everyone’s life.

The screen world is never, ever, the only world.

Yes, teach them these things and your children will be care-full thinkers with the wisdom, will, and know-how to make sure in 2056 the real world on planet Earth is still livable, and most folks (your grown children included) choose it over the screen/virtual/holographic one.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2016. All rights reserved.

References

Gerbner, George and Gross, l. “The Scary World of TV’s Heavy Viewer.” Psychology Today, April 1976. Pp. 41-45.

Grossman, David and DeGaetano, G., Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A call against TV, movie, and video game violence. Random House. 2014.

King, Stephen. (2010) On Writing. Scribner, p. 148.

Linn, Susan, Ed.D, Almon, Joan, Levin, Diane, Ph.D. (2012) Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children, technology and early childhood. The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Alliance for Childhood.

Rideout, Victoria, Foehr, U., and Roberts, D. (2010) “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year Olds.” Kaiser Family Foundation.