Could We Aim for Zero Hours Unnecessary Screen Time?

Cover for Hidden Price Tags: An Eastern Orthodox Look at the Dark Side of Technology and Its Best Use: Volume Four: Nitty, Gritty Ascesis

"It was a tremendous blessing to see children engaged in physical play." Such I said to a visiting priest when two lovely priests' families descended on the monastery for a daughter's baptism. The specific game they were playing was called "Revenge," and it was a tag-like game where "everybody's it" and if someone tagged you, you had to sit down until the person who tagged you got tagged. I wasn't enthusiastic about the name of the game, but it was timeless relating between children who knew how to constructively amuse themselves without the use of video games.

Michael Davis wrote of his own experience,

...As I said to Rod, "I reminisce about characters from Age of Mythology more than I do my childhood friends. I remember 'visiting' planets from the Jedi Knight series more vividly and more fondly than I do our family vacations." That's all true, I'm sorry to say. And I could go on.

One year, the local Boy Scout Council had its annual jamboree in the field on the other side of our woods. It wasn't our property, but it's where I spent a huge part of my childhood playing. In the summers, I hayed that field for the local farmer. This was my home turf—and there were hundreds of other kids here, playing games and camping out! Yet all I can remember is how badly I wanted to go home and play Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

My happiest memory of Halloween growing up is playing Tak and the Power of Juju with my cousin Zack before we went Trick-or-Treating.

And this is not atypical. This is normal, or rather, it's not normal at all, but it's what we have instead of normal.

Current recommendations, as I understand, are for limiting children's screen time to two hours a day.

The problem with current recommendations

Limiting children's screen time to two hours a day is markedly, markedly better than going libertarian with children who are not ready for that kind of freedom. Limiting screen time to two hours per day means kids know how to handle time not plugged in to a screen, and develop face-to-face social skills. And that is nothing to sneeze at. But it leaves one core problem quite unresolved.

That problem is that at two hours a day of screen time, engaging with screens is the only first-choice activity, and anything else is just a consolation prize. Children can engage in physical play, and they can develop good social skills, but this is still a consolation prize to them.

In the passage I quote above, Michael Davis speaks of his own experience, incidentally before several more years of technological development made games even more addictive, and he had plenty of live outside of screen time, but still anything else that happened was a consolation prize next to screen time.

A look at Orthodox ascesis

The original subtitle to The Luddite's Guide to Technology was, "Fasting from technologies." I believe that Orthodox ascesis or spiritual disciplines (church attendance, fasting, sacraments, regular prayers, reading edifying books, silence, etc.) offers the best basis I know to be able to know how to set boundaries with technology that will be to our profit.

Fasting is not just one ascetical practice among others in regards to technology; we will have richer lives if we can fast to technology. However, here I would raise a question of whether another spiritual practice may have direct bearing on how we should handle technology: silence.

Being in silence, and not breaking silence, is important. But just as taking necessary medicine during the Eucharistic fast without breaking the fast, it is possible to speak without breaking silence. The saints' lives mention some figures who taught for hours to faithful in rapt attention, and did not break silence.

For one example of technology use, my father will normally watch a YouTube video of a mechanic performing a specific repair on XYZ make and model before he tries to perform such a repair on such a car. That is a use of screen time that does not break silence.

For background perspective, it has been commented that most people feel better after spending an evening submitting a patch to an open source software project than after an evening of trawling clickbait. I don't believe this is specifically a phenomenon with technology. I would expect that a lawyer at a community center, for instance, feels awfully good after doing his best to defend the basic interests of a destitute pro bono client.

I have found in my own life that how enjoyable I find my computer depends almost directly on whether I'm using it to give, or using it to get. Now I might clarify that part of the discipline I adopted has been being very, very reserved about computer games; I have a four dimensional maze and the Roguelike game I cut my teeth on as a programmer. But most of my software projects are not games. I expect I could be about as addictive as I want about games, but without usually playing games, my computer is only really interesting to me when I use it to give something. And I recognize that my wanting to play a Narnian computer game early today was simply a temptation and a distraction; I loved reading The Chronicles of Narnia but I don't think I should be playing another computer game, not even one in Narnia. The point that I enjoy my computer more when I try to give something applies equally to open source software projects and writing, although the load has shifted from programming more towards writing as I age.

I would suggest that a "zero hours unnecessary screen time" policy is better to grow with than "two hours per day" or even something like one hour per day. It's a criterion of quality rather than quantity, and ideally one of not spending five minutes wasting time in screen time.

I have elsewhere said that smartphones are rightly used for logistics and wrongly used to relieve boredom. I might also state that readily pulling out your phone for five minute Googlepedia hits is ...Amusing and Informing Ourselves to Death, and true knowledge is not anything that can be pulled in five minutes for a web search. (Part of why my writing does not usually have footnotes is that I go through spurts of deep research and then let things simmer inside, and then spurts of writing / creation, and I regard no footnotes as better than shovelware Googlepedia footnotes to sources that a reader who follows footnotes can research as well as I can.) One rule of thumb I usually follow is that I do research primarily from going to books and going to a laptop, and do not use my phone for spur of the moment, on the spot research. True knowledge is not anything that you can pull in five minutes' research on a phone.

I believe fasting applies to technologies (and I write in a season of fasting!), but I now believe that the discipline of silence is also significantly worth attention, and that restricting ourselves to use of technology that do not break inner silence has much to do with how we can use what technologies we really need to use without being harmed by it.

And even before picking up in general about silence as a criterion that can help us identify what we would benefit from fasting from, I wrote in "Social Antibodies" Needed: A Request of Orthodox Clergy about technologies that deliver "an intravenous drip of noise," whether the technology in question is a device like a smartphone or a website like social media. I asked my abbot at one point, not exactly how far of an engagement with social media he would bless me to make, but what would be best for me, being an author, and he advised me to aim for not more than a few minutes per day. I know it is a general principle that spiritual prescriptions from a spiritual prescriptions, like pharmacy prescriptions from a family doctor, are not ideally shared from one person to another, but I have kept his advice (and most days simply do not jack in to social media). And if he gave me this advice as an author, who could almost indisputably have better book sales by curating a personal brand via well-used social media, the case for restrictive or no social media use by people who would not directly benefit from social media celebrity status would be an even stronger case for "use sparingly, or not at all."

In Marie Winn's The Plug-in Drug, both the original and updated version make the case that quantity of time watching the plug-in drug is more important than the piecewise quality of programming, and that is not only an admissible but a significant observation. It can be stated that every hour you spend watching the plug-in drug is an hour you don't spend doing something else, and this seemingly trite nitpick is in fact a profoundly relevant principle if the only go-to activity for free time during the day is screen time.

However, I would add that quality does matter after screen time has been quarantined to be used for only part of the day, with significant time going to something else. And more specifically, I do not mean "quality" exactly in the sense of highbrow television; I mean the question of, "Does it break spiritual silence?" Video games do break spiritual silence, and create poisoned taste buds that are the much less capable of appreciating the simple pleasures of life. Davis has been kind enough to confess the example in his own life, and the warning is well worth heeding. But other forms of recreational screen time also break spiritual silence.

Logistical use of phones, to coordinate things or use GPS, can be helpful, and if the "noisy" use of a smartphones is something you don't have the discipline to stop, I may put in a plug for Sunbeam Wireless, they provide flip-phones that can handle much of the logistics of a smartphone but do not have email, web, or an app store. If you're having trouble reining in your smartphone use, a wise decision may be to buy a flip-phone that may have many of a smartphone's super powers, but make noisy cell phone use, particularly including pornography, not at such an easy grasp all of the time.

I would encourage you to make careful choices with technology that opt for spiritual silence, and if you're an alcoholic who can't have it in the house and just not drink it, use a technology like Sunbeam Wireless. If your phone causes you to sin, cast it out and throw it away from you; it is better to enter Heaven with a judiciously feature-limited flip-phone than to have your new iPhone cast into Hell with you.

In our use of technology, let us aim for moderation, a moderation that removes unnecessary quantity of screen time, and a moderation that removes unnecessary quality of spiritual noise in screen time. And if you can do this with the support of an Orthodox priest, all the better!