Screens are Everywhere. Photo by Zoe Holling on Unsplash

Despite labor-saving devices, numerous options to save us meal-prep and cooking, and home delivery to keep us from having to brave the roads and the checkout lines, Americans seem to be feeling stressed, overworked, and anxious, if the stream of articles citing studies and offering solutions is any indication. To generalize is dangerous, of course, as how and why one person feels anxious or overworked can differ dramatically from how and why someone else does; similarly, the reality behind the feelings is extremely tricky to measure. Published reports on various studies suggest, variously, that Americans are the most stressed-out and angry people in the world (here), that Americans work fewer hours now than they ever have (here), and that Americans work more hours than anyone else in the industrialized nations (here and in visual form here and here).

Without attempting the gargantuan task of trying to sort out precisely who feels angry and anxious and why, or who’s working more, less, or the same as thirty years ago for no more money (some statistics suggest women, the middle and lower class), I’m still interested in the avalanche of warnings and strategies I see regarding the problem of “screen time.” While there’s no doubt that those of us with access to screens, from computers to tablets to phones to video games to televisions, are spending numerous hours looking at them (as, of course, I am right now, and you are, too), it seems peculiar and telling that the warnings against their siren song mainly reach us through their irresistible glowing interfaces.

Our screens beckon us with messages that warn us away from them. I should really put my phone down now, we think, but first, let me finish reading this article about 11 ways to reduce my screen time.

There’s a very fine line between escapism and productivity when it comes to electronic devices. For me, time spent maintaining a presence on social media as a writer easily morphs into a trip down an unrelated but fascinating Twitter rabbithole; research on an idea for a blog post, likewise, can detour into researching flea and tick medications or end-of-season sales on my hard-to-find favorite running shoes. Sure, that doesn’t sound like the most compelling form of escapism, and I can easily justify it (to myself, anyway) as productive, but an hour later, I’m only frustrated at my inability to determine which flea and tick med is the best deal and additionally annoyed at myself that I haven’t made progress on the piece I was trying to write. Escaping the actual work (which squirrelly brains are forever trying to do) by detouring into the fake-but-justifiable work of getting a daily-life task done doesn’t provide nearly as much soothing distance from the difficulty of research and writing as I would wish. But it certainly adds up to more screen-time in a day.

And recreational screen-time becomes easier to engage in and justify when it’s interlaced with work. I can tell myself that I ought to put down Candy Crush and pick up a book — or just go to bed — but if I check my work email periodically, or read an article for research while waiting for my free lives to refresh, then it’s easier to let the time spent looking into the glow accumulate.

The common thread here is the idea of work. The ever-presence of work. The fluid and amorphous quality of work. For so many of us, even if we are not work-from-home employees, our work, or parts of it, has become portable, mobile, loosed from the confines of a particular space and schedule. We can take it with us, and we do. Or it follows us unbidden. Or we feel that we can’t ignore it, put it on hold, take a true rest from it. Screens, especially the very portable ones that so many of us think of as essential now, are to a great extent the enablers of the potentially continuous workday and workweek; however, they’re also the conduit of much of what diverts us from work. Our visual entertainments, our music, our social networks, our books and magazines and newspapers. They bind us to work, and they bind us to each other. We’re in a bind.

From the mid-2000s until recently, I was a teacher at a small college-prep boarding school. Perennially, we struggled with the “problem” of screen time. Students and administration were locked in an ongoing debate about what hour of night the WiFi should be turned off; students argued for the wee hours (or never, preferably) because, they said, they needed to do research for their school projects at night. Heavens no! the faculty would reply: students should finish their work before midnight and get to bed! Sleep is so important! Adults would grumble that what students really wanted was to play video games or get up to no good on social media all night. They’d further grumble that students who needed to work that late must be wasting their time earlier in the evening or afternoon. Efficiency was the answer. Lack of impulse-control was the problem.

Early on, I considered the arguments of the adults somewhat credible. But the longer I worked there and observed what the students’ lives were like, the more I began to reject the fall-back explanations of why the kids were tired, stressed, and ravenously eager to get on their phones, texting and SnapChatting, or on their computers to play Fortnight or binge-watch via Netflix. These were uniformly college-bound teenagers — not a representative slice of America, by any stretch. Yet certain aspects of this picture may resonate beyond the anecdotal.

What became clear was that every moment of the students’ lives was scheduled. What they were doing — what they were supposed to be doing — could be accounted for, measured according to adult expectations, potentially optimized. Even their free time was scheduled in and restricted in certain ways. With their laptops and phones and access to WiFi, they could do schoolwork at any time, and the message they certainly got was, if they weren’t doing something else that was “productive,” they ought to be doing work. Before classes? Do a little studying. At lunch? Review that vocab. After school? If you’re not at sports practice, you should be studying. Don’t have enough time during the two-hour mandatory evening study session? Maybe you should study right after dinner, or keep going after study-hours are done. But not too late. You need your sleep. The result of all this “good advice”? Mostly, anxious, sleep-deprived kids. No changes on the side of the school schedule, however, nor in adults’ expectations.

When, exactly, was it okay to rest? Not sleep — that’s a whole other subject, dear to my heart — but rest. Minds need rest; we need fun, open, unjudged, unpressured time to do things with our minds and bodies and everything else that makes us what we are. Whether you call it play or downtime or recreation, we need it regularly, and we need to preserve it as something we don’t have to account for to anyone. That time spent unstructured and unemployed is what I’d call a human right, and I’d say that having it is a substantial part of what it is to be free.

If we don’t think we’re entitled to this kind of freedom, the need for it will still compel us to take it as we can. Some — perhaps a great deal — of the time we stay glued to our screens is devoted to taking the rest we need in the easiest and least defiant way we can. For many people, not checking work email seems indefensible, because the threat of losing a job, however unlikely that may be, is enough to keep them tethered after hours. But toggling between email and Instagram feels less like work, and it’s much easier to do than turn attention from a paperback novel to email.

Is this really rest? The bleary eyes and high anxiety of my teenaged students impressed me as signs of something more than just normal adolescent adjustment to adult expectations. And those kids — Millennials and Gen Z — come up frequently in the news about the stress and anxiety plaguing Americans in the 21st century (for example, here, here, and here). While there are plenty of people queuing up to dismiss the under-40 set as “snowflakes,” it seems entirely possible, given the relatively recent infiltration of both work and leisure by screen-based tech, that we haven’t adequately negotiated for boundaries. And I don’t mean that we should be individually responsible for policing ourselves. Not entirely.

The culprit here seems to me to be the pervasiveness of the ideal of Total Work (read a terrific discussion of it here) and the threat leveled by ever-present cultural demands for “productivity” and “optimization.” Everywhere we look (via our screens), there are “solutions” for optimized workouts, optimized meal-prep, audiobooks and pod-casts and curated playlists that allow us to do something while we’re doing something else. Thus, we find ourselves feeling guilty, somehow, if we’re not texting or scrolling through Facebook while binge-streaming something on TV or KonMari-ing our sock drawer.

And it’s crucial to note that it’s not the time spent on screens that is the root of the problem. We’re doing that as a quest for a solution, and beating ourselves up for it without recognizing what’s driving us to it isn’t going to fix what’s wrong.

What we need to address — though it’s much, much harder to do so — is the underlying belief that productivity is the measure of a good and worthwhile life. It’s not that “being productive” is all bad, of course, but if productivity becomes a monolithic measure of a person’s value, then we can’t call ourselves truly free.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.