Screen time minutes are the new calories, and its high time I went on a diet – The Guardian


Posted: January 12, 2020 at 2:43 am

There is a particular time of the week I have come to dread more than any exercise class or dental appointment: Sunday morning, when my weekly screen report flashes up on my phone. This tells me how long, on average, I have spent looking at it every day or, to put it another way, how many grains of sand of my life I have allowed to fall into the tiny screen that I keep so close to hand I expect one day my flesh will fuse with it, a self-induced Darwinian evolution.

We all have our self-imposed limits and, when it comes to screen time, mine has become an unjustifiable three hours a day. Imagine if I exercised, or saw friends, or wrote books, or read books for three hours a day! Such a thought is laughably unlikely now. But staring at my phone for three hours has come to feel laudably restrained, and when my screen report tells me Ive stuck to this I feel like a master of modernity: look at me, truly a titan of technology. I enjoy my phone but I am not controlled by it. Anything above three hours and I am filled with despair. Here I am, blessed with life and health, and what am I doing with it? Chucking it away down my bloody phone.

Not since my teens, when I obsessively counted calories, has one simple activity eating then, looking at my phone now had the power to provoke such wildly divergent feelings in me, from pride to self-loathing. And in many ways, screen time minutes are the new calories: overanxious parents limit their childrens screen time the same way they restrict their sugar intake. Self-appointed wellness gurus advise taking a break from ones phone as keenly as they counsel intermittent fasting.

Looking at my phone as soon as I get on the bus has become as instinctive as tucking into a pudding after a meal once was. But my attempts at tech dieting lack nutritional balance: I now hardly look at the educational apps I pay for newspapers, magazines for fear of wasting too many minutes, and binge instead on social media. This is like trying to lose weight by giving up regular meals and eating only chocolate.

All this is to assume that being on ones phone is somehow bad. Leaving to one side parents safeguarding concerns, or unforgivable breaches of phone etiquette, such as looking at ones mobile when having supper with a friend, for a long time I argued that the badness of phones was overstated. Were not staring at a blank screen, Id huff. Were reading instructive articles, keeping in touch with friends, shopping for essentials. And sure, we do that, some of the time.

But as an experiment, yesterday I walked the length of a train carriage and sneaked looks at peoples phones (and yes, everyone was on one; there was not a newspaper or book in sight). This is what people were looking at: two were on Candy Crush, one on an unidentifiable (to me) computer game, two on Instagram, one on Facebook, one on Gmail, plus one noble Guardian reader.

When Im unhappy or anxious, I spend more time on my phone, escaping an overwhelming reality by leaping into the screen, into an alternate world that often makes me feel angrier (social media) or more anxious (the news). Its true that on long weekends, when Im stuck at home with three small children, glancing at my phone can feel like mental salvation. But it is also true that when one of my kids wants to play Mummy, he does so by picking up my phone. Mother Of The Year trophy to the usual address, please.

Not long ago, such easy access to the internet seemed as miraculous as easy calories did to our ancestors. Now we limit desperately, self-righteously our intake of both, and that is because we live in an age of super abundance, with unlimited phone contracts and 14-step beauty routines. We fetishise minimalism and make a celebrity out of Marie Kondo just because she tells us to throw stuff out. When you have too much, having nothing becomes an aspirational statement: famously, tech gurus refuse to let their children look at screens, and some such as political adviser-turned-Silicon Valley talking head Steve Hilton refuse to carry one. Staring at a screen no longer makes you look important; it makes you look like an antisocial zombie, gulled by tech billionaires who are using your money to build their kids a 50,000 tree house.

Asceticism has always struck me as being as unsustainable as over-abundance, so Im not giving up my phone entirely. My relationship with it has moved through denial to despair, and is now at the acceptance stage: I am, I tell myself, a functioning addict. And yet the truth is, my screen time continues to creep up, as the real world feels increasingly scary, and I console myself by shopping for more junk, and then hate myself for having so much junk.

When the new year rang in this month, there were many references to the roaring 20s. But already this decade has less of an elegantly tragic F Scott Fitzgerald feel and more of a frantic, confused, decadent Weimar Republic aura. Id look up how that ended first time round, but I dont want to jack up my screen time.

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Screen time minutes are the new calories, and its high time I went on a diet - The Guardian

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