It is common to hear that electronic devices are ruining lives. Headlines like CNN’s, “Americans Devote More Than Ten Hours a Day to Screen Time and Growing,” abound. As a result, many Americans are becoming lazy and less creative because they spend too much time staring at small screens.
The truth of this conclusion is evident since the devices do tend to dominate people’s lives. Two teenagers may be sitting in the same room, communicating with each other by text message. A family of four may sit at a restaurant, all using their devices to do separate tasks. Millions of people view the same inane video. Hating the small screen is easy.
According to Joy Pullman in The Federalist, “Kids ages 2 to 8 average 2.5-3 hours of daily screen time, or about 20 hours per week. Kids ages 8 to 12 average 4.5 hours of daily screen time, or more than 30 hours per week. Teens average more than six hours per day, or more than 40 hours per week.”
However, the small screen is not the problem.
The problem is the search for an intemperate, endlessly entertaining life. The device might facilitate that search, but the flaw is inside the soul. That flaw is the failure to place proper limits on the fruitless search for complete happiness and pleasure.
The Lure of Passive Entertainment
Passive entertainment facilitated by new technologies is not new. Each wave of new devices brings with it the temptations of abuse. The great problem is turning people into the machines that are supposed to serve them. Technology is meant to serve mankind, not the other way around.
The key is to keep all activities within proper limits. That grows ever more difficult because the devices employ technologies that are ever more intrusive. However, three things can be done to set the proper limits on the small screens.
The Limits of Courtesy
The first involves the observance of courtesy in using devices. All people have to respect those with whom they are currently engaged. The highest consideration should be to those who are physically present in a room. A second level might involve talking to others on the telephone. Finally, there is the more impersonal and less expressive text message. Each has its norms of courtesy.
Practicing cordiality requires discipline. The content of a text message might appear more interesting that the topic of conversation in the same room. However, courtesy demands that the person ignore the vibrating or pinging device while engaged in the conversation. Likewise, sending a text message or email while talking on the telephone violates the respect due to the other person on the line.
Emergencies might require a temporary suspension of cordiality, but these situations are rare. Even then, courtesy must be extended to the inconvenienced person in the form of an apology or excuse.
The Limits of Work, Family, and Play
A second limit on the small screens is to insist that the proper distinctions are made between the time spent dedicated to work, family or recreation. All three are legitimate. Each has its place. Great care is needed to maintain the distinction.
An employer has the right to expect diligence from employees. Thus, employees should not use work time to send emails to family and friends. Likewise, work matters should not intrude upon family life with unnecessary calls or emails. Inside the home, family members should not use electronic devices during those times when the family spends recreational time together.
Recreational time is the most difficult to limit because it is the most pleasant and has the most variety. However, it is reasonable not to interrupt activities like reading, hobbies, conversations, picnics, camping trips, sports or other family activities with small screen time. At these times, the use of electronics should be limited since these activities play an important role in the bonding of family members.
Render unto God…
Finally, the use of electronics cannot overwhelm the time each person owes to God. All too often the devices absorb time for prayer and reflection. The small screens should never become distractions from Holy Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or personal prayer.
Humanity has been blessed over the generations with many new tools that, properly used, facilitate life’s difficult tasks. However, such devices can also carry destructive power. Every tool needs to be used within its proper limits lest it leads away from sanctification and the glory of God, the only real goals in life.