Here’s a tip for a healthier, more resilient future: get outdoors more and leave your smart phone at home when you do. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests we need what nature gives us for free: refreshment, relaxation, and a sense that we are part of something larger than the manmade environment in which we spend most of our waking hours. In South Florida, indoors automatically means air-conditioning 24/7, breathing recirculated air. Like being on an endless plane ride. Children who spend time playing outdoors every day are not only less likely to become obese, they do better in school. Even elderly shut-ins benefit from being near some green plants, particularly if they care for them. High touch.
Indoor living, whether at work or home, or at a popular restaurant like Duffy’s, is screen time, all the time. I love to cook but increasingly go to the Internet for a recipe rather than consult one of the many cookbooks I own. Lately, I find myself checking the weather on my smartphone instead of opening a window or going outside to sniff the air. I confess I am hopelessly addicted to The Skimm for my quick dose of news, about all I can take. Most bedtimes, the urge to check email or Facebook one last time is all but irresistible. In wakeful periods during the night, I’m on my tablet reading a novel or catching up on one of the blogs I follow. At least I notice how these habits are changing me in ways I don’t like, stoking impatience and compulsive behavior. You have no doubt realized that Big Brother Internet is watching your searches and online shopping.
Here’s something else I find worrying, for myself and even more for my grandchildren who already exhibit serious dependency on screens (don’t even get me started on video gaming!). We are learning to depend on our visual, and to some extent auditory, senses at the cost of other senses that make us complete human beings. Since touch and smell are more connected to the emotions, is it possible that our addiction to screens themselves — not to mention our compulsion to miss nothing — is changing our relationships with each other as well as with our life support system.
Screen Addiction is Taking a Toll on Children writes personal health columnist, Jane Brody, in a report that is sure to resonate with grandparents and add to our concerns for their future. Perhaps you, too, have witnessed your grandchildren gradually change from affectionate, engaging pre-schoolers who were delighted to see you, always ready to play a game or share a joke, into Tweens or Teens who are so captivated by their devices, they barely acknowledge your presence. To be sure, adolescence is hard on everyone including the ones going through it, but this feels different from familiar teen angst, much more invasive and scary and with ramifications we may not fully comprehend. “Many come to view the real world as fake,” writes Brody. For those of us concerned about the effect of violent video games on children, this is chilling news indeed. Brody’s not letting adults off the hook either. Her advice is sound: How to Cut Children’s Screen Time: Say No to Yourself First.
Screens also interfere with our experience with the actual. Ever noticed how many parents at a recital or school play are making a video of the event as opposed to just experiencing it? So can they be said to be truly present, or to put it another way, what exactly were they present for? Pixels on a tiny screen? And what will they remember later: being there, or just what the video tells them they saw? Comic and social critic, Louis CK, does a riff on this subject that is typical of his style: you’re laughing and feeling a chill down your spine at the same time.
Hey, I love my smartphone. I love texting and sharing photos. I love the built-in GPS that gets me places, the restaurant reviews that save me time and money, being able to leave the heavier equipment at home when I’m on the go and still stay in touch. But we all need to give it a rest. Screen addiction is not healthy for children and other living things and it is not healthy for the Earth. The good news — and there has been more of this lately, from Pope Francis’ encyclical to the rise of solar power through unlikely alliances (see Green Tea Coalition) — is that we can do something about it. We won’t save the world and our own skins by changing our lightbulbs and shopping greener, but a re-engagement — all senses open — with what we have and what we stand to lose: the only home we have, just might. Turn off, unplug, go hug a tree or a friend.