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Screen time isn’t the problem

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It’s safe to say that most college kids will have heard the answer, “It’s because you always on the phone,” when presenting a problem to a parent, grandparent, or member of the age group over 40.

Forbes stated in an article on social media use that “Gen Z members spend a shocking nine hours a day in front of a screen”. That means that if we get the recommended eight hours of sleep every night (as we all do at Duke), that leaves only about seven out of 16 waking hours in our day that we aren’t staring at a screen. Creepy? Could be. But shocking? Not quite.

Let’s say my screen time is the same as the average Gen Z member: nine hours a day, and I’m going through the movements of my typical day of the week. I have three online textbook readings for two grades to complete, which takes about two hours as I am also a busy note-taker. Then I have a Zoom meeting with a consultant or professor that lasts about 30 minutes. I have an essay at the end of the week that I’m working on for two hours online in Google Docs. Also, my calendar is online, I submit assignments online, do research online, read the news online, and so on and so on. All of these different tasks contribute more than an hour of your time per day. I also spend an hour a day replying to emails and text messages. After all, I devote some of my free time to entertainment in the form of television broadcasts. I watch an hour-long episode of my favorite series and, being Gen Z, I have an hour of TikTok, which gives me two hours of free time to spend looking at a screen. If my calculations are correct, that will give me about nine hours of screen time.

This screen time shouldn’t be considered shocking. In all fairness, a Gen Z with under nine hours of screen time a day is really shocking. Being with Duke actually cut my phone’s screen time significantly, from an average of seven hours a day to an average of four hours a day. That being said, my laptop’s screen time has increased by two hours. It’s hard to get time off screens when a lot of our daily chores depend on technology.

Studies love to attribute the rise in ADHD in our generation, the rise in mental illness, the increasing inability to interact in social situations, etc. to the time and use of our phone. A study by the National Institute of Health concluded that “more hours of daily screen time are associated with lower mental wellbeing”. While I’m not the type to argue with the National Institute of Health, they along with other health organizations tend to refer to the cause of the Gen-Z mental health surge as “screen time.” But again, with so much of our lifestyle and work intertwined with technology, escaping high screen time can be tough. The problem with Gen Z and technology could better be traced back to what content we consume and how we consume it during our time in front of a screen.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why the content we consume can have a detrimental effect on our generation as image editing leads to negative body image, the scam syndrome created by people who post every single one of their achievements, and serious problems like the many reports on the TikTok pipeline for extremist politicians – we’ve all heard it before. So instead, I’m going to share a personal anecdote.

I would describe myself as a confident person who never fell deep into the social media comparison trap, but last summer there was a girl I would constantly compare myself to. She wasn’t a celebrity or influencer, and I had never met her before, but she was a mutual friend of some people I knew back home. The algorithm would simply place your posts by association on my Instagram exploration page, my TikTok page for you and even as a suggested friend on Facebook. The moment I saw one of her posts, I was stuck in a rolling wormhole that has been compared to this girl. This almost obsessive way of consuming it wasn’t healthy and it took me a while to scroll down when I came across one of the girl’s posts. This is a common problem, and while it could be argued that more screen time means more time being spent consuming content in such negative ways, the root of the problem still lies in what content we consume and how we use it consume.

After all, I believe that people are a product of their current and past environments. If you spend all day in front of a screen, that is your environment and you will be affected accordingly. Gen Z isn’t on their screens all the time, however (I know this because I’m one and currently live on campus with 1,500 other people my age). The people you want to spend your time with, how you grew up, your hobbies, the places you’ve been and much more have an impact on you in a way that technology never has or will.

At the end of the day, I agree that less time on screens would benefit Gen Z … duh. However, it will never be completely eliminated unless you leave the net entirely or return to a time before the dawn of modern technology. Nine or more hours of screen time is unfortunately a norm out there. So the focus shouldn’t be on shaming kids for their screen time and instead paying attention to what and how we consume to positively affect our wellbeing. Our screen time is not what we are, nor does it shape us.

Olivia Bokesch is Trinity in her first year. Your column usually runs every Wednesday.

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