Screenburn

Parents generally know not to let their kids stay out in the sun too long without sunscreen or some other protection. Ignore that advice, and you risk a painful burn (and the whining that goes with it).

These days, with people forced to spend more time indoors, I doubt that many are being exposed to too much sun. I am worried, though, that people may be getting screenburn (yeah, I made that up) by being on digital devices for hours on end.

Don’t get me wrong. I am incredibly grateful to have the technology that we do to help us stay connected. When our church was forced to close its doors and go online, the adult fellowship I teach had to disband for a couple of weeks while we figured things out.

We finally got our digital act together. I can’t tell you what a delight it was, on the first Sunday of our virtual Bible class, for everyone to see each other’s faces and say hello. It was such a simple thing, a reminder of how easily we take for granted the opportunity to be together. Even just that smidgen of connectedness helped restore a sense of normalcy.

Moreover, as a professor, I’m fully aware of how hard it would be to keep any semblance of our educational mission going without the Internet and screens. But there are tradeoffs. Students tell me how challenging it’s been to stay motivated to keep up with their coursework, to stay focused and alert while watching hour after hour of video. I suspect that part of the problem is that it feels like being forced to watch a boring TV show, knowing that you’re going to be tested on it later. The whole time, you’re tempted to check your social media or go make yourself a sandwich.

We couldn’t have done all this even just a few years ago. It’s great that we have screen technology. But as with other aspects of life, there can be too much of a good thing.

Even before COVID, some researchers were already concerned that we spend too much time on screens. Pediatricians, for example, recommend that with the possible exception of video chats with Grandma and Grandpa, kids should be kept off digital devices until two years of age or older. It’s the passive experience of just watching and listening that matters; the youngest of our kids need real-world interaction and conversation to learn, for their brains to develop and thrive.

I know, I know. You’ve been thrust into a situation that’s not of your making, and you’re trying to survive in whatever way you can. The family is cooped up in the house together for hours on end, when you’re usually at work, school, or day care. And there’s the oddness of having different family members doing different things on screens: if someone’s in a Zoom meeting or doing other work online, are they “here”? Or are we supposed to pretend that they’re not?

I’m not saying we need to get off screens. And as a card-carrying introvert, I get it: some of us really need (not want, mind you, need) our alone time. Screens help provide that.

But I also want us to be aware of how digital media use can be a bit like stepping into quicksand: it sucks us in and under before we know it. Much of what we do on screens is inherently isolating and bordering on addictive (Just one more level, then I’ll stop, I promise!). If we’re not intentional and wise about how our family uses screens, our screens will use us.

For the sake of our families, then, we need to get ourselves out of digital default and be more thoughtful. We have to allow for time to be alone and to get our online work done. But we also need to be intentional about spending time together. Have a conversation. Play games. Read out loud. Make a meal together, even if it creates a mess and takes ten times as long. 

Even when you spend time on screens, consider whether there’s a way to do it together. Watch a family-friendly movie together, then talk about it. And of course, make the grandparents happy by chatting with them online.

We’ll need to be wise to avoid getting screenburn. But our families will be the stronger for it. 

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