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Screen time isn’t the problem

It is safe to say that most college kids have heard the “it’s because you’re always on your phone” answer when describing a problem to a parent, a grandparent, or any member of the 40 and above age group.

Forbes declared in an article on social media usage that “members of Gen Z spend a shocking nine hours per day in front of a screen.” This means that if we are getting the recommended eight hours of sleep every night (as all of us at Duke do), this leaves only about seven out of 16 waking hours in our day that we are not staring at a screen. Scary? Maybe. But shocking? Not quite.

Let’s say that my screen time is that of an average member of Gen Z: nine hours per day and I am going through the motions of my typical weekday. I have three online textbook readings to complete for two classes, which takes me around two hours since I am also a diligent note taker. Then, I have a zoom meeting with an advisor or professor that lasts around 30 minutes. I have an essay due at the end of the week that I work on for two hours online in Google Docs. Additionally, my calendar is online, I turn in assignments online, I do research online, I read the news online, and so on and so forth. All of these miscellaneous tasks contribute upwards of one hour of time per day. I also spend one hour responding to emails and texts per day. Finally, I put some of my free time towards entertainment in the form of TV shows. I watch an hour-long episode of my favorite show and since I am Gen Z, an hour of TikTok follows, lending two hours total to free time spent looking at a screen. If my calculations are correct, all of this puts me at around nine hours of screen time. 

This amount of screen time should not be considered shocking at all. Honestly, a Gen Z with a screen time under nine hours a day is truly what should be considered shocking. Being at Duke has actually lowered my phone screen time significantly, from an average of seven hours daily to an average of four hours daily. With that being said, my laptop screen time has increased by two hours. It is difficult to get time away from screens when so much of our day-to-day tasks are dependent on technology.

Studies love to blame our generation’s rise in ADHD, rise in mental illness, rise in an inability to interact in social situations, etc. on our phone screen time and usage. A study by the National Institute of Health concluded that “more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being.” While I am not one to argue with the National Institute of Health, they, along with other health organizations, tend to cite the cause of Gen-Z’s rise in mental health issues as “screen time.” But, once again, with so much of our lifestyle and work being intertwined with technology, a high screen time may be hard to escape. The problem with Gen Z and technology would be better attributed to what content we consume and how we consume it during our time in front of a screen. 

I am positive that I do not need to spell out why the content we consume can have detrimental effects on our generation with the editing of images leading to negative body image, imposter syndrome spurred on by people posting every single success of theirs, and severe issues such as the many reports on the TikTok to political extremist pipeline--we have all heard it before. So, I will share a personal anecdote instead.

I would label myself as a confident person who has never fallen deep into the social media trap of comparison, but this past summer there was one girl who I would compare myself to constantly. She was not a celebrity or influencer of any kind and I had never met her, but she was a mutual friend of a few people I knew back home. Thus, just by association, the algorithm would put her posts on my Instagram explore page, my TikTok for you page, and even as a suggested friend on Facebook. The moment I saw any post of hers I became stuck in a scrolling wormhole of comparison to this girl. This almost obsessive type of consumption was not healthy and it took awhile for me to keep scrolling whenever I came across one of the girl’s posts. This is a common problem and although one could argue that more screen time means more time is spent consuming content in a negative way such as this, the root of the problem still goes back to what content we are consuming and how we are consuming it. 

Finally, I believe people are a product of their current and past environments. If you spend all day in front of a screen then that’s your environment and you will be affected accordingly. However, Gen Z is not on their screens all the time (I know this because I am one and I currently live on a campus with 1,500 other people my age). The people you choose to spend your time with, how you were raised, the hobbies you have, the places you have been, and more all have an impact on you in a way technology never has or will.

At the end of the day, I agree that less time spent on screens would be beneficial to Gen Z...duh. However, it will never be fully eliminated unless you go off the grid entirely or return to some time period prior to the dawn of modern technology. Nine or more hours of screen time is unfortunately a norm that is here to stay. So, focus should switch from shaming kids for their screen time and instead be on changing what and how we consume in a way that positively impacts our well-being. Our screen time is not who we are nor is it what shapes us.

Olivia Bokesch is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.  

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