Almost 79,000 hours. According to one study, conducted by OnePoll, on average a person will watch 78,705 hours of television in their life. Add in the amount of time Americans spend on the Internet and that pushes the total amount of time spent on entertainment to over 100,000 hours! If we break this number down, that equals about 4,542 days of straight action packed, comedy based, romance-centered binge watching. In other words, with the lifespan of an American being around 78.7 years, most U.S. citizens will spend about 16% of their lives (or close to 12 and a half years) glued to a mobile device or television screen. Limiting our time wasted on social media and binging is only one step in maximizing our time. We must also fill that time with positive, productive activities, ranging from creative pursuits to charity work, etc. I want to focus specifically on using time for civil discourse about political and societal issues.The biggest issue that stands in the way of us making civility a greater priority isn’t a lack of time but rather a dramatic shift of individuals’ views on how their time should be spent.
How people spend their time each day has continually changed and adapted for several centuries now. It has led to healthy progress as the U.S. economy has become centered around a capitalistic model which fulfills customers’ demands and in turn allows businesses to grow. As a result, we have seen the creation of incredible innovations such as airplanes, cars, televisions, cell phones, and satellites. This same capitalistic model has carried over and transformed into something much more powerful (potentially dangerous) in the entertainment industry or more specifically the social media realm. Recent studies and documentaries, such as The Social Dilemma, highlight this idea, termed The Attention Extraction Economy. The idea is based on the concept that “technology platforms... profit from the monetization of human attention and engagement.” Explained in more simple terms, platforms are seeking to keep your engagement because “more engagement means more advertising dollars.”
Perhaps reading this makes you think, “Is it really that big of an issue that social media platforms are using tactics to get me to engage more? It does keep my social media use on their sites free, right?” Well, although being able to use these apps for free is nice, it should concern you because we’re spending more time looking at our screens at an increasingly unhealthy rate. With over 200 different streaming services and over 20 major social media sites competing for our attention, our society and people all over the globe are experiencing an unprecedented amount of companies competing for our business. At some point, we have to ask ourselves, how long can we keep this going? How much more time are we willing to surrender towards following one more post, liking one more picture, arguing about politics with one more friend, obsessing over how many people reacted to our statuses just one more time, or binging only a couple of more episodes of our favorite show?
There are a myriad of issues that we could focus on with The Social Dilemma and addiction to social media and TV entertainment. Here are just five:
- A 5,000 Person study found that higher social media use led to more self-reported declines in mental and physical health AND life satisfaction (recent psychological studies indicate this is due to a dramatic increase in cyberbullying and peer pressure)
- The amount of countries with political disinformation campaigns on social media has doubled in the past two years.
- In 2018, 64% of individuals who joined extremists groups on Facebook did so as a direct result of Facebook’s algorithms (created to get more engagement for more advertising dollars).
- Recent scientific studies such as by Int J Envirn Res Public Health and Harvard Medical School indicate that greater exposure and usage with social media can lead to greater likelihood of becoming or staying obese.
- As highlighted on Data Protection Day by Apple and its guests, tribalism is increasing in ways never before seen. One guest expert, Marcel Kolaja of the European Parliament, described some of the effects of tribalism, or information filter bubbles, this way, “[on social media apps] people only see information that is one sided and [that] poses a real threat to our society… People are not disagreeing on different opinions [anymore]... the problem [now] is that people are seeing a completely different set of information [which creates a situation where people can never agree with each other].”
In review of just these few examples, it seems that our society is on a potential crash course for the reality depicted in the Disney film Wall-E. The movie tells of how inhabitants of Earth leave their home because of a variety of factors. One of the most critical components of why they leave, though, is due to the choice made collectively by people to choose to surrender their concern about living, learning and progressing and in turn exchange that for frivolous forms of entertainment and luxurious ease.
To be fair, the movie’s depiction is harsh and fails to acknowledge just how difficult life can be. For example, it’s easy to want to disengage and ignore politics when it’s full of so much divisiveness, vitriol and hate. It’s easy to pick up the remote and watch one more show instead of reading a biography, studying history, or learning a new skill. It’s easy to feel like you’re informed about politics and having meaningful civil discussions if you’re following other people’s posts or looking at political memes. Our world is filled with so much to do and with entertainment encouraging us to focus on ourselves just a bit more rather than others, so it’s understandable why people have become disinterested or reduced their time spent on civil discourse and academic learning. But, with so few engaging in both civility and philosophical debates it is now more important than ever to keep these dialogues going!
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we need to completely abandon social media or stop watching our favorite shows. Playing games, watching movies, or catching up on what’s new with friends via social media or texting are all great things to do. Staying connected to our loved ones, especially during the middle of a global pandemic, has been much more easily achieved thanks to social media. However, it’s important to achieve moderation in our hobbies and daily activities.
Achieving self-discipline with our screen time usage will be hard, especially since our society brags about binging entire seasons or series of shows over the course of one weekend, month, or year. For example, over the course of one year, Netflix users watched 45.8 billion minutes of The Office! As society has become obsessed with records like this, topics such as civility, unity, and critical public policies have fallen to the wayside.
Over the past month, The Civility Initiative has attempted to begin laying the groundwork for how we can reincorporate these critical discussions. We’ve published quotes, polls and articles to drive home the point that we must work harder to preserve the “civil town squares” in order to promote greater civility and create a place for all to feel heard. The task hasn’t been easy, but we remain committed to improving civility on social media platforms and helping our friends wisely choose which wolf we’ll feed in our American democracy.
Perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed and wondering what you can do to help curb the increasing addiction to social media and television or help stop the far reaching consequences that have come from social media. There are so many things that can be done, but here are just four things that I invite you to do with me for at least the next week:
- Monitor how much time you spend EACH DAY looking at screens (i.e. TVs, cell phones, computers, tablets). THEN commit to reducing that time by 10% next week.
- Choose one topic you’d like to become more informed about. Spend the next week studying this topic for 15 minutes each day. You can use one of these two articles Finding Quality News or Finding Quality News Part II to get started!.
- Choose one bad habit you’ve had with social media (arguing with others, choosing to belittle friends’ beliefs, wasting time on social media). Actively work on not doing it for one week.
- Instead of scrolling on social media, consider who you may know that you disagree with on politics and reach out to them. Personally message them and seek to understand them better. When commenting on other peoples’ posts, attempt to notice what similarities you share. Be quick to notice progress regarding differences of opinion and slow to notice stumbling blocks. It will lead to greater success.
As you embrace these challenges, try to notice how you are feeling as you do them. Are you finding you have more time to spend because you chose to reduce your screen time? Do you feel more informed about the subject you studied? Have you strengthened a friendship with a family member or a friend that was somewhat estranged due to differences of opinions?
Choosing to spend our time wisely will positively affect how our interactions with those we disagree with and will lead to greater, stronger friendships with people of all different ideological backgrounds. Social media doesn’t have to be relegated to the view of only creating societal problems such as the social dilemma. It can be so much more! We can use social media to increase the overall happiness and unity of our communities and society by promoting differences of opinion and seeking to listen rather than to be heard. But, we must also learn to not use it in excess. Social media is a tool not an end’s meet to creating greater civility! We must consider how we can better use the time we’re given in our lives. We can choose to be controlled by our screens and lose track of time or we can control our screen time with a purpose focused on helping our nation achieve greater civility and happiness. Because in the end, civility starts with you and me. The choice is yours.