Daily Rumination No. 26: Screen Time All the Time

Earlier today, Natasha and I visited Sydney Town Hall for the last day of Dr Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds Vital exhibition. It was absolutely brilliant and offered amazing insights into the human body. The donated, plastinated specimens were incredible.

Rather than focusing on the bodies themselves in this piece or sharing photos, which are available throughout the Web already, I wanted to discuss the statistic in the photo that I took below.

This infographic was part of a large wall-display that clearly had been customised for Australian audiences. Three hours of screen time each day is a shocking minimum for kids, who should also be allocating time to hobbies, fitness and family. It should be lower and I doubt that anyone would disagree with me.

It would be difficult to find many adults who lack concern or even basic interest in the health and future of children. That’s why parents now have incessant arguments about putting phones away at the dinner table—we all want them to be social, well-adjusted, healthy and able to focus on what’s important in their lives.

What concerns me, however, is that adults don’t alway cares for themselves in the same way when it comes to their use of screens. Indeed, they’re often not even able or permitted to do so. Considering that three hours of screen time is deemed to be undesirable and unsafe for kids, what does that mean for someone like me, who must spend approximately seven hours every day staring directly at a computer monitor at work? I’m only 27 and even with my moderated smartphone use beyond the desk, I already have mild astigmatism in both eyes.

Besides my job, many other vocations require constant interaction with a computer. If not office-based like my role, then other roles would at least be closer to the minimum unsafe duration of three hours. How are people supposed to earn a living without sacrificing their eyesight?

A number of useful tools exist that try to mitigate this issue. Over the past few years, Apple, for example, has introduced software and hardware improvements such a Night Shift and True-tone, which adjust the harshness and temperature of displays. Night Shift is a manual setting that increases the colour temperature, whilst True-tone uses light sensors to adapt the screen to the device’s surroundings. Furthermore, the new Screen Time feature in the Settings app enables young and old users alike to monitor their usage of devices and even set time limits for apps.

At work, I use an app on my Mac called BreakTime, which takes over my computer every 20 minutes and delivers a message to look into the distance for 20 seconds. Coupled with a sit-stand desk, it makes things somewhat more bearable.

All of these features sound very clever and useful but they shouldn’t have to exist. In theory, computers were supposed to reduce the amount of work that we have to do and as a consequence, the time that it takes each day. Instead we now sit for the same number of hours (if not more), only to develop a range of health complications from sitting and staring. The standard 40-hour week persists in Australia.

When we hear about things like ‘flexible work’, we are generally encouraged to consider a more comfortable method of being productive, whether based at home for some of the week or away travelling. This is an idealistic view. Instead, people shuffle their working times around and end up doing even more. Constantly, I witness my colleagues sacrifice their lunch breaks in front of their computers and send messages late in the evening. Why do they do this? Displays are everywhere and it’s just easier to get those few emails out of the way. With such accessible tools, it feels like there’s no excuse to stop working.

I believe that we should ask ourselves an important question: what is all of this work for? Whether it’s for our eyes or our back posture, what are we really hoping to achieve by spending all of this time in front of screens?

If only we were to treat our own adult bodies with the care and respect that we demand for our children, the world would be a much healthier, more comfortable place. Dr von Hagens has been saying this for ages.