Of all the pernicious effects screen time is having on us, perhaps none is as harmful as this: Screens encourage us to build personal digital kingdoms. Within these virtual castle walls, we reign as lord and master. We exercise absolute control over what we see, what we play, who comes in, and which ideas will be tolerated. As we spend more and more time within the walls of our digital castles, we begin losing touch with the real world.
You may not feel in control of your screen life as you’re bombarded by spam, tempted by clickbait and distressed by social media. But in reality, you exert much more control in the screen world than you do in the real world. Screen life affords you a level of choice and autonomy once enjoyed only by royalty.
Digital royals can exile annoying people from social media by unfriending or banning them. Poof, they’re gone, never to bother us again.
Screen time is not all that harmful when used in moderation, and for noble purposes. The underlying issue is lordship: the extraordinary level of control we exert within the digital world can lead to hubris, isolation, fear and anxiety. You’ve heard the saying: It’s lonely at the top. Power and prerogatives are served with a side dish of pressure.
The more time we spend on our screens, the more we become accustomed to living in a world that bends to our will. Then we go back into the real world, where almost nothing bends to our will. Real life has no on/off button. There’s no way to cancel annoying co-workers, nor can we change the channel when our car breaks down. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending when an injustice is done, a relationship goes sour, or illness strikes. Daunted by real life, we retreat into our personal digital kingdoms, because there we have a measure of control.
Psychologists are seeing an unprecedented spike in depression and anxiety, especially among young people who have grown up online. Critics dismiss them as “snowflakes,” but their fragility is a byproduct of having been raised in a digital world they can customize and manipulate. When the real world does not yield to their preferences, they experience angst. Having spent so much time immersed in screen life, they find themselves poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of real life.
There’s nothing wrong with watching an occasional TV show, playing a round of video games or posting to social media. The danger arises when you find yourself preferring these digital simulations to real life. If screen time is your “go-to” leisure activity, something you do for hours each day (as most of us do) you’re in the danger zone. Recognize why you it’s so pleasurable to leave the real world and lock yourself behind the walls of your digital kingdom. The powers you exert in the screen world are artificial and may be compromising your ability to meet real-life challenges.