Friday, October 22, 2010

Is Onscreen Addiction Imperiling our Ability to Think?

At a recent doctor's appointment, I thrummed through the various magazines to pass the time. The eventual winner of my selection (and definitely for me) was the 2010 October/November issue of The Philadelphia Trumpet.

The cover bears the picture of a boy wearing headphones, holding a cell phone, a keyboard in his lap and a TV remote control by his side. If that technologically-overloaded visual wasn't enough to draw me in, the boy's zoned-out expression surely did. And finally the caption, The Perils of Screen Addiction (and how to Beat it) hammered the subject home.

Written by The Philadelphia Trumpet columnist Brad Macdonald, he begins with: "Do you stare at a monitor for huge portions of your day? Descend into panic when you misplace your cell phone? Feel compelled to check your e-mail or IM incessantly?" Followed by: "When you pick up a book or pause with a deeper reflection, do you easily succumb to the glow of a screen, or the chirp of a newly arrived text?"

If you do, then you are part of one of the most significant cultural phenomenons in human history: screen addiction.

Macdonald claims the infatuation with the screen is precipitating a transformation much like the one unfolding in our libraries. "The library used to be an asylum for thought," he writes. "Nestled amid the bustle of the campus or city center, it was once a place of refuge.... Today, the most popular service libraries provide is Internet access. (Ninety-nine percent of libraries provide this function throughout the U.S)."

"In libraries around the world, books are being pushed aside and screens erected. Why should we care," the columnist asks? "Because screens are also refashioning our minds."

Macdonald pulls quotes from Author Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows, in which Carr claims a perpetual connection, specifically the Internet, is affecting the way we think. "When we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning." According to Carr, screen addiction is rewiring our brains.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist, and whom Macdonald quoted, agrees. Referring to the popularity of Twitter, Facebook, texting, video games and to technology addiction in general, Greenfield says, "My fear is that these technologies are infantalizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment." (Feb. 24, 2009).

I don't think Brad Macdonald or the experts he cited in his article are alone in their worries. Polls have been done were ordinary people express concerns.

In a New York Times/CBS poll in May, nearly 30 percent of those surveyed under 45 admitted they felt like their use of gadgets was making it harder for them to focus.

By becoming addicted to the screen, Carr observes, we have "rejected the intellectual tradition of solidarity, single-minded concentration" -- a state of mind often induced by reading a book, for example-- and "cast our lot with the juggler." (op cit.).

Why do I bring this article up on a Five Scribe's blog? Because I find every word cited in this article is true. I wrote my first book in three months. Each one afterward took considerably longer, and I believe the culprit isn't that I'm merely having trouble focusing, I'm being bombarded with outside interference. When I start to research, there is so much information available to provide a distraction, I spend hours on line where I used to spend one or two.

I find myself constantly saying, "Where was I?" Or "What did I accomplish today?" And don't even get me started on the social networks.

The good news about The Philadelphia Trumpet's article was the author did offer helpful tips in which to combat what I see as a serious problem.

Consider your Ways.

To beat screen addiction and reclaim your mind it is important to as the Prophet Haggai put it, "consider your ways" (Haggai 1:7).

Count the number of screens in your life. Calculate how much time you spend with each. Then consider how that time is spent:

How many texts do you send and receive per day? ... How much television do you watch? How many times do you check your e-mail? How many times do you need to recheck your e-mail? Do you visit a website 10 times a day when once or twice is enough?

Now, consider how much time you spend in activities that deepen the mind. How much time do you spend reading each week? How much time in mediation? How much in conversing with your family?

And this is the most critical: Think about your ability to think. Would you call yourself a deep thinker?

In the article Macdonald references the bestselling book The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet. "Great thinkers are "people possessed of a mastering purpose leaving no room for inferior occupations."

Create Solitude.

Screen addiction has created a fear of solitude, a fear of being alone with one's thoughts. Creating solitude is not an easy task. It means turning off every screen, signing off of social networks, e.g. signing off every screen in our lives.

Budget your time.

Put a limit on your recreational Internet use. Carve out blocks of times when cellphones, or all gadgets are off.

Brad Macdonald also talks about Hamlet's Blackberry, written by William Powers in which Powers says he created what is called an "Internet sabbath." He and his wife began turning off the modem on Friday night and not switching it on until morning.

Feed Your Mind.

Once the screens are switched off, feed your mind a healthy diet of information and knowledge. Journal, take time to write a handwritten letter to a friend or a distant relative. Embrace a hobby that lends itself to solitude and meditation, like gardening or painting. Don't be afraid to turn off your iPod or radio. Create your own mental music. Read the Bible. The Bible is the mind of God in print.

Needless to say this article affected me and I wanted to share. Also, to use this much information from the article I requested the author's permission, which he granted. If you are interested in reading Brad Macdonald's article in its entirety, visit, or send an e-mail to request@the

So how about you? How often do you turn off the screens in your life?


Liz Lipperman said...

Oh, Donnell, you've been reading my mail. Even my hubby calls me an addicted blogger. The funny thing is, I just saw a report from Bouchercon (Mystery writers conference) that listed the most effective tools for marketing your books. I have been spending loads of time with my own blog and replying on other blogs just to get my name out there. Imagine my surprise to find out blogging is WAY down the list of successful ways to market yourself.

So, tomorrow I will be making an in depth chart of all my screen times. I know I will be surprised at how very much time I actually devote to it. A change has got to come.

Thanks for such an informative and thought-provoking blog post.

Ellis Vidler said...

Excellent, Donnell! It really is an addiction. Amazing how difficult it is to just write. I try to turn off my email, but I'm still tempted to check email every few minutes. I need to break the habit.

Donnell said...

Hi, Liz and Ellis:

I find it especially interesting that the article was geared toward younger people. But we're involved in the craft of writing. This was an article that spoke to me. I kept asking myself as I read: Am I using these inventions/conveniences as a tool, or am I becoming a tool?

I didn't like the answer and will work very hard to combat the problem. Have a great day and focus ... I know you're both deep thinkers.

Edie Ramer said...

Donnell, very well said! And we're of like minds! I blogged about "computer brain" (which is what I call it) at Magical a couple months ago. I know I have it, and I'm trying to spend more time away from the computer.

Donnell said...

Hi, Edie, I'll have to go back and read your MM post. Send me the link would you? Glad to know we're like thinkers. We got in this business to write after all. Off to a writers' conference with no screens attached.

rita said...

I can't disagree with any of the article but I'm left pondering a few things. When books came into existence and humans began to read, was there this same angst about the loss of storytelling? Or, about when the radio and TV pushed reading books to the back burner and people wasted their time in front of the idiot box? I suspect the same thing was said about books being pushed aside in libraries. Libraries are offering ebooks. The government book store now offers ebooks. Should you wish you can get the 2011 fiscal budget as an ebook instead of a twenty pound volume. I've heard rumors Library of Congress will offer access to some volumes as ebooks.
I remember when PC's first came into homes we were warned that by 2010 there would be no personal social interaction. Everything would be done on computers. That is true but the personal interaction has taken on a new form. I can 'talk' to people in the UK, Australia, Canada and across the US every day. I have more down/alone time to think than people I know who aren’t on the computer. In fact I just had a conversation with one of them this past week about this very thing. She is always going and doing and doesn't take time for herself. It is wearing her down. Wait. I sorta do disagree with one thing. "If you aren’t accomplishing something every day." Define accomplishing. One could say this blog accomplishes nothing. I would say it is thought provoking and relevant. Carr thinks we enter an environment of hurried and distracted thinking that leads to superficial thinking. I'm thinking he's a fuddy duddy that wants us to sit in moldy room and turn thousands of pages to find the one thing we need instead of keying it in and having it at our finger tips.
Thanks for this. I certainly enjoyed coming across it in the midst of my screen addiction.

VR Barkowski said...

I hate telephones with a passion, and I personally haven't turned on a TV in almost three years. Blogging and email are obligations not addictions. Could I do without them? Yep, and happily so. I'm a loner by nature and would have no trouble writing in a vacuum. Unfortunately that's not what's expected in publishing, so I try to play by the rules. Caveat: I don't think I could give up my word processing screen. I'm not prepared to return to the days of the IBM Selectric. Everything else? I'm game. Where do I sign up?

Gillian Layne said...

I'd gladly toss my cell phone in the nearest river if it wasn't such a great way to keep track of where my girls are. The worst part about cell phones is that everyone wonders why you don't answer immediately--I mean, if it's on your body, you should be snatching it up on the first ring, no matter what, right? Yuck!

My facebook and twitter presence is very sporadic, usually linked to my blog posts. Blogs I enjoy. They have more of a sitting around the table visiting with friends feel.

Donnell said...

Rita, insightful deep thinking there :) Yes, with every new innovation there will always be the naysayers or detractors. I also think the article, in its defense was geared toward people whose minds aren't fully developed. (Not to say mine is... we can always keep growing and learning. All I know is I was blaming my absent mindedness on menopause... And I think it's because I'm overwhelmed. thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Donnell said...

Yep, Viva and Gillian I'm with you there -- I can live without my phone, and I broke my Ipod (sigh). I am a news junkie. I think it would be harder to turn off the TV than the computer. I just thought the article as whole was fascinating. And I never would met all of you if I wasn't on line!!!

Darynda said...

Great post, Donnell!

I've really been thinking about this a lot lately and about how much more I could get done if I"d just quit checking and rechecking my email, FB, Twitter, etc. It's getting ridiculous for me. I'm easily distracted as it is. The internet is NOT always a positive element in my life. :)

Tamara Hogan said...

Hi Donnell - I 100% agree. The emerging research about digital technology, gadgets, multi-tasking and fragmentation of attention span is...sobering.

I recently blogged about my personal experience with digital overload at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood. (

Kathy said...

I hide in the bathroom and read. When I read abook I'm there in the book and the outside world is gone. Talking about the screens the Kindle and other e-readers are out there now too. My sister and I don't think they would compare to a real book though. I do find that I enjoy going through the email and reading things that people share. I also play games online. But I'm grateful for the Internet medium with all I have going on in my life right now. I haven't gotten into twitter yet. I text with my niece as a way to keep in touch. But usually I'm responding to a text rather than sending. I'm a dark ages person in some ways. I love my computer though.

Amy Atwell said...

Wow, thanks Donnell. I have sworn my attention span was getting shorter and shorter, and I see that all this online bombardment could well be the cause. I've just promised myself more reading time to help center and focus myself. In fact, I find I'm writing longhand so I can shut the computer off entirely.

I worry about the younger generations. Computers and the internet are magnificent tools, but they've also become addictive toys.

Donnell said...

Thanks everybody for stopping by and voicing your thoughts on this subject. It's particularly hard for writers (ones with multiple contracts, (ahem Ms. Darynda Jones ;)) where they're required to promote themselves and produce quality multiple books.

Tamara, I will stop by and read your thoughts.

Amy, right there with you, gf. I'm *trying* to limit my screen time and concentrate on the writing and paying attention to my personal relationships as well.

Sharon Archer said...

Great blog, Donnell - and I went over to read Brad's whole article, too! And I'm definitely a screen addict! It's a Catch22 situation, isn't it - if I spent less time on the Internet, I might have missed this excellent article and your blog! And maybe that's part of what keeps us glued - a fear that we might miss something important!

Still... I'm going to speak to my dh and see how he'd feel about a "screen free" day on the weekends - the garden could certainly benefit from the TLC it would get from that extra time we'd have.

Thanks for bringing this up!

Donnell said...

Sharon, I was just about to sign off for the evening, but had to check my e-mail one more time.;) I think it might be an interesting goal (don't know about an entire weekend, but perhaps a no screen day?? I thought Mr. Macdonald's article was excellent. Glad you read it in total. Thanks for stopping by.

Leslie Ann said...

Ohhh, D,
This is so pertinent. I have to remove myself from the computer when I have a writing problem to solve...pen and paper to do that.

And when I have to stop and take time to just write...some call it free writing...not on the computer.

I do find that I want to stop and edit myself when I write by long hand...and I wonder if I'm LOSING my spelling....

Great and timely article.


Donnell said...

L.A. When I write, it is not on a keyboard. It's with a notebook and I take down the first draft in shorthand. The second draft I print by hand and the third I transcribe on my keyboard. I think that's when I do my best concentration.

My DH can't fall asleep without a radio or a television on. If I turn it off, he wakes up. Bizarre, huh? While I need absolute silence.

I really do think our brains are wired differently. Especially the female ones. If I walk into a restaurant and the tables are close, I am distracted by conversations around me.

I am easily distracted :) Hope you're feeling better!