Screen Shock

Screen Shock
Screen Shock

Anthony Silard ’85 explains why the internet foments addiction, loneliness, and anxiety—and how to stop it. 

Phones, laptops, televisions, tablets, watches, and other screens are capturing more and more of the world’s attention every year, with new research showing that people on average spend seven hours a day on their screens. But for business leadership educator and coach Anthony Silard ’85, that doesn’t mean everyone is addicted to their screens. Though it does mean people’s pre-technology addictions are more accessible than ever.

“I don't think we're addicted to our phones,” Silard said at a Conversation with Friends event last month moderated by classmate Bill Adams ’85. “I don't think we're addicted to the internet or to our screens. We're addicted to the same things we've always been addicted to: recognition, feeling competent, feeling worthy, feeling loved and admired and respected. The difference now is that this thing called the internet came along, it became mobile, and it accelerated our access to what we're addicted to while reducing any social costs.” In his latest book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, Silard posits that these device-enabled addictions—from social-media pings to online gambling—have caused loneliness and anxiety to skyrocket.

According to a pair of surveys conducted by Cigna Healthcare, 46 percent of Americans were lonely in 2018; that number jumped to 61 percent in January 2020—still pre-pandemic—leading U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to label loneliness a national epidemic. But loneliness is not just an American problem. “This is a global phenomenon,” Silard said. “Former British Prime Minister Theresa May essentially appointed a minister for loneliness on the heels of a couple of studies that found that British children spend less time outside than prison inmates.”

What’s more, it’s easy for people to hide how much time they are spending online feeding their addictions. Silard explained that gambling is an example of how what once was an activity is now totally passive. People used to have to go to a casino to place bets—which meant leaving home, thereby demonstrating to loved ones how much time gambling was eating up, and in turn triggering all kinds of social costs and consequences that acted as a natural curb on the behavior. Now the casino is online, open around the clock, and easily disguised as work—just as a whole slew of new addictions, like obsessing over social media, are easily disguised.

“The irony is that we hear people screaming about invasion of privacy in a virtual realm,” Silard said. “It's true. Our data is mined. We are the product. That's why we don't pay for Gmail or Facebook, or all of these other brightly colored apps and software—because we're actually the product. We provide information for them, and that's how they make their money. So, in a virtual realm, we have lost a lot of our privacy because we are the product. But in the physical realm, no one knows what we're doing behind our screens, and in that way, we've never had this much privacy, and it’s driving access to our addictions.”

Worse, the more time we spend on screens, the less time we spend with each other. This is what Silard calls the bait-and-switch. “We're promised social connection,” he said. “That's why we go online. That's why we go on our phones. But we don't end up with social connection; we end up with social information, which is different. Social information does not lead to more connection.” In fact, social information can quickly become a form of social comparison. Silard says that when we see attractive, happy people on social media, it often just leads to insecurity. “I may see the only moment in someone's weeklong family vacation where they're smiling,” Silard said. “And I think, ‘Why doesn't my family smile like that?’” Social psychologists have found that this kind of insecurity makes people feel still more unworthy and lonely.

The solution, luckily, starts with simply understanding that this is happening, notes Silard. Because we are the product, it is programmers’ job to keep us engaged. Every prompt to click and every urge to check is a response manufactured by those who profit from users’ attention. Just remember, Silard said, that every moment you lose to the internet just means a programmer somewhere is “getting a promotion.”

In addition to the original Screened In book, you can now buy the Screened In Companion Workbook: A Practical, Self-Directed Guide to Living Free in the Digital Age.

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