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Tuesday 14 June 2011

The Reality Ratio

When was the last time you went an entire day without looking at a screen of some kind?

No, really.  When?

It’s interesting to watch television and realize how seldom the characters are portrayed watching television.  It’s an inherently dull activity, and if portrayed would make us think that the characters do not have very interesting lives.  Instead, the characters on television are usually portrayed doing other things:  interacting with friends, spending time out of their homes, playing sports, enjoying romance, solving crimes – something. 

In other words, we watch television to see other people live human lives.  If it’s not a fictional drama, then we might tune in to see other people play sports, as a substitute for playing them ourselves. 

With the increased prevalence of screens in our lives, perhaps it is no surprise that the threshold for “entertainment” has dropped over time.  Today there are entire programs, even networks, devoted to people playing cards, renovating their homes, and cooking.  We no longer need to endure the strain of holding our own cards – we can watch minor celebrities do it for us.  An activity that we might formerly have thought too dull to engage in becomes acceptable when we can sit back and passively watch others do the same thing.

And if we are not watching television, what are we up to?  We stare at computers, surfing the internet.  We wander through the universe of knowledge available on an iPad.  We chat with people using text messaging, as a substitute for actually spending time with them.  With the miracles of modern technology we play games involving catapulting angry birds at enclosed pigs.  

And the rate of depression in our culture continues its apparent rise, fueled in large part by inactivity, isolation, and a powerful ennui coming from a loss of meaning in our lives. 

Is there a link?  This, as they say, is an empirical question.  And it is a question not only for the mythical “average person”, which could be determined by someone else’s research, but also for the individual.  In your own life, does the amount of time you spend looking at a screen correlate with your mood?  And does the relationship seem even partly to be a causal one?

Screens have their place.  But it’s worthwhile monitoring our screen time to see just how much of our lives are spent viewing electronic devices rather than friends and family. 

To this end:  The reality ratio.  The percentage of waking hours NOT spent before a screen of some sort.

[(Hours awake – Screen time) / Hours awake] x 100 = The Reality Ratio

Screen time, by this definition, is the time we spend gazing at a computer, iPad, smartphone, or television.  Given that we often go out to films with friends, let's overlook the time spent in front of movie screens.

It would be interesting to know the norms for the ratio.  What is the average for men?  For women?  For children or teens?  And is there, in fact, a relationship with mood or life satisfaction? 

Having spent years helping people cope with depression, I suspect the relationship operates both ways.  Depression robs us of energy and will, and makes sitting in front of TV or computer all the more tempting.  But spending a life in isolation, watching other people live their lives, or interacting with random, unconnected bits of information, seems also to promote depression and a sense of having lost one’s way.

How could someone assess this?  For a few weeks, you could keep a sheet of paper on the bedside table.  Before turning in, rate your mood for the day on a 0-100 scale (given the variability in mood over the course of the day, this can be tricky but eventually gets easier); and guess the number of hours spent before a screen of some kind.  Set aside at least a few days for a deliberate media fast, in which you will not turn on the computer or TV, and will use the phone only for, you guessed it, phone calls.

Is this a perfect test?  Of course not.  Maybe we hate our computer-based job, and the correlation has more to do with the amount of time we spend at work than anything else.  But it’s a hint.

For anyone prone to depression or ennui, my own recommendation is always the same.  Cut back on the screen time, and replace it with more energetic activities, with social time, with goal-directed activity, and with time spent out of the house.  On the whole, this seems to help.

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