Why Are Screens Better Than Real Life?

I have three children, and left unsupervised, they will stare at screens until their eyeballs liquefy and seep into the carpet. And so, I spend every single day of my existence wringing my hands over how much screen time is too much screen time for these people. Sometimes I set a timer. Sometimes I say, "TIME IS UP" and go to take the screens away, and then my kids freak the fuck out, and I give them back the screens so they can put their stupid Minecraft characters to bed, which always takes two minutes longer than it should. And then I worry that I'm a simp because I gave into their screaming, but man, do I hate hearing them scream. Sometimes, when I'm tired, I just let it go, because it's cold outside, and I've run out of board games to play and tedious craft projects to do. Every parent knows that a screen works flawlessly for subduing annoying kids.

And yet, I worry. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that your kid get no more than two hours of screen time a day. And let's face it: They cede those two hours grudgingly. In ideal conditions, you would make like 1896 and send your kids out the door to go play Cowboys & Indians and shoot at squirrels for eight hours, then ring a bell to call 'em home for supper. But I can't do that. This is not Big Sky Country. There are speeding cars and deranged child molesters and creeks to fall into out there. Screens do serve some purpose in helping me corral these little fuckers.

But that does little to assuage my guilt. Somewhere out there, I sense a threshold—a certain number of screen hours that will turn my children into mouth-breathing zombies. I picture them all becoming the dipshit Kotaku commenter who's on an Xbox headset 16 hours a day and is a COCK to everyone online. The fact that Oculus Rift just sold to Facebook for two billion dollars doesn't help things. Screens aren't only omnipresent. They're getting BETTER. They have near-perfect war simulations and kick-ass porn and all the movies you could ever want to watch. I feel like I spend half of my day clinging desperately to my children to prevent them from turning into the fucking Lawnmower Man.

It's a matter of content as well as time, too. I fear my kids stumbling across an image that will damage their psyche in ways that a real physical assault would—seeing Goatse at age seven or something like that. One time, my kid picked up an iPad and asked Siri who the fattest person on earth was, and Siri produced a photo gallery of terrifyingly obese naked people. No offense to obese naked people, but this concerned me.

This is all an act of hypocrisy on my part. As screen time goes, I'm a terrible role model. When I was a kid, I watched TV all the time. My mom still expresses regret over how much TV I was allowed to watch. I saw AWFUL shit: R-rated movies and violence and bad language and hairy-pube porn and everything else. And this was back when screens were GARBAGE, mind you. I'm talking about sitting there and watching Liar's Club at 1 p.m. on a summer Tuesday with the reception going in and out. I was powerless to resist even that, so imagine the pull a fully armed and operational screen has in 2014. These kids don't have to tolerate shitty resolution or subpar entertainment. Everything is optimized and ready to go. I kind of wish I could be a kid all over again so I could indulge.

Because man, do I indulge. I stare at a screen at least eight hours a day. I check my phone when I piss. Yes, even 15 seconds pissing is too much time away from a screen for me to tolerate. I check my email when the kids are in the bath. I steal a glance at Twitter when they're outside. One time I was Googling myself when my son bashed his head against something, and I probably could have prevented that bashing if I had been truly present. At least once a day, there is the inevitable 21st-century scene in which every member of this household is staring at a different screen simultaneously, and I will look up and think, OH GOD, THIS IS A NIGHTMARE before going right back to staring at a picture of a lion eating a bear.

It is only out of concern for my health, and a couple HEFTY doses of guilt and self-loathing, that I pull myself away. And then I get all pissy at other parents for allowing their children too much screen time and then letting those kids infect my own kids. I glare at nannies on the phone at the playground, even though I just looked at my own fucking phone, and if I were alone, and I knew it wasn't bad for me, I'd probably stare at that fucking phone all day. I wouldn't shower. I wouldn't shave. I wouldn't change underpants. I would just let the screen subsume me. And I'm a grownup. Kids are far less inclined to feel any guilt about this shit. My kids get tired of watching TV just like anyone, but it only takes a few minutes of reading some book before they ask for it to go back on again.

It's only gonna get worse. The Oculus Rift is just the beginning. The screens are only gonna get more detailed and immersive from here. I was watching Her a few weeks ago, and that movie is well done in that it never dumps on its main character for fucking his computer. The movie asks, If something fake brings you real joy, then isn't that okay? And it's easy to say yes to that. But there was a little voice in my head the whole time that was like, GOD WHAT A LOSER THAT GUY IS. HE FUCKS HIS COMPUTER! I worry about a tipping point in which the screens suck us all in and we give into the Matrix or whatever, destroying our own humanity in the process. Not that I would rid the house of TVs to thwart this, mind you. I like watching The Americans too much.

Why Are Screens Better Than Real Life?

So I was doing my usual round of worrying the other day about this, and I started to wonder: WHY? Why do I do this? Why do my kids do this? Why is a screen—regardless of what it displays—so much more appealing than actual human existence? Here in real life, the air is fresh, and you can touch things, and the sky is blue and all that. IT'S NOT THAT BAD. On a screen, everything is fake. The game worlds are fake. The movies are fake. Most of the viral videos are fake. (Fuck you, Kimmel.) Even the interaction between people is kinda fake, because people do their best to sound cool in an email or in an Instagram photo. It's all horseshit. And it can get dull after a while.

So why do I love it so much? What is it about this glowing rectangle that I'm powerless to resist? To figure out the answer, I consulted Dr. Micah Goldwater, lecturer on psychology at the University of Sydney (research!). I contacted him via email, of course. Calling him would have taken actual effort! Here is what Dr. Goldwater said:

First, from very early infancy and throughout development, novelty is attention-grabbing. If you show an infant the same thing over and over, they stop looking at it, but then if something changes, they perk right back up and look for much longer. If you compare what tends to happens on screens compared to the real world, the rate of change on a screen is much faster.

Take what many of us would consider a breathtaking visual experience: watching a sunset while on a cliff overlooking the ocean. While beautiful, it's pretty static and quiet. Compare that to a computer animation, and every 10th of a second there is a dramatic change in sensory input, both visually and aurally. I imagine kids would probably look at the sunset for a few seconds, implicitly determine, "Been there, done that," then go right back to a video game on their phone.

The second has to do with habit formation. Basic research has shown for many years than when reward is randomly distributed (that is, unpredictable), habits in regards to seeking that reward become much stronger compared to even when the reward is constant and more predictable. For example, if you were doing cocaine and some bumps were really intense, and other bumps were not intense, and you couldn't predict what any given bump would be like, this would lead to stronger addiction than if we knew every time how high we were going to get. This is also why slot machines cause so much gambling addiction: unpredictable reward.

Apply that to today's digital age. Why do we check email, twitter, facebook so frequently? We don't know when the reward is coming. Sometimes tweets are hilarious, sometimes boring, sometimes offensive. Some emails tell you that you got a job, some say you got rejected, some are from your parents complaining you don't call them enough, some are from writers asking you for a comment. This unpredictability makes us want to be constantly checking these media. If we knew the good tweets all came at 9 a.m., we would just check Twitter then. I imagine video-gaming environments often have this same sort of structure.

There are probably some other things about how when playing a video game, you are in control; when watching TV, no one is criticising you. You don't have to consider other people's needs. But, these last few comments aren't really based on psych research I am aware of, just my intuition (though, there could certainly be research out there on them). The first two points are grounded in basic principles of learning and development.

Reading this, it seems like screens take our noblest human ambitions—the desire for new experiences, an enjoyment of unpredictability—and use them against us. Seeing a new text fulfills the same mental ambition as climbing up a mountain, only the former is quite a bit easier. And that's the problem. I will stare at a screen knowing there nothing new to be had, especially during down web times like late on a Saturday night or something. There's nothing interesting out there, and yet the PROMISE of it popping up (ZOMG A PLANE IS MISSING!) is enough to get me to continue checking. Because it's right there. Easier than heading out the door and hopping on a plane to New Zealand.

I stared at screens a lot as a child and still managed to turn out okay (well, I mean, I guess I did). I have become someone who embraces screens while recognizing the innate fear of what happens if you use them too much. My upbringing didn't stop me from trying to prevent my children from growing up likewise, and I guess that's reassuring. I want to think that we have an inherent technophobia that keeps us from falling too far down the rabbit hole, and that my kids also possess that quality. I need to believe that they'll be able to govern themselves one day, because I'll soon be powerless to limit them, and I hope that the meager limits I've placed on screen time will keep them human. But the truth is that succumbing to screens—cutting away that last frayed piece of rope that's keeping us from slipping away forever—might be the most human impulse of all.