Adam Alter: Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy (Transcript)

Adam Alter

Here is the full transcript of author Adam Alter’s TED Talk: Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy. 

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Why our screens make us less happy by Adam Alter at TED Conference


So, a few years ago, I heard an interesting rumor. Apparently, the head of a large pet food company would go into the annual shareholder’s meeting with can of dog food.

And he would eat the can of dog food. And this was his way of convincing them that if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for their pets. This strategy is now known as “dogfooding,” and it’s a common strategy in the business world.

It doesn’t mean everyone goes in and eats dog food, but business people will use their own products to demonstrate that they feel — that they’re confident in them.

Now, this is a widespread practice, but I think what’s really interesting is when you find exceptions to this rule, when you find cases of businesses or people in businesses who don’t use their own products.

Turns out there’s one industry where this happens in a common way, in a pretty regular way, and that is the screen-based tech industry.

So, in 2010, Steve Jobs, when he was releasing the iPad, described the iPad as a device that was “extraordinary”, “The best browsing experience you’ve ever had; way better than a laptop, way better than a smartphone. It’s an incredible experience.”

A couple of months later, he was approached by a journalist from the New York Times, and they had a long phone call. At the end of the call, the journalist threw in a question that seemed like a sort of softball. He said to him, “Your kids must love the iPad.” There’s an obvious answer to this, but what Jobs said really staggered the journalist. He was very surprised, because he said, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

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This is a very common thing in the tech world. In fact, there’s a school quite near Silicon Valley called the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, and they don’t introduce screens until the eighth grade. What’s really interesting about the school is that 75% of the kids who go there have parents who are high-level Silicon Valley tech execs.

So when I heard about this, I thought it was interesting and surprising, and it pushed me to consider what screens were doing to me and to my family and the people I loved, and to people at large. So for the last five years, as a professor of business and psychology, I’ve been studying the effect of screens on our lives.

And I want to start by just focusing on how much time they take from us, and then we can talk about what that time looks like. What I’m showing you here is the average 24-hour workday at three different points in history: 2007 — 10 years ago — 2015 and then data that I collected, actually, only last week. And a lot of things haven’t changed all that much. We sleep roughly seven-and-a-half to eight hours a day; some people say that’s declined slightly, but it hasn’t changed much. We work eight-and-a-half to nine hours a day.

We engage in survival activities — these are things like eating and bathing and looking after kids — about three hours a day. That leaves this white space. That’s our personal time. That space is incredibly important to us. That’s the space where we do things that make us individuals.

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