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

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

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.

That’s where hobbies happen, where we have close relationships, where we really think about our lives, where we get creative, where we zoom back and try to work out whether our lives have been meaningful. We get some of that from work as well. But when people look back on their lives and wonder what their lives have been like at the end of their lives, you look at the last things they say — they are talking about those moments that happen in that white personal space. So it’s sacred; it’s important to us.

Now, what I’m going to do is show you how much of that space is taken up by screens across time. In 2007, this much. That was the year that Apple introduced the first iPhone. Eight years later, this much. Now, this much. That’s how much time we spend of that free time in front of our screens. This yellow area, this thin sliver, is where the magic happens. That’s where your humanity lives

And right now, it’s in a very small box. So what do we do about this? Well, the first question is: What does that red space look like? Now, of course, screens are miraculous in a lot of ways. I live in New York, a lot of my family lives in Australia, and I have a one-year-old son. The way I’ve been able to introduce them to him is with screens.

I couldn’t have done that 15 or 20 years ago in quite the same way. So there’s a lot of good that comes from them. One thing you can do is ask yourself: What goes on during that time? How enriching are the apps that we’re using? And some are enriching. If you stop people while they’re using them and say, “Tell us how you feel right now,” they say they feel pretty good about these apps — those that focus on relaxation, exercise, weather, reading, education and health. They spend an average of nine minutes a day on each of these.

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These apps make them much less happy. About half the people, when you interrupt them and say, “How do you feel?” say they don’t feel good about using them. What’s interesting about these — dating, social networking, gaming, entertainment, news, web browsing — people spend 27 minutes a day on each of these. We’re spending three times longer on the apps that don’t make us happy. That doesn’t seem very wise.

One of the reasons we spend so much time on these apps that make us unhappy is they rob us of stopping cues. Stopping cues were everywhere in the 20th century. They were baked into everything we did. A stopping cue is basically a signal that it’s time to move on, to do something new, to do something different. And — think about newspapers; eventually you get to the end, you fold the newspaper away, you put it aside.

The same with magazines, books — you get to the end of a chapter, prompts you to consider whether you want to continue. You watched a show on TV, eventually the show would end, and then you’d have a week until the next one came. There were stopping cues everywhere.

But the way we consume media today is such that there are no stopping cues. The news feed just rolls on, and everything’s bottomless: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, text messaging, the news.

And when you do check all sorts of other sources, you can just keep going on and on and on. So, we can get a cue about what to do from Western Europe, where they seem to have a number of pretty good ideas in the workplace.

Here’s one example. This is a Dutch design firm. And what they’ve done is rigged the desks to the ceiling. And at 6 p.m. every day, it doesn’t matter who you’re emailing or what you’re doing, the desks rise to the ceiling. Four days a week, the space turns into a yoga studio, one day a week, into a dance club. It’s really up to you which ones you stick around for. But this is a great stopping rule, because it means at the end of the day, everything stops, there’s no way to work.

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At Daimler, the German car company, they’ve got another great strategy. When you go on vacation, instead of saying, “This person’s on vacation, they’ll get back to you eventually,” they say, “This person’s on vacation, so we’ve deleted your email. This person will never see the email you just sent. You can email back in a couple of weeks, or you can email someone else.” And so — you can imagine what that’s like. You go on vacation, and you’re actually on vacation.

The people who work at this company feel that they actually get a break from work. But of course, that doesn’t tell us much about what we should do at home in our own lives, so I want to make some suggestions. It’s easy to say, between 5 and 6pm, I’m going to not use my phone. The problem is, 5 and 6pm looks different on different days. I think a far better strategy is to say, I do certain things every day, there are certain occasions that happen every day, like eating dinner.

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