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Scroll Less, Read More, Touch Grass

If you have a smartphone, please consider taking a moment to go into the settings area to check your average daily screen time - if it's somewhere between 3-5 hours, you're within the range of the global average.

The latest data shows that the average smartphone user spends 2.5 hours on social media platforms daily.

Combine all screen use including television, and the global average is 6 hours and 58 minutes daily.

Let's be conservative and assume an average daily screen time of 5 hours - if one were to maintain this average from 10 to 80 years of age, this would translate to just over 14.5 years of life spent on screens.

There is much good that can come from screen time, of course. To name just two life-enhancing use cases, the internet allows us to enjoy regular face time with loved ones who live far away, and gives anyone with regular access the means to learn just about anything they have interest in for mere pennies in electricity.

The problem is that much of internet culture promotes mindless scrolling at the expense of spending time with loved ones in real life. We have an entire generation of youth and young adults that sees it being normal to spend most of their free time indoors on screens, so much so that they jokingly remind one another to go touch grass when the metaverse gets stressful.

The addiction to screens is being driven by the same neurotransmitter activity that underlies the physiological cause of addiction to recreational drugs, including alcohol.

The massive costs of screen addiction are unquantifiable. Thought leaders throughout human history have taught us that the greatest gift we can give others is our mindful presence, our focused attention. Without giving of ourselves in this way, our capacity to sympathize, empathize, and offer compassion is markedly reduced.

On a personal note, in shifting from reading paper books to digital files on a screen or even listening to audio files, at some point over recent years, I realized that I was losing out on depth of learning and fruits of contemplation that naturally accompany reading physical books.

Learning digitally invariably causes us to be easily distracted - it's too tempting to pause our reading to ask Google or Siri to find the answer to whatever comes to mind, or if we come across a concept that gets dry, it's far more satisfying to our brain chemistry to jump over to social media or our favourite news website to see what's happening elsewhere.

Our brains evolved in a way where much of our recall of information is related to a physical location - for example, the many biochemical steps that make up the Kreb's cycle that occurs in the mitochondria of all of our cells to generate energy is firmly positioned in my brain on the right hand side of a page of the Lehninger Biochemistry textbook that was used at my school. My brain also remembers about how far into that textbook that chapter appears. These and other natural learning cues that our species developed over countless years of evolution are diminished or outright lost when reading the same information on a screen.

The point is this: spending excessive hours on screens is causing us to lose valuable parts of ourselves and the human experience. Our collective attention span is diminishing in direct proportion to rising screen time. And ultimately, I think social scientists will increasingly point to this being a primary cause of deterioration of mental health and quality of relationships, especially for those who are addicted to scrolling through social media platforms.

Mother Teresa said that paying attention is the purest form of love - there is great wisdom in this idea, no?

With these thoughts in mind, I've been doing most of my learning through books printed on paper, and I am loving this purposeful shift. Reading physical books has led to more time reflecting on people and causes that are important to me. The quality of my learning has improved in a noticeable way. And as I've been building my stamina to read paper books, I am feeling more calm and patient.

So my advice to our children these days is to scroll less and read more, to spend less time with screens and more time with paper books and people in real life. To touch grass.


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