It’s official. British people spend more time in front of a screen than we do asleep – the average is eight hours and forty three minutes per day. Scenes of commuters hunched over their phones in packed carriages have become so common they are a cliché; parents stand at the edge of parks checking their messages while a toddler tugs at their trousers; two people who might have struck up a conversation and perhaps even fallen in love sit glued to their phones on next-door tables in a café, probably swiping through possible dates.
Cutting down on screen time can seem as futile as fighting the tide when so much of our work and social lives are enmeshed in the use of screens. But, having seen my own screen use shoot through the roof over the last few years and, fearing I would pass on bad habits to my kids, I decided a change was needed.
It all started with a little island called Tristan da Cunha which I stumbled across, ironically, while idly surfing the internet. I must have been having a bad day because I typed in ‘remotest place on earth’ and up popped an island that looked like it had been drawn by a child: round, green with a heart-shaped lake on top of the tallest peak. It was love at first sight.
On Tristan Da Cunha, the office job does not exist: the islanders live under the shadow of a volcano, growing crops and rearing sheep on 5km of farmland, and fishing in the surrounding Southern Atlantic. There is the occasional supply ship every couple of months but otherwise they are left to their own devices. Until the 1990s, the 265 islanders survived perfectly happily without cars or television or any of the mod cons that you and I consider essential to daily life. Even today, there is no mobile phone signal and Internet is accessed via satellite only. It’s some people’s idea of hell – but I found the remoteness strangely appealing.
In 1961 the entire island was evacuated after the volcano on the island erupted. They were taken to live in Southampton. The British public assumed the islanders would love life in the UK – steady jobs, telephones, televisions, trains, washing machines. You can probably guess what happened – in 1963 all two hundred and sixty eight islanders unanimously voted to return home, preferring their isolated existence to the rush of modern life.
Today’s smart-phone addicted society could learn much from the approach of those islanders who seemed to know intuitively that it wasn’t the latest technology that would bring them contentment but their own sense of community and belonging.
Everywhere you look people are seeking out ways to embrace a more rustic existence. Steve Jobs famously didn’t let his children use screens while Bill Gates kept phones from his children until they were 14. A 2014 study took young people away on a technology-free activity week and measured a noticeable increase in their ability to empathise with others and an improvement in their social skills. Tech entrepeneurs have cottoned on to these benefits and are reaping the rewards for their own children. Perhaps it’s because they know how addictive these devices are designed to be and how difficult it is to break habits once they are formed in your youth.
Last year, after I had my second child, I took myself off the internet for six months just to see if I could survive, even thrive without it. My decision wasn’t puritanical – I just knew my own weakness and, in the haze of new motherhood, rather liked the idea of bonding with my new baby away from the distraction of technology. And I discovered something precious in the process: my mind was far more rooted in the present; I became more productive, a better parent and far more aware of the immediate world around me – whether that was remembering to appreciate the view at the end of my garden or getting to know my elderly neighbour down the road whose name I hadn’t thought to find out before I gave up my phone.
Whilst it isn’t practical or desirable to leave the internet behind completely or move to the remotest island on earth, I’ve settled on a compromise: a 5:2 phone diet with two days each week where I’ll aim to be screen-free.
As John Ruskin aptly surmised, long before the internet was even a thought in the head: ‘no changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.’