THE BLOG

Excessive Screen Use, A 'First World' Problem?

07/06/2013 11:51 | Updated 07 August 2013

Over the last few months, the hashtag #FWP (short for #firstworldproblem) has grown in popularity on Twitter and other social networking sites. There is even a website listing a collection of trivial inconveniences of modern life in the "first" world such as "I want to enjoy my beer in the garden but the wifi doesn't work out there". Amusing, maybe but they can make us cringe as they crassly remind us that our daily stresses are dwarfed in comparison with those living in poorer countries.

However, there can be a danger in trivialising the relative. As Socrates wrote, "A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true." What he would have to say about a recent #FWP tweet, "#FWP Both of my Kindles are out of juice. How am I supposed to read tonight?" Is anyone's' guess.

But humour aside, it is worth asking how "first world problems"- however trivial or relatively unimportant - could be solved before they become "second" or "third" world problems." A good place to start is in addressing the problem of the offensive term itself, with its negative connotation of hierarchy and supposed "development."

This week a friend of mine and I launch a simple initiative called ScreenLess week a resource for schools to help children and families recalibrate their reliance on screens, if only for one week. This isn't some Luddite agenda or reactionary plan to get people to throw away their screens and revert to some nostalgic and imaginary pre-screen world, but simply a set of resources to help us all think about our over-dependency on screens and a chance to think about how using them less, allows for rebirth of non-screen activity. Written by digital dads and tech enthusiasts, this initiative looks at whether excessive screen use contributes to empathy erosion or ill-health and the website includes a range of practical resources and tips on how the whole family can unplug and take a digital detox.

2013-06-07-LOGO.jpg

However, as I reflect on what might be the response of the ScreenLess challenge, I'm fully anticipating the onslaught of #FWP comments. "How trivial to be designing a ScreenLess programme, when millions don't even have basic internet access #FWP!" I hear the pundits tweet.

It may be a relative #FWP, but clinical practitioners are starting to address the issues of internet addiction and I sense that parents (myself included) who until recently were positively encouraging their children to dive into the shiny digital ocean and be immersed in exciting spaces via the very latest mobile phone, ipad, games console or social network site, are now asking how much is too much? They need practical help to support their children take a break from the status anxiety and the peer approval pressure which comes from 24/7 access. Many parents struggle to wean their children off their life-support systems and take a proper break. As one parent running a ScreenLess week put it.

"This generation of parents is in totally uncharted territory; it's hard enough being a good-enough parent, but doing it alongside the explosion of the internet and social media when we grew up with only 3 or 4 channels, means we are facing challenges on a scale no generation has faced. Many of us don't have any inbuilt sense of where the boundaries are - or should be - and in the meantime the internet floods in and fills up lots of the space that might otherwise be spent on... well, shared family time, music, reading? All the things there used to be the time for."

It takes a lot of confidence (and indeed courage) to introduce boundaries in a borderless world and to stand up to the prevailing attitude that having constant access to the world through your mobile or internet connection is just normal and an indispensible part of modern childhood. Yes, screens are indispensible and normal for all of us, but they are not the only things which children need.

In 10 years time will this compulsion for all things digital still be a first world problem? Will parents regret having given their 4 year olds an iPad and their 8 years olds a SMART phone and Facebook account? Will the I-tantrums, loss of offline play and outside adventure be an acceptable part of living in the "first world"? Perhaps we can solve this problem by looking at what is so precious in cultures which aren't so screen reliant and connected. Maybe the "#thirdworldproblem" of not having immediate high quality bandwidth is paradoxically the answer to this particular, appallingly termed 'First world problem'?

Stephen Carrick-Davies is a social entrepreneur, trainer and e-safety practitioner. See www.screenlessweek.co.uk for more information.