Skip to main content



commentary Commentary

Commentary: Save me, I'm a screen zombie

Financial Times' Jo Ellison shares why Apple's new Screen Time feature doesn't help with her hideous phone addiction, but highlights it.

Commentary: Save me, I'm a screen zombie

People using their smartphones waiting for the train. (Photo: Unsplash/Jens Johnsson)

LONDON: I’d been judiciously avoiding the Screen Time feature launched by Apple as a means to monitor our addiction to its devices. But in the end it appeared uninvited, as these things are wont to do, quietly and mysteriously during a routine software update in the middle of the night.

I had already decided it wasn’t for me. 

When I was invited to spend time with the Apple specialists who devised the software last spring, they suggested it had been designed to help negligent parents who — having encouraged their children to suckle on the devices from birth so that they might enjoy a couple more hours of sleep or a further five minutes of adult conversation — had woken up one morning to discover a brood of YouTube-grunting zombies. 

Screen Time was just another piece of spyware to monitor our children’s every move. 

The announcement was accompanied by a flurry of articles about why the Silicon Valley executives responsible for destroying basic social interaction as we have known it for millennia refuse to allow their own offspring near any screens.

The children, presumably, can still be saved. For the rest of us, it’s far too late. 

READ: YouTube stars make bad role models and it’s all our fault, a commentary

This week coincided with a statement, by the wonderfully named Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, that his students have become so enslaved by their various devices that they have lost the dexterity necessary to perform basic surgical tasks, such as stitching or sewing up patients. 

“A lot of things are reduced to swiping on a two-dimensional flat screen,” said Professor Kneebone, who warned that intense phone usage had made his students “less competent” and lacking “in tactile general knowledge”.

Excessive phone use is also resulting in cognitive issues. 

In another news item this week, an expert discussed how they were considering recruiting magicians to help general practitioners with their poor concentration, lest they be tempted to drift off during consultations with patients. I would have thought they’d be quite handy for a few finger exercises too.

READ:  Is social media to blame for young people feeling lonelier? A commentary

(Photo: Unsplash/Robin Worrall)


The fact that I too am becoming deskilled and zombified by my phone really hit home a couple of weeks ago while trying to use the bank card that I’ve used on multiple occasions every day for the past 12 years, and realising that I had completely forgotten my PIN. 

The number had gone. Vanished.

I hovered over the ATM keys, willing muscle memory to save the day. But a few weeks of card-tapping, face-scanning and swiping had wiped that particular digital dance from my mind. 

All this may, of course, have pointed towards my impending dementia. But I preferred to diagnose this sudden onset of amnesia as a feature, instead, of cognitive overload. 

In a month of fashion shows during which I was doing all my writing, emails, page layouts, picture editing and social media updating on the phone, my brain had had a meltdown. Too much information. Too many things to look at and too many passwords. My memory was failing.

And just like that, Screen Time appeared, informing me, like a sadistic nanny, of things I really didn’t want to hear. 

Like the fact that I was spending up to 20 hours a day on my phone. Which I might have brushed aside as the result of an occupation that is largely undertaken in the back of a moving vehicle — look at all those articles I’ve tapped out with my thumbs, I reasoned — until the other great stinger was revealed. 

I spend an unholy amount of time on shopping apps, and an average of around four to five hours a day on Instagram.

I couldn’t pretend that I was using my phone only for work. Nor even that I was using it to pursue more lofty-minded activities, such as reading scholarly periodicals online, or mapping the stars with my Night Sky app. 

READ: Unhealthy culture of consumerism on social media fueling anxiety and low self-esteem, a commentary

(Photo: Unsplash/Katka Pavlickova)

Instead, I was hooked on Instagram, the crack cocaine of social media, losing days of my life scrolling through images, casually stalking acquaintances and falling into rabbit holes of senseless searches for pictures of Meghan Markle on tour in Australia (#meghanmarklestyle), a decade of footage charting Leonardo DiCaprio’s adventures on the beach or, another favourite, #michellewilliamshair. 

No wonder I was brain-addled. I was literally stupefied.

Having loudly pooh-poohed the idea of a digital detox earlier this summer, I cannot countenance switching off. But in an attempt to improve my powers of recall and take preventive action against the onset of phone claw, I have set new restrictions on my social media usage and turned off the notifications that have, until very recently, had me picking up my phone every five seconds like one of Pavlov’s drooling dogs. 

READ: Hooked and unable to pull the plug on Facebook? We've been there, a commentary

At the moment I’m being quite strict. One hour of social media a day — the phone notifies me when I have five minutes left before logging me out of all social media apps.

It’s been a bit of an ordeal. On the first day, I hadn’t even got out of bed before being told I had reached my daily limit. The next day, I made it to about 5.30pm. Today, at 4.15pm, I have stored up a 14-minute orgy of Instagratification to enjoy later on.

As an exercise in monitoring just how often I look at my phone, it’s been chastening. Not that it’s especially punitive. If desired, I can simply ignore the warnings and demand more time with a tap of a button. 

Enacting a more rigorous stewardship would require someone else doing the settings. And then setting up a special Insta-unlocking PIN. And we all know where that will lead. Forget it.

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Source: Financial Times/nr(sl)


Also worth reading