I’m an award-winning television producer concerned about our addiction to screens in America.
I’ve worked as a television producer for two decades. I’ve created content that’s been streamed and screened by millions of people, yet, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the amount of time U.S. children and adults are spending looking at screens. According to the media research firm Nielsen, adults in the U.S. are spending more than 10 hours a day connected to media across platforms — including TV viewing, surfing the internet on a computer, using apps, listening to the radio or a podcast, and engaging with social media. Digital devices have become constant companions to more than 200 million consumers in the U.S. Why are we spending so much time looking at screens and what can we do about it? Even the busiest among us have more spare time than we may realize, and I think we need to be intentional about how we use that time. I believe that reducing our screen time and reducing “binge watching” will help us become happier and more productive as a culture, and I think one of the ways to accomplish this is by taking a more active role in the media we consume. This isn’t a revolutionary claim, but I believe it’s an important one, and I have a few insights to help us make a shift toward healthier consumption of media. As an established member of the media and entertainment industry, I also have a few ideas to help content creators best serve their customers.
Television networks, cable companies, streaming services, and digital content providers aim to “engage” their viewers. Engaged can mean consuming media for a significant period of time, even for as long as 7 or 8 hours a day. One of my biggest concerns is a phenomenon called “binge watching,” or watching multiple episodes of a series in one sitting. Last year, Netflix revealed that 8.4 million of its subscribers were “binge racers,” a designation that is reached by watching an entire season of programming within 24 hours of its release. Whether viewers are using Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Sling, Crunchyroll, or countless others to consume multiple episodes of a favorite show, I’m not sure what’s to be gained by considering binge watching a “race” when the only real winner is the streaming service. Netflix offers a wide-range of excellent shows, but binge watching TV is something that’s becoming increasingly common among teens and college students, and that concerns me both as a content creator and a parent.
According to a paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, researchers noted that in the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless — described as classic symptoms of depression — increased 33 percent in large national surveys. The authors of the paper, university-based professors of psychology, proposed a significant correlation between an increase in depressive symptoms and increased screen time. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, binge-watching TV was linked to significantly poorer sleep and insomnia, and sedentary viewing has long been linked with obesity. Research has shown that binge-watching can be particularly detrimental to younger audiences, yet, a recent survey fielded by digital media firm Defy Media, 67% of 13- to 24-year-olds surveyed agreed they “couldn’t live without” YouTube. Over the past several weeks, Netflix tested a “gamified streaming experience,” which was essentially a system to reward kids for binge-watching episodes of shows. Following a social media backlash, Netflix wisely dropped the idea. But with 24% of teens reporting that they go online “almost constantly,” I’m concerned that young people are being encouraged to spend multiple hours of their days passively staring at screens when they could use some of that time to, for example, create their own content, look for a job or internship, read a book, get some sleep, take a walk, or talk to each other.
I think it’s time we look at excessive consumption of media as a matter of physical and mental health. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “binge” as “a period of excessive indulgence in an activity, especially drinking alcohol or eating.” When someone regularly binges on alcohol or food, they are advised to seek help. What are we as a culture doing for those who are spending an unhealthy amount of time consuming content? As I stated earlier, I built my career producing television content for mainstream audiences. I’ve worked for entertainment companies including Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and CBS News. After twenty years in the business I continue to believe TV and digital media offer many positive contributions to our society. Television, at its best, offers viewers a window to the world; it allows us to see faraway places, and to discover new cultures and ideas. The internet, when navigated responsibly, is a treasure, and screen-based activities can enhance creativity, learning, productivity, and a variety of skills for some users. Familiarity with media and technology is essential in our current digital age, but I believe screens have limitations we must be willing to enforce upon ourselves, as individuals and consumers.
The business of screens is a multi-billion-dollar market. Nearly 80% of Americans own smartphones, with worldwide shipments totaling 1.47 billion in 2017 according to USA Today. Deloitte’s 2018 Digital Media Trends survey concluded Americans pay an estimated $2 billion each month on subscription-video services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. The owners of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and streaming subscriptions are customers, and customers should feel empowered decide when to use their devices. There is no contract requiring customers to watch multiple episodes of a show at the expense of our personal or professional lives. After watching each episode of a series, or better yet, after watching a few minutes, we can ask ourselves how we’re feeling. After watching a show, we can stop and think about whether we feel better or worse about ourselves and our lives. If it’s important that we can discuss a series with our friends, we can agree to do so one episode at a time. Simply because a complete series is available on a given day doesn’t mean we must watch it in rapid succession. I’d like to advocate for savoring our content rather than binging it. Of course, a binge can be fine from time to time, but if customers binge less content overall, providers will be less inclined to provide it to us in that manner.
I propose media companies stop focusing on excessive engagement or bingeing, and instead focus on maintaining trust with their users. One aspect of trust is built when a provider offers content that satisfies a consumer’s desire to be informed, entertained, or inspired. Another aspect of trust is built when a provider shows respect for the user’s best interest. An example of a loss of trust occurred mid-March with the social media giant Facebook. In what has been described by experts as a “crisis of public trust,” Facebook faces allegations that British political data firm Cambridge Analytica allegedly harvested data from more than 87 million Facebook users. The scandal has damaged more than Facebook’s brand and reputation; shares of Facebook stock lost 10.4% of their value in March. Although Facebook remains one of American’s most valuable companies, trust in Facebook has decreased 51 percent since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, according to a survey by the Ponemon Institute, an independent research firm measuring trust in consumer privacy and security.
Some consumers have grown frustrated with Facebook, and tens of thousands have posted about it on Twitter, and ironically, on Facebook. According to a report in The New York Times, the hashtag #DeleteFacebook appeared more than 10,000 times on Twitter within a two-hour period after news broke of the Cambridge Analytica breach, based on data from the analytics service ExportTweet. Although the movement to “delete Facebook” may have been prompted by the Cambridge Analytica controversy, I believe the motivation to drop the service runs deeper. Some users are becoming aware that Facebook doesn’t make them feel good, and they want to do something about it. According to DataTrek Research, a market insights firm, 97% of people who used Google to search “delete Facebook” also researched topics related to happiness, using phrases such as “being happy” and “quotes about being happy.” Although there is no guarantee that deleting Facebook or any other social media account will correlate with increased levels of happiness, I do believe there is a growing movement against content providers who breach trust with their users.
When the #DeleteFacebook movement wanes and is replaced with the next public outcry, I don’t think it will be long until we realize it’s not just our data that is allegedly being “stolen” from us, but more importantly it’s our time and our well-being. Many Americans are so addicted to our screens, we haven’t yet placed blame on those who encourage us to excessively engage with or “binge watch” their content. Before it’s too late, I suggest media companies take note of the fallout with Facebook, while reflecting upon the fate of one of the original sponsors of television and radio programming: cigarettes. Content creators serve customers best when they provide excellent work, establish trust and integrity, and avoid practices that cause customers to become addicted to their products. If you choose to encourage excessive use of screens to the detriment of users’ well-being, it’s only a matter of time until customers will turn against you, too.