Step away from the screen

Recently, the Toronto Zoo asked visitors to stop letting the gorillas look at their cell phones and watch videos because it can negatively impact the animals’ relationships and behavior. One gorilla named Nassir was apparently so obsessed with phones and videos that he was no longer interacting with the other gorillas.

According to the zoo’s website, “Nassir is truly the epitome of a teenager, fascinated by videos and screen time would dominate his life if he had his way.”

This story caught my attention a few weeks ago because I’m frequently telling my kids to stop staring at a screen. It’s not just kids, however. I find myself pulling out my phone and browsing social media sometimes almost as a reflex, without even thinking about what I’m doing. It seems that wherever one looks, people have phones in their hands and their eyes are fixed on the screen.

Not long after I heard about Nassir the gorilla, I heard an episode of a radio program called “Hidden Brain” that was about addiction. The guest said that addiction can take many forms, including cell phones and social media. Such stimulation triggers the release of dopamine in our brains, as does drug use. It can change the way our brains function and ultimately lead to anxiety and depression, which have been on the rise over the last 20 years as the use of technology and social media have increased.

I shared what I had heard during this program and the story about the gorilla with my kids, ages 9 and 7, and used them to illustrate why I limit their screen time. I figured it might fall on deaf ears, but it actually seemed to resonate with them. My daughter said we should get rid of screens completely and my son — who sometimes asks me at the end of the day if he can have screen time before he even says hello — said maybe we should cut back on the screens.

I suggested we cut the daily limit of screen time back to an hour, unless we’re watching a movie, and take a screen break one day a week. I let them pick the day to give them some buy-in on the plan. They agreed on Wednesday, so we now have no screen Wednesdays. Hopefully we can stick to it.

We all went screen free recently during a two-day canoe trip with my dad on the Minnesota River. Most of the time, our phones had no service, so even if we had wanted to watch videos or check out social media, we couldn’t have. The distracting devices were reduced to cameras and even their use for that purpose was limited because we were on the water and it was a hassle to take them out of the waterproof bags we had them in.

During the trip, we met a man from the Twin Cities at a river-side campground who said he had selected that particular location to camp because he read that there was no cell phone or internet service there. Perhaps, in an age when screens are such a huge part of our lives, that is the new way to vacation. Perhaps screens are what we need a vacation from.