Back on my first newspaper reporting job, covering a small local government in the mid-1990s, I was given my first symbol of work responsibility: a beeper. Theoretically, it would go off in the event of some critical breaking news. In reality, it usually beeped around dinnertime, when a copy editor had a minor question about a story. Nonetheless, attaching it to my belt made me feel important. I needed to be reached.
Now, I am reachable via an array of much smarter electronic devices, and my perceived-importance-to-actual-importance ratio is about the same. At least 70 percent of my e-mail inbox is coupons, special offers, and LinkedIn invitations from people I’ve never met. But I still compulsively check my e-mail, whenever a screen is in reach, to see if someone wants to be in touch.
We are all susceptible to the ego boost of the remote device, the minor thrill of being needed at all times. Susan Linn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told me that on Sunday that she overheard two work-related conversations in a Whole Foods. “I’m not being judgmental; that could have been me,” she said. “But here it was Sunday, and we’re not taking weekends off, because we can’t.”
On the surface, this doesn’t bode well for Screen Free-Week, this week’s national awareness campaign, run by Linn’s Boston-based group. Yet for the first time in a long time, Linn is feeling hopeful. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and if I had talked to you last year or the year before, I would have said we’re struggling,” she told me. Now, “I’m actually, for the first time, optimistic.”
That’s because, even as smartphone and tablet sales rise, Linn senses a small but rumbling backlash. News and blog coverage of Screen-Free Week has increased dramatically this year. More communities are planning screen-free activities, from a free family museum day in Bozeman, Mont., to a trike-a-thon in Calimesa, Calif. Childhood screen use is getting newfound attention from public health officials, who link it to problems with creativity, education, and obesity.
And the interest dovetails with a new wave of grown-up self-reflection, a realization that it isn’t just kids who need help. The cover story in this month’s issue of The Atlantic asks, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” In the Globe, my friend Joseph Kahn wrote about a teenage brother and sister who Skyped when they were 30 feet apart, in their own house. A recent blog post on Harvard Business Review rails against the notion of “sharing” life as it happens — it starts with a complaint about someone who stopped his own wedding to tweet “I do.”
“I think that’s part of why we’re beginning to see a little backlash,” Linn said. “Because people are feeling out of control.” And we’re worrying, she said, that if we can’t control our own screen addictions, then there's even less hope for today’s small kids, who have never known anything as mundane and analog as a beeper. Screen-Free Week was originally called TV-Turnoff Week, until Linn and her colleagues took over the event from another advocacy group last year. They realized that, for kids today today, screens represent a much broader mix of glowing devices, from classroom SMART boards to iPad apps that mimic the act of finger painting.
Digital evangelists will counter that all of these devices are useful — for productivity, teaching, mobilizing, connecting — and in many ways, they’ll be right. In her book “Reality is Broken,” Jane McGonigal writes about the power of even silly, fleeting games like “Words With Friends”: they can nurture relationships when keeping in touch would otherwise be an inconvenience or a strain.
This is healthy, to a point — except that there’s something about human psychology that makes a connection, once open, hard to close. I have several “Draw Something” games going on my phone right now, and I often feel the reflexive need to see if someone has drawn a stick figure for me to decipher. The device beeps, I answer, and somehow, I feel good. We need our screens because we like to think our screens need us.