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ASU health expert wants you to put your phone down — seriously, put it down

Chris Wharton says we've normalized excessive screen time, and he sees it as a public health crisis

man standing at desk with hands on laptop and a bike leaning on the wall behind him

March 27, 2019

Chris Wharton thinks television is a worse public health crisis than guns, and you can quote him on it.

“I want to shock people,” said the assistant dean of innovation and strategic initiatives at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. “I want to slightly offend people. Because I want to wake people up from the normalization of excess. And I want to drive debate. So I'm not scared of saying things like, 'TVs are worse than guns.'”

Wharton and his colleague Maricarmen Vizcaino are analyzing results of a series of studies looking at screen time that explored more accurate ways to measure it, associated health effects and potential interventions.

“There's a lot of room for us to explore,” Vizcaino said. “Most screen time use research has focused just on television viewing, so we’re trying to bring it up to date by including use of devices from tablets to phones to TV-connected devices. And there has been some data suggesting that there's an association between long-term screen time and cardiovascular diseases like diabetes, so we’re also looking at that.”

While screen use is an admittedly necessary part of their job, both say they try to limit it at home. It’s not as difficult for Wharton, seeing as he doesn’t own a TV.

One of the studies they conducted — a pilot study that asked 10 participants to forgo screen use of any kind from the time they got home after work to the time they went to sleep for two weeks straight — is nearing completion. They hope to publish results sometime this summer and follow up with a larger, more in-depth study.

In the meantime, ASU Now caught up with Wharton to learn more about why his radical ideas about normalized excess aren’t actually that radical at all.

Question: How do you feel about the state of screen time use nowadays?

Answer: The thing I tell people, which shocks them, is I think television in particular is a worse public health crisis than guns. And I believe that absolutely to be true. Which is why we’re doing this kind of work.

Because of the incredible amount of negative impact it has on people’s lives, without them even realizing it. And it being an absolute default in people’s lives. You walk into somebody’s living room, there's the TV, around which everything is organized. The TV is the centerpiece of people’s lives. But it delivers negative stereotypes, it delivers political hatred, it delivers sedentary behavior — which is of course impactful in terms of health — it normalizes violence… There's really almost literally nothing good about TV.

It dissociates people from their community because they're not out interacting with real people. All these things. And, conversely, when you get people to take the difficult step of removing themselves from screens — as Cal Newport reports in his new book Digital Minimalism, and as we're finding in our research — phenomenal things happen. People are like, "Oh yeah, I can pursue hobbies. I can read a book. I can expand my mind and learn things." So it's a striking difference between spending hours a day watching TV versus not and what the possibilities are.

Q: Why are people so averse to quitting screen time?

A: This ties into my larger conception of behavior change and health generally, which is that the excesses in our lives are so fully normalized that we don't even see them as excessive anymore. We accept them as normal. So everybody watches TV at home, and then you go to work the next day and everybody talks about "Game of Thrones," or whatever the hot thing on TV is. We're just intimately socially connected to that as something that everybody does. It can't be bad, because literally everybody is doing it.

I think, secondly, screens are just totally embedded in our lives. We go to work, we work on a screen. We want to entertain ourselves, we put ourselves in front of screens. We want to socially connect, we go to screens. And so, it feels inevitable that we must spend much of our day on screens, when absolutely none of that is true.

Q: Can screen time ever be a good thing? For example, like when people gather to watch something like the Super Bowl or a movie?

A: I often speak in radical terms because my hope is to expose the excess for what it is when people don't often see it immediately. But in reality, of course, like with all things, moderation is fine. It's just that when we think we're acting moderately, in most behaviors related to health, we're actually operating excessively. But yes — there are plenty of educational shows that are fantastic for you and your kids, and it's so fun to sit down and watch a movie together or a sporting event.

So all those things are fine; it's just that watching something together is just one of many other social experiences you could share. Screen watching as the primary go-to, as the thing that you almost always do to engage socially or entertain yourself, that’s when it’s a problem.

Q: How did we get to this critical point, where excess is normalized?

A: TVs are the easiest form of passive entertainment. You sit down and click a button and you're entertained. There’s literally nothing else to do. You don't have to go put on clothes, get to a park, play a game. So if you want the most efficient, minimal energy form of entertainment, that would be it.

When it comes to diet, the thing that drives ill health is excessive intake of super unhealthy foods, the processed, convenient foods that are filled with the most problematic nutrients: added sugars and solid fats and sodium. And what's the easiest, most efficient thing to do? It's to drop 50 cents or 75 cents on junk food that you don't have to cook, you don't have to do anything to prepare, it’s just done. So convenience and this presumed efficiency in use of time is probably what drives most everything that's killing us.

Q: How can others wake up to excessive screen use?

A:  I think most Americans — and not all Americans, because there are plenty of Americans who are poor and don't have these means — but if you have the means, i.e., time and money, the majority of the population probably have more choices to make than they realize. Choices about — what are the norms that are actually out of sync with our values if we really thought about our values? And then if we identified our values and aligned those with how we spend our time and our money, to the extent that's possible — we all have to sleep and work and commit time elsewhere — but then we can step away from whatever society says is normal and say this is what we want to do. … So you can start to really challenge the norms of society that are built into passive consumerism and start to remove things, if you’re just willing to do the "Matrix" thing and take the red pill.

Top photo: ASU Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of innovation and strategic initiatives at College of Health Solutions Christopher Wharton. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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