Screen Time and the Digital Humanist Atack on Freedom

Too much information may be preventing the understanding necessary for decisions

Posted Jun 30, 2019

On the bases of their public pronouncements, freedom is of great importance to the purveyors of digital technology.  Social media companies have long espoused the right to free expression: “We exist in a society where people value and cherish free expression, and the ability to say things…1.  However, it may well be that too much online material is doing the opposite of promoting freedom, and considerations of some rather older philosophical ideas may help to illustrate a potential new digital problem.  Freedom comes from being able to control ourselves, not from being controlled, but information availability, on its own, does not give us that ability.

Even when recognising that something is wrong, and moving towards removal of abusive or inappropriate content, which is to be welcomed, social media companies are hesitant about their actions, and seek sanction from outside bodies2,3.  Attempts to control inappropriate or violent content are highly targeted; material is not to be removed, but highlighted and hidden, perhaps to be sought-out by those interested4.  The justification for such content management is couched in terms of preserving freedom: “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things…2.  The pros and cons of such moves are debated in terms of freedom of access to information5,6, but this debate, often opposing ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘freedom from abuse’, may be obscuring other equally-critical aspects underpinning freedom.

All of the above represents a fundamental truth–social media companies, and their critics, appear to believe that unrestricted, unfettered, access to the internet preserves freedom.1,6  Screen time is, thus, equated with ‘freedom’, and ‘freedom’ is ‘the right to do what you want when you want to do it’.  To those who argue against this position, they say that they are the enemies of freedom.  This can be termed a ‘digital humanist’ position.  Being free means being able to amass screen time without question or hindrance, and, more pertinently for the current argument, without questioning why this is a good thing.  Screen time is perceived as an inalienable right–accepting whatever screen time is available–something that even the founders of the Constitution of the USA would support6.

However, this view of freedom could be considered either naïve, self-serving, or disingenuous, with an overly-simplistic notion of what ‘freedom’ is, and what it entails.  The cornerstones of freedom, it turns out, may be fundamentally undermined by excessive, unthinking, screen time–a situation that may not only undermine our freedom but also our ability to be free.  It is of interest to contrast this digital humanist view of freedom – in fact, a very humanistic one7–with two very different views: one from Skinner (Beyond Freedom and Dignity)8, and one from Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies)9.  On the face of it, these are views that are at odds with one another, with the latter explicitly criticizing the former for dismissing freedom–for being an enemy of an open society.  Nevertheless, both of these positions share a common thread–in order to be meaningful, ‘freedom’ necessitates the abilities ‘to know’, ‘to question’, and ‘to act’.

For a Skinnerian, if freedom is to have meaning, it must involve having a knowledge of the environmental variables that control one’s behavior, and an ability to exert ‘counter-control’ over those variables.  As most of the variables that control us, in this way, are ‘aversive’ (“Thou shalt not…”), Skinner would rather remove them, redesign Society, and avoid the problem in the first place–but that is for an utopia8, or a dystopia9, depending on your viewpoint.  Popper argued that freedom consisted in having no external control over what is thought, or proposed, and advocated the ability to question and test, scientifically, whatever we want to propose.  Thus, both of these views, although often counter-posed, involve the ‘rational’ questioning of our world.  For these views, ‘freedom’ is not: ‘doing what I want, when I want to do it’; but rather: ‘doing what I know I must, when I know it is needed’.  A view that is highly similar to that expressed by Spinoza: “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding because to understand is to be free.10.

This view presents an enormous challenge to the digital humanist position.  If freedom is an uncontrolled, self-determined, use of screen time, this involves no rationality, necessarily, but just the ability to act, perhaps on a whim–and whims can easily become subverted or controlled by others.  If you do not question what you are doing and why, how do you know what you want?; and, if you do not know what you want, how can you act rationally and freely?  You may still behave reflexively, of course–that is a basic Skinnerian notion–but such reflexive, or Pavlovian, responding is not ‘voluntary’ in a Skinnerian’s view.

At a psychological level, unstructured screen time presents challenges to being able to think for oneself, and, therefore, challenges our ability to be free–in this sense, it is the opposite of ‘freedom’.  Think of this example: unrestricted environments, with no positive limits, produce behavior problems11, which will inhibit abilities for learning, thought, and, hence, for freedom.  In fact, too much screen time will produce either too much, or too little, exposure to information.  Without structure, there will be an overload of information.  In order to cope with this overload, we may over-select, and focus on less and less of it; we simply do not expose ourselves to the full possibilities but stay within our comfort zone12.

In the limiting case, too much available information leads to a sense of powerlessness, and to giving up – witness the problems recently discussed by the UK police in terms of their abilities to solve crimes: “There is so much data that has to be looked at... and you've got to know your data inside out and back to front…13.  To cope, we might stick with what is familiar–what we like–the echo chamber effect–and this reduces our freedom.  The environment acts to constrain our freedom when we allow the environment to run riot.  Unrestricted, unfettered, screen time may produce less, not more, knowledge.  Less, not more, ability to question.  Less, not more, freedom.  With this overload of information, our psychological constraints mean that we become more susceptible to influence, and less able to test or counter-control.

Promoting screen time is not going to promote freedom unless we know why we are using the screen.  Promoting unfettered screen time will allow the easier pushing of views, and products, without rational questioning–it is a dangerous threat to our freedom.  Freedom is protected by recognizing our psychological limits and personal responsibilities, knowing what needs to be done, and protecting the personal resources that will allow us to do this.

The sting in the tail to all of this, of course, is to question how informational restriction is compatible with freedom.  The answer to that question is that the restrictions on our seeking, and being exposed to, information have to come from our own reasoned behavior–we have to know why we are using the screen, and not rely on others to answer this for us.  Digital information is a tool, like any other, that we have to learn to use appropriately; after all, we would not randomly use a power drill to do every job!


1.      Thompson, N. (26.6.19).  Zuckerberg defends free speech, even when the speech is false. Wired.

2.      Zuckerberg, M. (30.3.19).  The internet needs new rules. Let’s start in these four areas.  Washington Post.

3.      Lomas, N. (28.6.19).  Facebook’s content oversight board plan is raising more questions than it answers.  Tech crunch.

4.      BBC Radio 4 (27.6.219).  Twitter to start labelling tweets by politicians which break abuse and harassment rules.

5.      Hallqvist, E. (8.6.19).  How Instagram censors could affect the lives of everyday women.  USA today.

6.      Rogan, T. (1.4.19).  Free speech, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founders' enduring glory. Washington Examiner.

7.      Matson, F.W. (1973).  Without/within: Behaviorism and humanism. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

8.      Skinner, B.F. (1971).  Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: NY, US: Knopf/Random House.

9.      Popper, K.R. (1945).  The open society and its enemies. London: Routledge.

10.  Spinoza, B. (1667/1996).  Ethics. London: Penguin Books.

11.  Osborne, L.A., & Reed, P. (2009).  The relationship between parenting stress and behavior problems of children with autistic spectrum disorders. Exceptional Children, 76(1), 54-73.

12.  Reed, P., & Gibson, E. (2005).  The effect of concurrent task load on stimulus over-selectivity. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(5), 601-614.

13.  BBC (26.6.19).  Crime solving rates 'woefully low', Met Police Commissioner says.

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