In the action movie World War Z, Brad Pitt travels the world attempting to derail a zombie pandemic. Like many movies of yesteryear, in this 2013 film there are zombies, with one slight change: they move fast as opposed to slow. Like the standard zombies, they are not very happy with their lot, walk around aimlessly, seem to be unconscious—as if controlled by someone else—and infect people with their disease.
Sound familiar? We are the fast zombies! We shoot off brief text messages and emails that encourage others to also stop taking in the beauty of life and instead spend most of their waking hours looking down at a screen.
A huge qualifier for this article: Zoom is excellent. It’s the best videoconferencing software out there, at least based on what I’ve seen. Then again, I’m partial. I have been teaching leadership to master’s students once per week with Zoom over the past four years. Yet anything, taken to its extreme, becomes dysfunctional and unhealthy. You may feel like you have become a “Zoombie,” a term that emerged after my wife spent eight hours in various Zoom meetings a few days ago (for more strategies on how to control your use of technology rather than letting it control you, see my new book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age).
Zoom in the quarantine is like rollerblades or the Walkman during their heydays: we find any excuse to use it. Meetings, classes, happy hour with friends, book clubs, hair-cutting tutorials, workshops: all can be Zoomed. So sit back and Zoom it up, right?! Not so fast. The problem with spending inordinate hours on Zoom every day is …. we’re staring at our screens even more than before the pandemic. Let’s consider what such behavior produced before the lockdown: According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, children from families of higher socioeconomic status consume ten hours of electronic media per day, largely for entertainment purposes, while children of lower socioeconomic status rack up eleven and a half hours per day.
Let’s take a deeper look at this disparity: if you sleep for eight hours per night and spend an hour preparing for school and another hour getting ready for bed, that leaves 14 hours each day for other activities. Children and teenagers are now fastened to their smartphones, televisions, desktops, or laptops all but 2.5 or 4 hours of this time, depending on their socioeconomic status. Most children and teens—and the rest of us, too—are spending the majority of our waking hours in a digitally mediated environment instead of interacting with real people in the physical world.
If you are in doubt about the toxic effects the Internet is having on the social fabric of our society, ask the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. At the 30 year anniversary of his own invention in March 2019, Berners-Lee shocked the world by declaring that the Web has become “anti-human” and an “engine of inequity and division” that has led to “a lot of dysfunction in society.”
What are children missing out on when they spend so much time on their digital devices? For one, vital time to connect with their parents. According to a study from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, teenagers who participate in fewer than three family dinners each week are likelier to experience a future life of self-medication: they are four times more likely to use drugs, over twice as likely to drink alcohol, and four times more likely to smoke tobacco. These findings are ominous, as they suggest that technology-mediated addictions, which naturally decrease face-to-face time with family, can subsequently lead to substance addictions.
“Yes, but our world is becoming more and more digitally mediated,” you may be thinking. “At this point, what can I do about it? Zoom is the platform my personal and professional contacts use to interact, especially during this quarantine.” You have a point. Here are a few strategies you can try out to get the best from Zoom without becoming a fast-moving Zoombie.
Suggest a conference call rather than Zoom for smaller meetings. Your colleagues may be apprehensive about making this suggestion themselves. However, they will appreciate you being the first to share this idea and preventing them also from becoming Zoombies.
Join a Zoom meeting by audio only. Every Zoom invite has a call-in number. So you are not sitting in front of your computer, call from your land line (if you don’t already have one, they are now very inexpensive, often given for free with your Internet service or for as low as ten dollars per month). Then you can walk around your home and do other things while you participate in the conversation. This, we should recall, is the reason the videophone never caught on a few decades ago—along with not wanting the person on the other end of the line to see what you’re wearing (or not wearing).
Develop creative ways to balance screen and non-screen time each day that include Zoom only when necessary. Ask yourself some tough questions about your values with respect to the amount of screen time that is healthy for you each day. Agree to join Zoom meetings by video or audio that enable you to strike this balance. And the other Zoom meetings? Just. Don’t. Do. It. Instead, internalize the expression, “Always put off until tomorrow what you shouldn’t be doing at all.”
In short, use Zoom when there is no reasonable alternative and it’s highly useful for you. Your values surrounding how you will integrate technology into your life will guide you. And never forget: saying no to a Zoom meeting always equates to saying yes to something else.