Screen Time - Quantity vs Quality

So much has been written about screen time and the amount of time our children spend online or are engaged with a device that it might seem churlish to be adding to that particular echo chamber at this time but one crucial factor has been missing from some of the most widely circulated studies and reports that the record needs to be set straight.

Tim Berners-Lee gave birth to the Internet in 1995, 25 years ago, meaning that every single person on the planet who could be called a young adult, teenager or child is 100% digitally native. So much has changed in a quarter of a century that it would be a gross miscarriage of justice to attempt to encapsulate it in a blog, an article, a book or even a set of encyclopaedias.

I recently turned 50 so had to live half of my life with nothing but books, radio and television to educate, entertain and enlighten me. And then at the age of 12 I saw a notice on the wall of my school which talked about some kind of computer club.

The school had recently purchased 4 Sinclair ZX-81s and the school chaplain had decided to start a club to teach programming. Well obviously I went along and can vividly remember sitting down at a desk with a small black box, no bigger than a tape recorder, plugged into a tiny television screen; no computer monitor, no mouse, no hard drive, no discs, no memory sticks - none of that.

In the early days you had to type every single line of code of your programme each an every time you went to the club as there was no way to save it other than writing it down in a notebook or as I did - memorise it. I developed an ability to do 2 things very quickly.

I should mention that in 1980 a computer came with 2Kb of memory - the Apple Mac Mini I use today has 16Gb of memory or 64,000,000 times as much. Yes, that's 64 million times more - and in terms of performance my 2011 Mac is pretty much at the bottom of the food chain today!

Back to the eighties, firstly I was able learn the syntax of the computer language very quickly and could instantly visualise how to implement a new command into my programme or store it away for later use if my current project didn't require it.

Secondly, and much more importantly, I taught myself a programmers version of touch typing. Normal touch typing had to be adapted to programming because of the amount of what we call today, special characters that were required to correctly programme the machine.

You couldn't type, "Think of a number between 1 and 10, multiply it by itself and show me the answer on the screen" as nothing would happen.

But ...

10 Let A = RAND(10)
20 Let B = A * A
30 Print A

Now we're in business! These were the first lines of code I'd written in my lifetime and it blew my mind. Within 7 years I had developed from 3 lines of code and a simply number squaring programming to writing a programme for my Computer Science A Level which consisted of almost 10,000 lines of code. I'd written a programme to transform the school library's method for lending books to students.

No longer did the librarian have to spend minutes finding the book's card, stamping the book with the inked date stamper, showing the date it needed to be returned by, then find the students card in the mass of alphabetically labelled drawers and insert the book's card in the folded card.

Now they could use the computer running my programme to select an option from the main menu with a single press of a button and seconds later the student and the book were gone.

I was incredibly fortunate to attend a boarding school, which I know is not everyone's preferred option but for me it was a blessing. At the time of completing my project my screen time had risen from maybe 1 hour of television a night to something approaching 4 or 5 hours of programming on a weekday and 12 - 15 at the weekends - 2am finishes were certainly not uncommon and occasionally on a Friday or Saturday an all-nighter was a real treat.

It was bad enough hearing my mother saying, "don't watch too much television or your eyes will go square" at home but imagine what she would have made of me having 40 hours of screen time in a week at school.

But, and it is a massive BUT... the amount of screen time I was exposed to had no negative impact on my mental health; it did not make me anxious, paranoid or depressed. It did not even affect my sleep to any great extent as I had already adopted an atypical circadian rhythm for a male teenager and was often at my most prolific and productive during the hours from 10pm to 2am. I could often exceed my level of productivity in those 4 hours than I could achieve in more than double that during my lessons in the daytime.

The sheer volume of screen time and my passion for learning this new skill combined to form an extremely potent mix which when distilled down to a single ingredient would best be described as Quality Screen Time.

If it were a mathematical formula it would probably be written as:

Q = V x (P / E)

Where Q is the Quality Coefficient, V is the Volume of screen time in minutes and P and E represent the proportion of V that could be described as progress or errors. So... working my example using the 80/20 rule so 80% of time making progress and 20% making errors that need correcting:

On an average weekday spending 4 hours programming:

Q = 240 x (80 / 20)
Q = 960

But on a weekend programming session of 12 hours:

Q = 720 x (80 / 20)
Q = 2,880

And as I was making huge strides in my ability to replicate code that contained far fewer errors and need far less testing time the small increment in productivity has a massive impact on the Quality Coefficient:

Q = 720 x (90 / 10)
Q = 6,480

Not all programmers, in fact I imagine very few, if any, can write significantly amounts of complex code that works perfectly first time, every time. Code is crafted, massaged, manipulated and ultimately cajoled into delivering the required results through a process of writing, testing, rewriting, retesting and moving on. And what is more in the early days coding accurately conformed to the Iceberg Effect which is to say that like an iceberg which has only 1/9th of it's mass above the water line and 8/9ths below it, only about 10% of a programmes code was there to actually make it perform it's desired function and the other 90% was there to deal with user input errors and such like.

But not all screen time is spent programming, writing or in other productive ways. Today this is typically categorised as either gaming, socialising or media consumption (watching TV, film or other online media) which all together is referred to as passive screen time.

In order to represent passive screen time using the same formula above it is necessary to account for the amount of benefit being derived. For example the obvious benefits of socialising online or whilst gaming needs to be considered. So let's look at 12 hours of passive screen time:

Q = 720 x (10 / 90)
Q = 80

Even a novice programmer could achieve a Quality Coefficient of 80 in under 6 hours and that's using a P / E ratio of 20 / 80.

In fact the best way to compare all the various online activity categories together is in a simple chart. So looking at the Q value for 12 hours of activity:

And the chart speaks volumes doesn't it? The passive screen time is of such low quality that it is almost certainly doing us more harm than good. But the productive screen time is where the volume on its own matters very little until it starts to have a physical affect on our bodies; our eyes, neck, back, shoulders and fingers will all suffer from excessive online activity over our lifetimes. Those conditions will equally apply to excessive amounts of social media and gaming but they don't deliver on quality and have far more scope for attracting negative emotions which do lead to anxiety and depression.

Now what's crucial to remember is that our actual lives are varied and full of lots of different activities and the same is true online. Whilst it is quite probable that I might spend 8 - 10 hours online in either a writing, programming, blogging or podcasting capacity I will also watch a bit of TV, listen to music, podcasts or an audio book and might even enjoy a bit of gaming. But the vast majority of the volume of my screen time is of such a high quality that there is almost no negative affect on me at all.

So if you are spending 2, 4 or 6 hours online gaming or socialising and also passively watching online media for a further few hours I would strongly suggest that you need to get yourself an offline passion that can consume far more of your screen time than it currently does - you'll be thankful in the long run.

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