The Insatiable American Appetite for Screens

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When it comes to screens, the American way seems to be the more the better. Dissatisfied with just one glowing rectangle at a time, we now use multiple screens all at once. At home, for example, we watch TV while using smartphones, tablets and laptops -- all at the same time, explains The New York Times' Randall Stross. At work, we've also upped the screens-per-person count, adding more monitors to our desk's as a New York Times article from last month described. One at a time doesn't cut it -- there's something about the glow of different sorts of screens that gets us going. But what is it?

Productivity! We use more screens to get more things done at once -- at least that's the theory that employers and advertisers hope is a reality. From an employer's perspective, why not let have employees have six screens -- one man interviewed by the Times' Matt Richtel admitting having that many monitors -- if that means more places for work to get done. The same thing applies for our leisure screens. More of them let's us do more viewing, or whatever type of fun having we do (Dream Zoo, anyone?) at once.

This seems kind of legitimate, as some studies have found that screen time ups productivity, noted Richtel. And, on an anecdotal basis, these multi-screen users told Richtel that one screen isn't enough. And, we know from personal experience breeding anacondas while watching Parks and Recreation means finishing two important leisure tasks all at once. Then again, other studies have found multitasking does not work at all, hampering productivity and degenerating our memories -- perhaps we would have bread those anacondas faster sans Parks in the background? 

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Boredom! The stuff happening on one screen doesn't feed our need for constant entertainment. There's a commercial on, or the monitor with the Excel spreadsheet doesn't get us going, for example. That's where screen two, three, four, five, and six come in. Dream Zoo or Gchat can fill those voids. 

This seems pretty legitimate. It's pretty easy to confuse productivity for procrastination. Each screen is a little procrastination module. "There are more communication tools — instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook — that workers have to keep an eye on (or at least feel they should)," writes Richtel. In our world, communication tools not only serve as work tools, but also distraction tools. Twitter is fun; commercials are not. 

Addiction! There's something about the light and movement that feeds our brains. When one shiny screen gets boring, we can have another one with different, but similar enough simulation. "But maybe TV-focused customization isn’t what most viewers crave," he writes. "Rather, they may be happiest with the unfettered ability to do unrelated things with a second screen. And perhaps, before long, a third one, too." 

That seems very legitimate. Studies have found that screen addiction is a real thing. Plus, even when there's nothing particularly entertaining happening on all those other screens, we find ourselves switching from one to another, without any real reason. There's just something inside telling us to use more screens.  

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.