We have been told to keep kids’ screen time in check. According to a new Pew Research report, 71% of parents of a child under the age of 12 are concerned that their child is spending too much time in front of screens. Kids are told to get outside. 

But now might be the time for adults to limit their own screen time. And get outside. 

Think about it:  during COVID have you increased the time you spend on screens, watching TV or on social media?  The answer is probably: of course!With shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on social interaction, many people have been left to virtually socialize or increase at-home entertainment, like TV.  A recent Nielsen study  found  media consumption is at an all-time high this year, U.S. adults spend 12 hours on some form of audiovisual media.

Could so much screen time be affecting our views of the world and ultimately our own behaviors?  The short answer: yes. 

The longer answer: When we turn on the TV to watch the news, read and like social media posts, watch and share YouTube videos, we are seeing the world as seen on TV (and other media). If all we do is watch hours of funny cat videos, what’s the harm, right?  But in general, the world, as seen through screens, is not pretty …. nor realistic. TV and social media often depict extremes: a world of affluence and materialism (think of all the cars, mansions, and the Kardashians), a world of heavy drinking with no consequences (have you seen music videos lately?). The TV world is also not very nice: a mean world of cheating and vengeance (think soap operas), a world of madness and high crime (think of all the ‘bad guys’ in police and detective shows), a world of incivility, interruptions and name calling (sensationalism in news programs and talk shows).  

According to cultivation theory, one of the most influential theories of television influence, the more people watch TV, the more people believe that the real world is like the ‘TV world.’ In other words, TV and other media shape our viewpoints, affect what we believe, and in turn influence our own behaviors.   So, the more we watch the extreme world through our screens, the more we believe that this is in fact the real world. Well, it’s not! 

In normal times, we step outside our doors, we go to work, go shopping, go to school, we socialize with others. As we do this, we see how people interact, we hear what people say, we notice how people live.   

In normal times, what we see and hear in the real world combines with what we see and hear in the mediated world, and all this observing shapes our social and cultural norms, teaches us what is polite, what is expected, and tells us how to behave.  

In normal times, no matter how much we watch TV or hang out on social media, a healthy dose of real-world exposure can bring us back to reality: what we see for real attenuates the cultivation effect.   

But this is not a normal time. As many of our real-world interactions have been replaced by more screen time, might our views of the world have become more negative? Undoubtedly.  

If the cultivation effect is true (and many studies have shown the effect), the more of this mean media world we see on the screen, the more we see the world as actually mean…. And the more being mean is normalized. My latest research has shown this “mean” trend or “adult bullying” has become more relevant and normal amongst Facebook groups. Many posts went from being informative and helpful to being judgmental, disrespectful, even callous. I have witnessed countless arguing, name calling, and behaviors that are often encouraged by reality shows or talk shows. And we must ask ourselves, as a society, is this the world we want to create?  

COVID-19 has brought about a lot of change, one being we are losing touch with the real world and losing our manners and civility in the process.  But there is good news. We determine what type of world we want to live in by limiting our screen time and getting back to the real world and real connections. Limiting screen time may not just be a good idea for kids: adults too might benefit from taking a break from media, taking a walk, and getting a whiff of the real world… through their masks that is.