Screens and Needs

One Ring (From The Lord of the Rings)

The pull of screens: we all experience it, we all feel it on a daily basis, but why?

Screens have a strange power over us, much like the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Our screens appeal to us for many reasons. One reason that we feel the pull of screens is that there are virtually limitless options in which we can meet our psychological needs. After they are met (e.g., air, food, water), psychological needs drive our behavior. These psychological needs can easily be met via screen time.

Our Psychological Needs

Psychologists, researchers, and professors Dr. Richard Ryan and Dr. Edward Deci developed self-determination theory to explain human motivation. Within self-determination theory, there are three factors that intrinsically motivate our behavior:

  1. Relatedness (social connections)
  2. Autonomy (sense of agency, self-regulation)
  3. Competence (sense of power, control, expertise)

When we effectively meet these needs, we tend to thrive and be happy. Our need for relatedness can be considered our most important psychological need because all of our other psychological needs are generally met within the context of relationships. Indeed, much of our happiness comes from having healthy relationships. If we think of just about anything we do, we can see how these psychological needs are likely driving that behavior. Importantly, multiple psychological needs can be met with one activity. For example, if a child is playing soccer on a team, they are likely meeting all of these psychological needs to some extent.

The Pull of Screens and Psychological Needs

Screens are so alluring because we, including our kids, can meet these psychological needs so easily through them. For instance, through texting and using social media, we can meet our need for relatedness. Consider a child who is playing Clash of Clans or Call of Duty. Since these games allow one to play in clans/teams/squads, the relatedness need can be met that way, along with feelings of competence and autonomy. Plus, compared to working out the logistics and the effort needed to get together for soccer practice or a game (not to mention weather problems), playing an online game is extremely easy. With basically a click of a button or swipe of a finger, we can gain access to virtually limitless ways to meet our psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

What’s the Downside?

The pull of screens, in part, is because they can help us meet our psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence. What’s so bad about that? Our screens, particularly smartphones and social media, provide easy access to people and experiences that are need-satisfying. If they are so good at doing this, we should be happier, right? Is that what’s happening? I’ll tackle that in my next blog!

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