2 hours and 22 minutes. That’s the average time we spend on social media every day, flitting between our (on average) 7.6 accounts (source: brandwatch.com). Then there’s TV: Your average Swiss German Joe and Josefine spend two hours a day in front of the set; in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, this reached almost three hours in 2020 (source: BFS). A study conducted in 2020 found that even pre-school children spend almost an hour and a half in front of a screen every day, which breaks down as 50 minutes spent watching TV, 20 minutes on a tablet, 11 minutes on a mobile and 7 minutes gaming (source: statista.com). Internet and media platforms in particular transport us to new worlds – and distract us from the here and now.
The term dates back quite a while: “escapism” (from the Latin “excapere”, literally “to escape”) is an expression used primarily by psychologists and media scholars in studying the concept of “escaping reality”. The actual definitions of escapism are many and varied. Some describe an “escape to a fantasy world or imaginary reality”, while others refer more broadly to the “longing for entertainment and distraction”. In essence, then, “escapism” means that we put the real world to one side for a while in favour of a different, potentially more inviting (but imaginary) “reality”.
Other realities can be exciting. They can involve atmospheres, figures, logic and possibilities that we don’t have in our everyday existence. Switching to a “reality” other than the one directly in front of us can sometimes also prove truly educational. Or entertaining, at the very least.
When it comes to media, as American sociologist Elihu Katz tells us, we specifically look for opportunities to break away from our daily routines for a little while. Katz posits that this allows us to unwind, forget our problems, gain temporary respite from unpleasant emotions and experience other feelings instead. Escapism not only offers us the chance to distract ourselves from reality’s many rules and norms, but also to make up for unfulfilled ambitions.
The diverse constellation of imaginary universes running parallel to the here and now has expanded dramatically since the onset of digitisation, and continues to do so. The vehicles of choice for our little “escapes” include:
- Books, films and TV shows
- Surfing the internet
- Social media (TikTok, Instagram etc...)
These distractions are the most common and pervasive, but there are many more besides. The “parallel worlds” in role-playing events, cosplay and virtual reality, to name but a few, provide a chance for a change of reality. Hobbies of all kinds are another potential source of escapism when indulged in to excess, while drugs and other addictive substances present another, much less healthy option. You can even use sleep as a means of escapism. These are all ways in which we can escape from the worries and demands of everyday life.
But where do we draw the line between normal switching off, distraction and full-blown escapism? There’s no hard-and-fast way to distinguish them from one another, that’s for sure. As a rule, however, we generally talk about escapism as being a long-term or excessive state of distraction.
We tend to want to distract ourselves, particularly in difficult periods. Certain psychological factors also encourage us to distract ourselves more and engage less with reality:
- When the challenges in our lives reach a level that isn’t right for us (feelings of being overwhelmed or high levels of stress, but also significant lack of challenge or boredom)
- When we feel like we as individuals “don’t fit in” with the wider world
- When we’re unhappy but don’t see any way of changing things
- Following difficult experiences that overwhelm us on a psychological and emotional level
Definitely. As long as things don’t get out of hand, a bit of “escaping reality” doesn’t necessarily mean that you can no longer cope with your real-world situation. For example, the Norwegian psychologist Frode Stenseng draws a distinction between two types of escapism: In the first type, we escape to avoid unwelcome thoughts or feelings such as frustration, lack of self-esteem, powerlessness or even trauma. The second type of escapism is about discovering something new about ourselves – similar to how utopians or dropouts make a conscious decision to seek out new ways of living and discover new skills they never knew they had in the process, thereby practically adding a new dimension to who they are. In this way, Stenseng argues, escapism can be used either to repress something – or expand it. The ability to maintain a slight distance from reality can also give rise to utopian idealists and visionaries who inspire others around the world and can help forge new realities.
How much time do my current distractions take up on a daily or weekly basis?
Do I spend more time on them than on my own life?
What are the highlights of my day?
Are they things that happen in the real world, or things that help distract me from it?
Do I feel better when I can distract myself with something?
Do the things I distract myself with prevent or deter me from facing my problems?
Has the way I distract myself already led to negative consequences?
Do I neglect friends, family, goals or obligations?
What do I currently enjoy or no longer enjoy in life?
What can I do on an everyday basis to become (even only a little) happier?