On the power and importance of having a 'third screen' that we can escape to.
I own so many “third screens”
Life can seem like a parade of devices, as I find myself switching between my laptop, television, phone, gaming PC, Switch, and now my Steam Deck.
Three of those seven devices, and maybe four, may even be mostly redundant. Isn’t my laptop just a portable version of my gaming PC, while my Steam Deck is a device that meets me halfway between my laptop and Switch? What the hell is going on? Shouldn’t I be more embarrassed by this parade of devices? Don’t I have enough?
If you’re reading this, how many devices with screens are in the room with you right now? Be honest!
But I refuse to apologize or feel guilty for my collection of devices because I realize the power and importance of my favorite “third screens”.
What the heck is the third screen?
The “third place” is a concept in which your home is your primary place, work is the second place, but society and your own mental health are improved by the use of the third place.
The third place is neither work nor home, but rather an enjoyable location where you can see and speak with other people, relax, and do something you enjoy. It’s a place you go to belong and put down some of the stress of both home and work. Bookstores, diners, churches, malls, and parks can all serve as third places.
You can see where this is going.
In many places, for many reasons, the use of these third spaces has diminished. Which is tricky when you may not even have a first and second place, as the term “work from home” indicates. People may now be searching for a third screen to take its place.
The “third screen” idea has, in the past usually described a phone, as that is neither laptop nor a television, but the market for third screens has exploded. It’s less about what the third screen is and who owns it, in fact, and more about what it can’t do, and who can’t see inside. It’s the limitations that make third screens so attractive.
Kids and teenagers will often choose their phones to do tasks that the hardware is less suited for than the home television or their work laptops because it gives them a sense of privacy and ownership of the space. They decide what they see, and when, as they browse TikTok, message their friends, play games, or just watch stuff. They seek independence and control over their own experiences.
As adults, however? The phone is often just another place where work happens. Where people send us requests and where the blinking indicators of unreturned emails and unread reports are ever-present. Hence the adult love of the Nintendo Switch, the rise of the Steam Deck, and the enthusiasm over options like the ROG Ally. If the defining characteristic of my laptop and phone is that work, or another obligation, is always a virtual button tap away, who wouldn’t want a device to relieve the temptation of tapping that button?
Which is why I refuse to feel guilty about putting down one screen to spend time on another, as if “screen time” itself were a bad thing. The idea is silly on its face, when we put down work documents and pick up a novel, and then put down the novel to pick up a magazine, and then put down the magazine to look through pictures, do we worry about overdosing on “paper time?”.
"When I pick up my Switch to play the new Zelda, I’m not saying yes to more time on a screen, I’m saying yes to putting down work and interruption and picking up adventure"
A screen isn’t good or bad, it’s just a display. When I pick up my Switch to play the new Zelda, I’m not saying yes to more time on a screen, I’m saying yes to putting down work and interruption and picking up adventure. When my kids spend time on their phones instead of a television even if they’re just watching things, they’re not saying no to spending time on yet another screen, they’re saying yes to a sense of privacy, independence, and control over their time and attention.
While I enjoy physical hobbies such as painting, target shooting, and collecting vinyl (which I know makes me sound completely insufferable) I will never be tired of the third screen. Of the device that lets me make music without using my laptop and making sure I’m logged out of Slack. Of the Kindle that lets me read without sending me Discord notifications. Of the Switch and Steam Deck that give me physical controls for my games without giving me guilt about not working on this very article.
The idea that there’s something wrong with having a screen for work, a screen for home, and even a collection of “third screens” for pure play, content creation, or just reading is absurd on its face.
Why is it worse to read on a Kindle, which is just a dedicated screen for text, instead of reading a book? Electronics and displays in general have gained so much power while dropping so much in price that we can in fact begin to treat screen time the way we treat paper time, with different form factors for different tasks. A magazine isn’t the same as an early draft of a novel, but no one thinks you’re overdoing it by having both on your desk.
And when I pick up my Steam Deck or Kindle, it’s not about looking at yet another screen, it’s about valuing the break it gives me from thoughts and worries about daily, mundane matters in my free time.
The third screen isn’t a worrying trend, it’s a step toward a healthier relationship with our electronics, and I can’t get enough of them.