Screentime. A phenomenon that has gained mainstream popularity in the last decade that is used to guilt parents for letting their children have too much, and a status symbol to demonstrate your skills of being able to live without your phone glued to your hand.
The introduction of the TV into the home was groundbreaking. Suddenly, people could be a part of mass events and breaking news as a collective group. People could turn on their TV and tune in to watch the first man land on the mood, and discover the news of the day before their newspaper arrived on the doorstep the next morning.
It became a home for many people. Soap operas and cartoons helped to bring comfort and stories into the home that may have never been heard before. Stay at home mothers could break up their isolation by tuning into Days of Our Lives at the same time every day, and feel comfort watching shows like ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’, and witnessing hosts discuss all kinds of topics from child abuse to celebrity weddings. ‘Latchkey kids’ would come home from school and feel a sense of connection to the afterschool cartoons they’d watch while they waited for their parents to return from their jobs. Suddenly, you could watch people outside of your community interact with other people in a way you’ve never seen before.
The age of the internet
With the transition of the home computer and internet into the home at the end of the 20th century, the same freedoms that the television brought to peoples homes were amplified with the internet. The wealth of information that was available to people exploded. Suddenly, people could write, share and upload whatever they wanted. Chat rooms start to grow in popularity for people to meet other like-minded people and discuss similar interests. This has further lead to today’s social networks and vast content creation and content consuming platforms that anyone can access. Video games evolved to be played online so you can play with friends — whether that’s someone down your street or someone in a different country.
People have made support groups, found connections over niche hobbies and have been able to learn about new skills and ideas from the comfort of their own homes.
As someone who grew up seeking comfort and solace in TV and later the internet, I have always had a soft spot for consuming content via a screen. But why have we demonised the power of the screen?
There’s a multitude of factors that have been constructed and intersect to shame people for their use of the humble screen and why they are compelled to engage with this modern technology.
The evolving role of women in the home
Greater access to voting, employment, drivers licenses, and birth control enabled women to be able to leave the home when they wanted to. Whether that was for employment, education or to make a life of their own, they now had the ability to make some choices when there were once none. We saw a rise of the mainstream childcare centre and family daycare options to support women leaving the home to take on more responsibility (or to just purely have a break).
Greater access to these tools for freedom happened at the same time as the introduction of the TV into the home. The TV itself could now help become a digital babysitter, to keep kids entertained while their parents were at work, or while they attended to domestic chores. The TV became a sense of solace for both children and mothers at this time. Suddenly, your child could be entertained without any influence from another human being.
Freeing up babysitting funds with this new digital babysitter, kids stayed at home, glued to the TV, whilst working mothers could keep the non-stop in and out of home labour moving. We saw the rise of the ‘latchkey kid’ in the 70’s and 80’s as Gen X became one of the first generations to spend most of their formative years at home without constant supervision or engagement by a parent.
Building on this, we saw the introduction of portable devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets into the home since the beginning of the 21st century, which has enabled people to be able to use a device wherever and whenever you want. The Internet has become cheap and accessible anywhere, gone are the days of dial-up and not being able to send a fax while you checked your email. We are now more connected than ever before.
If the TV was once the digital in-home babysitter, the tablet is now the hybrid digital babysitter. As long as its got some battery, a tablet is a tool that can be used in and outside the home to occupy kids, while parents conduct paid or unpaid labour. A device like a tablet or a smartphone can easily keep a child distracted while parents grocery shop, attend doctors appointments, or participate in the workforce. The integration of these devices into the mainstream with affordable prices and ‘smart’ features, has provided another tool to help parents juggle work, home and life whilst having a toddler in tow.
Parental control features are built into almost all of these devices, allow parents to specify what type of content their child consumes, at what volume level and if they can make in-app purchases or not. Coupled with ‘screentime timers’, parents (and non-parent device users) can regulate how much time is spent on the device in total, and even narrow it down to the application or website, locking the user out after the time is up. This has allowed parents the ability to control their child’s time online, without direct supervision.
A woman’s malice
It’s easy to blame these women for daring to leave their children for any period of time, and occupying them with a device instead of the love and care of a mother. How dare they leave their children at home, without the supervision of an adult, just the comfort of the TV and maybe a sibling or two to keep themselves entertained? It seems very binary worded like this, why would a loving parent abandon their child just for work (be it in or out of the home). Blaming these women only reinforces the guilt they are already carrying for leaving their children.
We seem to think it’s only a matter of time before women engage in deliberate, violent acts, that they are constantly surpassing a desire to be negligent or violent against loved ones. Think of the backlash and outcry after Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis after enduring her violent marriage. Media reports alluded to an ‘open season’ that would be unleashed on men by their wives, coming for their manhood and dignity.
This ‘open season’ idea has continued to be prominent anytime a woman has the audacity to have agency and act against the patriarchal system that keeps them silent. The latest example of this was #MeToo movement. After the damning reports released about Harvey Weinstein, suddenly men were up in arms that you couldn’t do ‘anything’ anymore, that they may be the next victim of cancel culture. A recent survey found that 27% of men avoid one-on-one meetings with women — yup, a third of men are afraid of being alone with women, not for fear of violence, but for fear of a PR nightmare. Women are again being punished for speaking out and veering from the status quo.
If women are able to leave their kids alone, what’s next? Will they completely abandon their families? Start a new life? Or will they just get things done and have a minute of peace before it all starts again tomorrow?
Wellness and screentime
The phrase screentime has risen to prominence over the last decade. We have always heard offhand remarks from parents about how much TV consume, or that the computer can’t be used after dinner, but we’re hearing the phrase ‘screentime’ now more than ever.
When Apple introduced ‘screentime reports’, which are typically a weekly report the device user is sent to see where their time is being spent on the device. These weekly reports became a source of shame, that you were being reminded that you spent 3+ hours a day on social media — with nothing to show for it except mild RSI in your thumb.
I remember when I started getting these reports and being horrified where my time was being spent. I work a job that has me sitting at a computer for seven to nine hours a day — if you add in my phone screen time, I’m staring at a screen for almost all of my waking hours. I’d start to think, what if I got off my phone outside of work, maybe I could finally learn that language? Or complete that project? And I’d make goals that this week, I’d be different. I’d delete apps off my phone, keep my phone on aeroplane mode, and even set my colour scheme to black and white, so I couldn’t get the dopamine hit from looking at all the pretty colours on my high-resolution iPhone 11 screen.
But like a New Year Resolution, this goal would fail by about day 2 of the week. I’d re-download all of the apps, turn off my timers, just to get that dopamine hit again. It’s how we cope with the ups and downs of our lives. Had a great day or at an amazing event? Open Instagram and post it. Had a terrible day? Go on social media and watch everyone else’s amazing days or doom scroll through the news.
To almost counteract this, we’ve seen a new wellness fad appear, of being diligent with your time online. A term called ‘digital wellness’ is floating around, referring to the fact that being ‘well’ is a lifestyle that includes your use of online tools. Moving back to ‘analog’ practices like a physical alarm clock and not tracking exercise via a smartwatch is revolutionary. It’s a sign that can be truly connected with yourself and in tune with your environment.
The status of digital wellness
Having a low screentime report is now a status symbol. Playing with your kids with sustainably made wooden toys and not giving them your phone as soon as they start to have a tantrum in the freezer aisle at Coles is seen as the goal for parenting and living. Choosing to opt out of these digital aids (where we see fit) is a status symbol. People that opt-out of these digital aids likely still use their robot vacuum cleaner, blender and car instead of the analog versions of them — who knows, maybe a horse and cart will be the new way to do school drop in the next decade.
It’s the choice to opt-in and out of some digital aids where the sense of privilege comes into the discussion. That you can choose to not let your kids use smart devices because you have the time (or resources) for them to engage in other forms of ‘traditional’ stimulation. That you can afford to outsource domestic labour to free up your time to spend entertaining your children yourself, or that you can afford to send your children to exclusive summer camps and after school programs instead of leaving them home alone with a WiFi connection for company.
The same goes for parents and non-parents themselves. Entertainment and education are expensive when you’re not doing it online. Being able to drive away to attend in-person workshops on a new skill instead of watching a series of YouTube videos can be expensive and time-consuming. Let alone the idea of being able to socialise with friends in person? In today’s world? It was hard enough already in a pre-COVID-19 restrictions world. Having adult friendships is the process of sending a series of back and forth texts asking when the other is free, discovering you’re busy at that time, until 2 months later you finally run into them at Coles and vow to catch up soon — and repeat. Relationships in the world of COVID-19 have had to go digital, and there is no ‘analog’ alternative in a world of Stage 4 lockdowns. We’re now engaging with existing and new friends by joining cooking classes on Zoom and watching movies and playing games on Discord. If we stuck our feet in the mud of only analogue interactions in this new world, we’d never be able to talk to anyone who wasn’t living with us.
We’re told to not be online as much, that 2 hours looking at a screen is enough for our poor eyes, that we need to be having more in-person connections, and more time spent staring at the wall, contemplating life’s existence. But is that truly feasible in our modern, COVID-19 world? In a world with increasing family, political and employment pressures, modern conveniences need to be embraced for the benefits they bring, and the liberation they bring women. Embrace your screentime count for what it is, the world is too gloomy not to seek solace in watching YouTube videos of cats playing the piano.