A Different Way to Think About Screentime
This doesn't go where you think it will
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When I heard that my friend Phil Maciak was writing a book about screentime (Avidly Reads: Screentime) my immediate reaction was relief. Screentime conversations are so often shot through with anxiety over things that have little do with the screens themselves and much more to do with general changes in the way we access information, parent, conceive of distraction, and even conceive of our own brains and how they work. But Phil is clever enough, insightful enough, and empathetic enough to understand all of that, acknowledge it and hang out in it, but also push us to think differently about the screens that have become regular features in our lives.
This conversation won’t necessarily make you feel better or worse about screens. But it will invite you to consider a more expansive understanding of what screens are and what they do — in our kids’ lives, but also in our own.
Philip Maciak is the film critic for The New Republic and a lecturer in English and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also a pretty wonderful guy whose thinking I admire a lot. You can find our previous conversation (all about taste hierarchies and good TV!) here — and you can find Avidly Reads: Screentime here.
I want to start with what is the most consistently annoying moment of my week: when that purple notification for weekly screen time pops up on Sunday morning when I’m just minding my business, probably also on a screen. I never turned it on, but I can’t be bothered to turn it off, and it’s just: why. No one’s asking for this. You unpack that notification a bit in the book, and I’d love to hear more about why you think it inspires so much ire (or any other thoughts about it, like how it’s a great encapsulation of the themes of the book!!!)
I honestly had disabled Screen Time as a function on my phone until I started writing this book. You know, for research! As you know, I approached this project from a position of skepticism about the regulatory, guilt-inducing culture of screen time, and so I had gone out of my way — by which I mean, going in to System Preferences — to avoid it. As a result, I never really developed a practice with it or learned to really live with it. The initial shock of seeing the actual number, or getting your average for a couple weeks is kind of neat, but, as I write about in the book, that feature really seems less about quantifying your usage or even offering any kind of helpful framework for managing it than it is about crisply visualizing your own anxiety about screen time.
Apple knows you’re self-conscious and worried about how much you look at your phone, whether that’s because it’s having some perceived ill effect or because you feel like you should be worried. And it has built a feature using that anxiety as a structuring element. The phone gives you a notification to look at it, you comply, and then it makes you feel bad for looking. Stop hitting yourself!
I think, though, that for that reason, it’s a great encapsulation of the themes of the book. It’s a tool that seems to allow you to move outside yourself, to see yourself with greater clarity as a person in the world, but, instead, I think it pushes you back inward. All the data is you. There’s no guidance, no suggestion, no real engagement. It is an app designed to produce (or, rather, surf on top of) your own pre-existing anxiety. And there’s a history to that anxiety, decades of cultural work that built it. So whether your average is one hour a day or twelve, you get to feel like shit if you go over. You are the app.
I keep thinking about the fact that actual screen time hasn’t really gone up in 30 years — it’s just that we have a whole lot more screens, which creates a lot more anxiety about said screen time. As you point out, the screen that worried the first critics of screentime (the television) is a very different screen, with different content and mode of address and expectations, then the screen today. Or is it? I’m fascinated that the first real forceful critique of “screentime” (and the coining of that word, at least as we understand it now) was published in Mother Jones, and was infused with an anti-capitalist or at least anti-consumerist bent which still manifests in concerns about screen time but in a new set of clothes (purchased, impulsively, on Instagram). What’s changed, do you think, about this anxiety over screen time, and what hasn’t?
I think I’ve spent as much time close reading that essay as I have close reading, like, the first paragraph of Moby-Dick in intro lit classes for the past ten years. A couple of things have changed in the “screen time” discourse since the early 1990s. The first is that, pretty quickly, the sort of substantive, progressive argument about the imbrication of kids’ TV and advertising that really animates Tom Engelhardt’s Mother Jones article — for all of its flaws — gave way to more of a traditional “moral panic” concern about raw numbers. Screens are “digital heroin,” we have to regulate exposure to it like an environmental toxin, etc. The second is the one you point out here, that there are just way MORE devices than there used to be, and, partially for that reason, the anxiety about screen time is one that’s about everyone, not just kids but ourselves.
The last one I’ll point to — and I think this is a big one — is that the new devices are incredibly personal and personalized and, to some extent, private. TV was always a personal medium, one that you lived with in your living room, but that kind of intimacy feels quaint compared to the intimacy we have with phones and tablets and laptops and fitness trackers and portable gaming devices. The Mother Jones piece was worried about what it called children’s “out of sight time,” meaning the time they spent in the house watching TV without a parent. But these new devices have opened up a whole new depth of out of sight time unplumbed by previous generations. In 1991, you might worry about what your child was watching, but it was, well, you know, something on TV. Now, with the availability of quite truly anything on the internet, and users’ access to that via essentially private devices, I think that anxiety has ballooned. And for understandable reason. What might they see? Who might see them? And what about us?
Parents have a hard time when they don’t know something. I’ve written this elsewhere, but I think one of the basic things that underlies a lot of the book bannings and pronoun panics from parent-activists on the far-right is the very simple fact that parents don’t know what their kids do all day. My daughter Maeve is 7, and I volunteered this spring to help with a field trip for her first-grade class. The bus was late, and so I ended up just sitting in her classroom for about 45 minutes while the day went on as usual. Maeve is very talkative, and she loves telling us stories about her day, but it wasn’t until I sat in that classroom that I realized how little I actually knew about what the ordinary beats of that day were like, what the social dynamics were, what kind of job her wonderful teacher — hello, Mr. Diego Fernandez — is tasked with doing.
And that’s fine! We trust her school! But I think a lot of parents have really sharp fears about not knowing all of those things, and so their impulse is to butt in and to police. When that anxiety is coupled with right-wing ideology, it becomes monstrous. But it’s also a basic anxiety I think a lot of parents feel. And the phone or the device — this bottomless chasm into which your child might fall even if they’re across the room from you — is just another space that’s illegible, unrecognizable to parents and thus, very scary.
I feel like this is a book that had to be written by a parent or a caretaker for young children — simply because if you’re not, you’re just not immersed in the wild tension between “avoid screen time” and “whew screen time is the only way I get a break.” I also feel like it had to be written by someone who really, really loves television, and understands just how many ways it can and has enriched our lives, in so many senses of the word. How much of your desire to write this book was informed by your own experience as a father of young kids who is also a voracious and joyful consumer of television? (I also love the point you make in the acknowledgments: “This is a book I wrote about watching TV with my kids and how that’s changed the way I see everything else.”)
That’s certainly true for me (though perhaps a more self-aware critic could have come to the same insights without first helping bring two new lives into the world). I think having Maeve at a time when I was both a TV critic and a working media scholar — two related but not identical pursuits — and becoming suddenly aware of her screen time, made me newly self-conscious about the fact that I too was a person who had “screen time” that I was in charge of.
In other words, yeah, lots of the book is about the idea of loving television — and other things that happen on screens — and wanting to share that with my kids in a world where television and screens are routinely villainized and saddled with all of society’s problems. But the main thing being a parent gave me was that new sense of self-awareness about screen management, what culture expected of me as a parent and as an adult, what my job(s) expected of me as a scholar and critic and teacher, and what I expected when we were, well, expecting. Maeve showing up was the catalyst for that. I know lots of TV and film critics I respect are also parents, and I know that they’ve had this disorienting experience too, but I also think it’s natural and probably healthy to want to separate that out from the work, to say that these screen times are different. But I found myself wanting to read somebody who wrote about all this without separating it. So I tried to write that book!
I think the mistake of a lot of popular screen time literature — the advice manuals, etc — is that it tries to universalize, whether that’s by setting hard and fast rules and recommendations or whether that’s by using “screen” as an umbrella for the staggering and diverse array of things that happen on screens. To me, the only way to think or manage or write about screen time is to do it at the personal level. The writers I tend to trust on this subject — Devorah Heitner and Anya Kamenetz, especially — really push this. If you’re worried about your kids’ screen time, you need to talk to them about it. If you’re worried about your own, you need to really self-reflect. Not just about how you feel but about what you’re doing in screen time. What parts feel bad, but also what parts feel good? How do you foster the former without letting the latter take over? So Avidly Reads Screen Time is a personal audit, an accounting of one person’s screen time in relation to his kids and his partner and his job because that’s really the only way to do it.
When it comes to Facetime (calls with family) and even Zoom (calls with colleagues, friends, etc.) you write that “It isn’t a replacement for contact. The screen is not usurping physical closeness. It will never do that. It could never do that. But it can offer something else, something in the neighborhood. Perhaps because we’ve learned to build these relationships with screens—with characters we love or hate, with events we’ve anticipated—we know how to have intimacy through them. It isn’t the same as person-to-person, but it isn’t nothing, it isn’t cheap, it isn’t degraded. It is simply something else on its own.”
In my work, I feel that so much of the difficulty around Zoom/Teams meetings really stems from a refusal (or just an inability) to think of a Zoom meeting not as a replacement for in-person, but a new thing altogether, with different norms and delights, of course, but also a different understanding of what it can and cannot do. Is this just a matter of needing MORE TIME? Are kids who grow up with Facetime always going to understand it as its own category? What do we do with the quiet fear that even though we recognize that it’s not the same as in-person, its convenience will allow it to eclipse those experiences?
That’s a great question, and it’s one that I go back and forth on myself. The limits of these forms — FaceTime or Zoom or Teams — make themselves known pretty quickly. They are tools like anything else, and while I certainly have more meetings on Zoom now — for good or ill — than I used to, it certainly hasn’t “replaced” anything worth getting all that upset over. Technologies alter our lives in both expected and unexpected ways. Accounting for their actual impact is a complex process, and sometimes it can require a lot of distance and time to account for what that impact turns out to be. I think one of the easiest narratives to turn to in situations like these is a narrative of replacement or obsolescence. And it’s funny because it’s such a dramatic and improbable narrative, but it’s the one we so often reach for. “What’s zoom doing?” “Well, it’s replacing xyz…” It’s much harder to account for the way that things are changing, the way you or your loved ones are changing, than it is to simply read every change as an apocalypse.
I think kids who grew up with this stuff will understand it for what it is and are generally less prone to hyperbole about its faults or capabilities. My students — especially the ones I worked with during the online pandemic year — had the best sense of what zoom was capable of but also the best sense of what it couldn’t do or replace. I watched them be failed by Zoom’s limitations or rescued by the things it enabled, but I rarely saw them be disappointed by what they thought it could do but couldn’t. I think, conversely, a lot of faculty either saw it as a totalizing replacement for in-person instruction (it’s revolutionized and/or is-coming-for my job!) or a medium that could literally never communicate “what they do.” Too much or not enough. My daughters, likewise, understand the categorical difference between talking to relatives on FaceTime and seeing them in person (which we’re doing right now on the East Coast as I write these answers!) — it’s not complicated for them. The situation — far-flung relatives, online school or work — is complicated, but Zoom’s just an app on a screen.
I think there’s an interesting parallel here to the current AI discourse. AI prophets love to hype the way that ChatGPT or other tools can a) revolutionize the way you work or b) lead to nuclear armageddon. Maybe your job is easier, maybe you lose it, maybe Skynet becomes self-aware and vaporizes humanity. But the trick is that AI is only going to do what people with money want it to do, and it’s better for those people if it seems like the AI is operating of its own accord. If “AI takes your job,” that’s because a person wanted to replace you with a machine, because a particular economic and political system incentivized you to be replaced by a machine, not because a robot in a top hat came in and filled out an application form. The same is true for these screen interfaces that seem so ubiquitous and threatening. Zoom can neither save nor destroy you; people need to do that.
I did not expect this book to go deep into your quest to figure out whether a NBA draft deadline Reddit poster was real, but it was a pretty fantastic way to talk about revenge bedtime procrastination’s role in screen time, something I’ve written about before. I know part of the problem is not having time to let our minds wander and play during the day and part of the problem is the way our phones reward this behavior, but I’m also wondering what we did with this impulse before? Like, go deep in the encyclopedia collection? Or is it really a symptom of whatever we call this current age?
Reading a bunch of advice literature and listening to a bunch of podcasts about screen time, I am always refreshed when I hear some expert say they don’t know the answer to a question, so it is with a great sense of satisfaction that I say: I don’t know!
As I write in the book, I think my personal style of reading and my particular flavor of anxiety — trying desperately to tunnel all the way to the very bottom of things I love and things I’m scared of — are incredibly well suited to internet spiraling. So, I am an accomplished revenge bedtime procrastinator, and I know there are others like me who, perhaps, exhibited early signs of this talent in a pre-internet era. And revenge bedtime procrastination isn’t just about screens, so I suspect its history goes further back in time than our present. One of my underlying theses in the book is that lots of the things we blame screens for are actually caused by largely unaddressed social problems that screens only serve to mediate or make visible. I would guess that somebody who, say, has written and podcasted at length about contemporary cultures of work in the U.S. might have some ideas about non-screen-specific culprits behind the rise in bedtime procrastination, ahem!
But, of course, screens can be an accelerant for it. The thing personal devices can do is hold all this stuff for us, all our worries and obsessions and all the information and all the best and the worst takes on any issue. They make it all accessible, so that we can search and read at the pace of our flitting, distractible minds. I can’t do that with a novel. I can’t even do it with an encyclopedic book. But if I’ve got my phone, I have everything I need to never go to sleep again!
I think I expected this book to be more about unpacking screen time anxiety and less about expanding our understanding of all that is screen time. Like: using the star app to look at constellations with your daughter is screen time. So is co-viewing the last vestiges of appointment television, and watching your favorite team win the Super Bowl, and reading Wikipedia summaries of horror movies, and your daughter Facetiming with her great-grandfather. How did you arrive at this framework, and why does it offer that a more straightforward or traditionally academic analysis could not?
The simplest answer is that I don’t really know how to unpack screen time anxiety. (Thrilling to be able to say that again!) The best thing I ever did to allay my own screen time worry was to write this book about it. I mentioned earlier that a lot of anti-screen time crusaders like to use the rhetorical move of referring to “screens” or “screen time” because it gets them out of having to be specific at all. “Screen time.” What does that mean, man? Are you talking about social media? Online banking? Looking up recipes for dinner? The failure of the moral panic brigade is their disinterest in specificity. Even Tom Engelhardt in Mother Jones could talk about what he thought good screen time was (Mister Rogers, obvs, and he’s right). They can’t effectively counter or break down the thing they despise because they can’t see it, they don’t really understand it. I remember reading a quote from an acclaimed filmmaker a while ago, and he said something like: I’ve looked at TikTok for fifteen minutes, and it’s the death of cinema. Ok, maybe, but “death of cinema” is a pretty strong charge to make after fifteen minutes of exposure. This isn’t me defending TikTok, and that’s because I, like that filmmaker, don’t really know what it is. I’ve dabbled, I’ve looked around a bit, but it’s not something I really have closely paid attention to. But I scroll Twitter, for instance, and I know that that platform has aspects to it that are not readily apparent to someone who isn’t immersed in it regularly or hasn’t learned the rhythm and shorthand of the feed. The same is true of Reddit, of Instagram, of the message boards I write about in the book, of online dating apps — these social media platforms, they’re not like a movie you can watch. They’re immersive, they are a culture, they contain many cultures. Some are terrible and corrosive, but others are empowering or illuminating. Some are both! But the point is that even if it’s your enemy, you have to respect the medium enough to understand it.
That was a digression, but this complaint is partially about why I wrote the book in this way. My framework is about specificity. What transpires in screen time? What’s it like? How does it feel? What are the rhythms and shorthands that are apparent to the close observer — or to me, the user — that might not be apparent to someone who’s just reading my browser history? The most important skill I learned in school, and, ultimately, the one I try to teach all my students, is close reading, close analysis. You can’t understand anything if you don’t pay attention to how it works, how it means. Screen time is a kind of time that’s built up of texts and objects and interactions both haunted and embodied. My idea for this project was to take all of it — the screen time I spend by myself, the screen time I spend with my kids, the screen time I know intimately and in detail — and try to read it as a text, a big messy text. It would have been easier to focus in on one aspect on its own: the time I spend watching TV as a critic or the time I’ve spent watching media as a scholar or the time I spend with my daughters watching their shows or the good vibes screen time or the bad vibes screen time. But if you focus in on one of those, you’re not seeing the full picture, not accounting for the full time. I didn’t want “screen time” to be a euphemism for anything.
I don’t know if I came out of this with any new, usable wisdom. “Sleep is important” feels like the only real hard and fast rule from all my research. The other one is probably: talk to your kids about their experience of the world. I will say that reflecting on all this screen time was a really cathartic, positive experience for me, especially when I was writing about the negative aspects of screen time.
Mr. Rogers’ famous quote is, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” Screen time, all of it, is human. This book is one big act of “mentioning” that, genuinely, has made all that time more manageable to me. My biggest piece of advice is that everybody should write this book for themselves. ●
You can find Avidly Reads: Screentime here, follow Phil on Instagram here, and find his writing at The New Republic here. You can read my previous interview with Phil here, and my previous interview with Avidly Reads: Passages author Michelle D. Commander here.
This Week’s Things I Read/Listened To and Loved: