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Addressing Technopanic in the Age of Screentime

By Ian O’Byrne
 | Jun 14, 2019
screentime-debate

As educators that play with and embed digital literacies into classroom instruction, we believe the thoughtful use of educational technologies can help prepare youth for future practices and texts they will encounter. I study the effects of technology on society, culture, and education in my weekly newsletter, Digitally Literate. Together with a group of colleagues, I maintain a website focused on living and learning in the age of screentime and the challenges posed as we adjust to these new spaces. One of these challenges is a type of technopanic that suggests screentime promotes addiction, depression, or worse.

What is technopanic?

According to Christopher Ferguson, a professor in the Department of Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice at Texas A&M, a technopanic is a “moral panic that centers around societal fears about a specific contemporary technology (or technological activity) instead of merely the content flowing over that technology or medium.” Technopanic is accompanied by pleas to “do something” to protect society as a whole. This message is often promoted and amplified by the public, media outlets, and policymakers. In turn, the message is exacerbated when children and adolescents are added into the cultural anxiety surrounding a technopanic. Alice Marwick, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and faculty affiliate at the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says technopanics have the following characteristics: 

First, they focus on new media forms, which currently take the form of computer-mediated technologies. Second, technopanics generally pathologize young people’s use of this media, such as hacking, file-sharing, or playing violent video games. Third, this cultural anxiety manifests itself in an attempt to modify or regulate young people’s behavior, either by controlling young people or the creators or producers of media products.

The challenge is that the paranoia and panic that accompanies a technopanic is often overblown and stifles the discussion, examination, and critique that is necessary as we explore these new digital spaces.

The rise of technopanics

Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, suggests there are six factors that contribute to the rise of technopanics and how they impact our culture and society in general.

  • Generational differences: Older generations are generally pessimistic about the impact of technology on culture and society with younger generations. They forget that they too had new texts, tools, and gadgets that previous generations never dreamed of.
  • Hyper-nostalgia: People tend to recall past events and lived experiences more positively than they perceived them to be at the time of their occurrence—this is called rosy retrospection bias. Critics often yearn for the old order, established norms, and traditional structures as they seek to find balance in a changing ecosystem.
  • Bad news sells: In today’s world, readers are greeted by a regular firehose of information when they open their devices. Fear-based tactics and alarmism—especially involving children—cuts through the noise.
  • The role of special interests: As bad news sells, there is often a company, service, or product working behind the scenes to elevate concern. These companies exaggerate the problem and offer a “silver bullet” response to this challenge.
  • Elitist attitudes: Skeptics and critics often have elitist mindsets and opinions about the use of these new digital texts and tools. These beliefs often indicate that they are superior to others because of their intellect, social status, wealth, or other factors.
  • Third-person-effect hypothesis: When people engage in debate, or encounter a problem that seems outside of their expertise, they suggest that others “do something” to correct the situation. Psychologists refer to this as “third-person-effect hypothesis” and this mindset sometimes is a call for governmental intervention.

How to address the current situation

We are increasingly hearing different manifestations of technopanic as all forms of technological devices (phone, tablet, computer, etc.) are conflated into a general area of “screentime” and identified as a cause of concern. As a parent, and educator, it is sometimes hard for me to read this and worry about the peril and imminent danger that are children are being subjected to. But there is a need to beware of the outrage, fear mongering, and “science” that is often spread by the news media and others.

Rather than assuming all technology use is equal (and equally bad), perhaps we should take a more nuanced approach as we discuss these issues. We might, for example, consider different types of screentime, and the affordances of each of these texts, tools, and spaces. Perhaps spending an hour passively consuming YouTube content is not viewed as beneficial as an hour spent coding in Scratch. Perhaps an hour spent zombie scrolling through social media is not as valuable as an hour spent playing video games. Perhaps if children and adults spent time coconsuming this content, and had dialogue about the experience, we might have a better understanding of screentime.

As an educator the focus should be on guiding your students as they explore and negotiate these new spaces, places, and practices. As a parent, there is an opportunity to talk about all of these elements with your children, and not be afraid to confront your own practices. Finally, there is a need to understand that we’re still learning as new technologies are developed, and as we interact with these texts and tools. To continue to learn more about these elements, you might consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter or following the blog feed at The Screentime Age. Lastly, Kristen Turner and I developed a podcast all about technopanic, and it explores the challenges experienced by children, parents, and educators. Feel free to send us an email at hello@screentime.me if you have a question you’d like us to answer.  Together, we can work to avoid getting caught up in fear of new technologies and learn how to use them safely and productively with children. 

Ian O’Byrne is an educator, researcher, and innovator. His research investigates the literacy practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. Ian’s work can be found on his website. His weekly newsletter focuses on the intersections between technology, education, and literacy. Ian is an assistant professor of Literacy Education at the College of Charleston. You can find him on Twitter @wiobyrne.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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