Did someone eat the last Screenager?


This post is about the issues with assigning buzzwords to complex problems in order to a) simplify the problem, b) mask the problem and c) perpetuate the problem for personal or organisational benefits. The losers are always parents and children, which is ironic as they are supposed to be the one’s being liberated.

There is a ‘blockchain’ of terms used about children and technology. Each block encapsulates its own assertions, assumptions and bias which, so far, have been rebuffed by one or more field of research – later on. The reality is that research moves far less quickly than social media, and so it’s inherently dangerous to jump into today’s new claim simply because someone invented technology to do so. Therefore TIME matters more than ever – and many revelations from thought leaders are later crushed by researchers, so don’t write off academia just yet.

The nature of these terms/concepts emerges from the vibrant competition among ‘experts’ and ‘commentators’ who find the topic either entertaining enough or career boosting enough to spend hours and hours online discussing it with other experts. Towards K12 Education this is at a frenetic level as the rewards are high – overseas trips, ego-boosting keynotes, special treatment by your employer etc., The great thing about ‘blockchain’ culture is that it only takes a handful of these people to create a representation that those who arrive later buy into. The evidence of this is the effort brands go to recruit ‘thought leaders’ and ‘influencers’ or organisations with an agenda to recruit experts on a topic – most of whom are not qualified and don’t even work in the industry aside from their commentating (hmm, the nature of neo-work).

Three terms spring to mind: net generation; digital native; and screenager. These terms are of course just that,  attempts to appeal to individual identity and emotion. They emerge from the largely negative view of ‘media effects’ tradition, which has a special focus on children and ‘technological determinism’ in which people are transported to become consumers – usually portrayed in binary forms such as have/nots, experts/idiots, enthusiasts/laggards, in/out etc.,

Screenager – Blend of teenager and screen. A person in their teens or twenties who has an aptitude for computers and the Internet. Term coined in the 1990s. (Oxford Dictionary)


Educational Technology (teaching with digital technology and communications) – or EdTech – as it’s called is the prime example of determinism in action. It has dominated online discussion for over a decade, and there are plenty of folk besides me, who see it a part of the reason children are still disengaged and not learning – better – as EdTech is still on the cusp of breaking away from its modernist roots and revels in thinking of itself as the ‘counter culture’ to ‘school culture’  – which is of course ridiculously selfish, wrong and cringeworthy. EdTech generally pays no attention to research and favours spawning sub-sets of itself – which it sees as innovation – not degradation of a fundamentally self-limiting ideology (technological determinism). There are of course many exceptions – those who do read the research, to produce data, do publish evidence based insights into practices which better reflect contemporary culture and the shifting demands of family life. However, the vast majority are stuck in the blockchain in some subset of EdTech – EdChat – EdBots – EdTalk – EdWhatever.

The current focus in the media is towards ‘screen time’. In fact what they mean is screen use as separate from children’s time. There are many many reasons children spend their time the way they do – mostly because parents today are super-controlling in response to endless commuting to work, commitments to organised sports and consumerism. When not working, or acting as the family

There are many many reasons children spend their time the way they do – including parental responses to extensive commuting times to work, social commitments to organised sports, dancing and other sites of consumption. When not working, or acting as the family taxi, they are answering work emails after work, planning for tomorrow’s work or binging on Netflix. Most don’t even notice that the main reason they head to the mall is to buy food and drinks – they don’t even shop anymore – even shopping has become entertainment.

This means the time children have to do as they wish has been eroded significantly in the last twenty years. At the same time, research shows kids who do spend their time playing games do not become violent or anti-social. On the contrary,  playing online wit others – in between family activities – allows them to form strong social ties with other people – both online and offline. The social challenge is that these might not be family members. In effect the time they spend online diversifies and expands their social-connectedness and their immediate family can struggle to accept this shift. For example, children will say “I playing with my friend” – which brings into question our conceptions of what friendship is and means. The friend might be in New Zealand or Perth because that is the region the game’s matchmaking system used to create teams. This also means that children are not in a global digital world, but participating in regional groups, organised by brand, product and currency.

Back to EdTech for a second. The NUMBER ONE thing EdTech fans say is that ‘forming a personal learning network’ has changed their life and added plenty of new (great) friends. Now, let’s remove the determinism. It’s not a ‘personal learning network’ at all – its a personal entertainment channel, which is no different to kids jumping online or watching a Twitch stream – if we break it down as purely media communications – the PLN is simply a contextual media channel, curated by individuals for personal consumption.

Therefore there is no such thing as a screenager. The video above is loaded with parental angst and confusion about the role technology plays in their own – and their children’s lives. Screenager is a less confronting way to present children as victims of media consumption and appeals to quite natural parental insecurities.

The ‘screenager‘ amalgamation is two part. First, it appeals to the ‘media effects’ tradition that technology is inherently bad for children and secondly, it reminds us that children cannot (or should not) make informed choices about media until they are adults. Only then can they walk around the mall glued to their phones or line up to get their bear-tear infused latte and swipe their Apple-Pay money away.

Parenting has never been done in the absence of social and technological progress. Australian parent culture has never been shown to subscribe to the levels of media panic about digital technology seen elsewhere – and aside from those with particularly authoritative/religious views of what children ‘should be’ – rather than what they are – we don’t shy away from or regulate every click and swipe. Even more importantly, there is no research to show parents believe children are at significant risk of poor mental, emotional or physical health because they access screens. In fact, academics continually point out how hard it is to measure children’s media use – and just how unreliable self-reporting using reflection and opinion is. As much as I found the Digital Australia 18 report interesting – it didn’t seek the views of children under 14 – and therefore doesn’t truly represent all Australians or their opinions at all. But surveys are often touted as statistically significant by those who love a media panic or find social and financial benefit in peddling their technological determinism.

In my research, I’ve adapted four criteria for talking and thinking about screen usage (towards games). Children use media sporadically and we know homes own several devices, with children having faux-ownership of some devices.

passive consumption, which includes listening or watching broadcasts about games and associated cultures, for example, watching a You Tube channel reviewing a new game; interactive consumption, activities that are dependent on the users participation with content, narratives and ludic methods created by others (playing a game); communication, which includes those activities in which communicating with others is the primary purpose of using the media device, for example in game voice and text chat, streaming gameplay to an audience for the purpose of live or near live interaction; and content creation, which includes time spent using digital devices to write or to make one’s own video of game play, developing games or media elements that might be published in or about games, such as music, reviews and tutorials.

Without distinct contextual categories of screen usage in each layer of media stratification, there is no way to even talk about screen usage with parents and children. Therefore, terms such as screenagers and digital natives are highly emotive and subjective. At the same time, the rise of social media is obsessed with buzzword and hashtag creation – and to me, to discuss children’s use of media without also asking how the increasing consumerism and habitual adult use of technology influences children – on a spectrum from “I use my phone too much and I feel guilty …. I bought the PS4 for her to enjoy and show she’s enjoying it … school might not enable my child to particiapte in society the way I did ….”

So when someone stands on a stage and uses the term ‘screenager’ – the first question to ask is how exactly do they measure screen usage – what method(s) did they use to capture this data and what leads them to believe it to be the most reliable (if not perfect) method. Then ask them if they included children as respondents. If not, the term is mearly an attempt to demonise children and perpetuate the same moral panics we’ve seen (and discounted) for years.