XXVIII.3 May - June 2021
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Zooming in/zooming out: How Covid-19 redefined the screen-time debate

Alexandra Weilenmann, Mikael Wiberg

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As many of us now spend entire days online to communicate with colleagues, teachers, friends, and relatives, it is hard to remember that only recently we were in the midst of a heated screen-time debate in both the media and research. Instead, constant connectivity, or constant screen time, are now the dominant modes for many people in these days of the new normal.

back to top  Insights


In this article, we revisit the screen-time debate and look at the reconfiguration of our social relations—in particular how our relationships to screen time have changed over the past 18 months. We explore these issues against an empirical study in which we examined how people managed their availability and their screen time just 1.5 years ago. We conducted an online survey related to the mobile phone box, a product that was selected as the Christmas gift of the year in Sweden in 2019 [1], with a particular focus on screen time and availability management.

back to top  18 Months Ago: Strategies for Dealing with Screen Time and Constant Connectivity

Just 18 months ago, toward the end of 2019, we witnessed not only an increase in research on screen time, but also a heated debate in the media about screen time in areas such as health, education, and social relations. In Sweden, several popular science books were published that year, with titles such as Distracted: The Brain, the Screen and the Powers Behind [2], Smarter Than Your Phone: How to Use the Mobile to Feel Better, Be More Efficient and Strengthen Your Relationships [3], and The Screen Brain: How a Brain Out of Sync with Its Time Can Make Us Stressed, Depressed and Filled with Anxiety [4]. These books and the ensuing media coverage led to an intense public discussion.


However, the question of being occupied with these digital screens, and the associated problems concerning how to regulate one's connectivity and availability has in fact been a recurring research topic over the past 20 years. The topic has been explored from many angles, such as mobile phone usage, availability management, stress and anxiety, and task management, including studies of multitasking and interruptions. It has been argued that we live in the age of the distracted mind, where people are struggling to focus while staying in contact with their peers. For individuals, the need to constantly check the phone has been described as FOMO, or a fear of missing out, and an anxiety-based addictive behavior [5].

The decision to select the mobile phone box as the Christmas gift of the year in Sweden 2019 could be interpreted as the outcome of a longer public debate about the role of digital technology in our everyday lives and to what extent we should let all these screens distract us. The box could come in many shapes and forms, but the central idea behind it was that mobile phone use, and accordingly both screen time and connectivity, could be regulated by putting the phone in a physical container (Figure 1).

ins03.gif Figure 1. The mobile phone box or container as portrayed by HUI Research when announcing Årets julklapp, the Christmas gift of the year 2019.

In order to examine people's attitudes toward this container and their strategies to handle screen time, we put together a survey that was distributed just before Christmas in 2019. The survey consisted of questions concerning how connectivity was currently handled, and whether the participants expected that using a mobile phone box would change their strategies in any way. The survey was distributed and shared over social media and through our universities' Web pages. We allowed space for comments and open-ended questions to encourage rich descriptions. We received 191 responses, from informants ranging from 15 to 71 years old.

Out of the 191 responses we got, only nine people responded that they had a physical mobile phone box or were planning to get one. Many did not appreciate this solution, which was also evident from several of the comments. In the following, we briefly describe some highlights from the study, focusing primarily on three questions: 1) the reasoning around why the mobile phone container was the Christmas gift of the year, 2) responses related to how the mobile phone is currently handled in the household, and 3) the issue of whose screen time was up for regulation.

Why was the mobile phone box the Christmas gift of the year? We asked the open-ended question, "Why do you think that the mobile phone box was selected as the Christmas gift of the year this particular year, 2019?" Here, a lot of people reasoned about the public debate and the media discussion around screen time, including the role of mobile phones in schools. Quite a few of the respondents commented on internal processes at HUI Research when trying to explain the reasoning behind this decision, including judgments about the intelligence and political orientation of the group who selected this product as the gift of the year. "Moral panic" was mentioned as one reason. There were also comments about market forces trying to steer consumption in a certain direction. Many respondents mentioned a need to decrease the use of mobile phones and to limit the amount of screen time. Here, it was common to refer to the tension between digital and face-to-face meetings, where the latter were portrayed as more authentic: "People are longing to socialize with face contact." This is in line with the narrative that we have a "true self" that becomes less authentic when mediated through networked technologies [6].

How were the mobile phone and screen time managed in 2019? The question of how the mobile phone was handled in the household, for those living together, received the responses shown in Figure 2. We had predefined categories and allowed for additional answers. The vast majority did not have any particular rules but would discuss whenever a situation would occur.

ins04.gif Figure 2. Responses to the question of how the mobile phone was handled.

One person mentioned that "we have no direct time limit in my family but the 'norm' or the 'unwritten rule' is that it is not used when we have quality time with each other. For example, at the dinner table or when we do activities together."

Besides these verbal agreements and negotiations, we asked for tools, including apps and services, that were used to keep track of and regulate screen time. A lot of informants mentioned services and apps connected to Apple, such as the built-in Screen Time app on iOS and restrictions through Apple ID. Additional solutions were Google Family Link and the Symantec parent app.

Whose screen time was regulated in 2019? Finally, we were interested in finding out whose screen time was under discussion. We asked: "If you have used a time limitation for mobile phone use, has it then been directed toward children (0–12), young people (13–18), and/or adults?" We made it clear that multiple answers were possible.

Our findings here are well in line with the existing research literature, showing how it is primarily children's and teenagers' screen time that is being regulated, not that of adults or parents (Figure 3). Thus, it seems that before the pandemic there was a focus on young people's screen time in particular.

ins05.gif Figure 3. Age breakdown for whose screen time is being regulated.

back to top  Screen Time in the New Normal

When many activities, including work, education, and social relations were moved online due to Covid, it naturally led to an increase in screen time and connectivity. Recent studies have reported on a number of related issues, including back-to-back bookings of online meetings, problems with Zoom burnout, nonverbal overload due to constant gaze, and stress-related "pressure to perform" problems with online meetings. These studies have also reported on increases in the use of different communication platforms and videoconferencing tools (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Skype) and an increase in the use of shared online spaces and cloud services for file sharing, project management, and coordination.

While the 2019 discussion was oriented toward limiting screen time and containing connectivity, 2020 dramatically reoriented the screen time debate to ways of coping with constant connectivity—and not only for kids and young people. While geography often worked as a filter for availability before the pandemic (e.g., to be more unavailable while traveling or occasionally working from home, for those who had that option), the new online forms of work removed this filter through the transition to online platforms. They thus effectively implemented the 1980s vision of digital technologies, enabling a global village and implying the death of distance, where everyone is, anytime and anywhere, always online and always within (online) reach.

back to top  Moving Forward

The drastic transition to a new normal is likely to have a long-lasting impact that will probably stretch beyond the time frame of this pandemic. In this section, we discuss how this transition has happened across two stages, and how we have moved from a first stage of getting things to work online to a second stage where "always online" more heavily influences our everyday routines, our social lives, and ways of being. We suggest that it is hard to just revise this change and go back to exactly how things were before the pandemic. Instead, we suggest that we will probably enter a third stage as we move beyond the current pandemic. It is likely that this third stage will also take advantage of things that have worked well during this past year. Across the following three sections, we elaborate on these three stages as a process.

Stage 1: Moving online (Jan–May 2020). In the beginning of 2020, we had to move many activities online. This was a phase of getting things up and running and getting things to work on a technical level. It was about establishing setups, channels, platforms, and routines; through this transition we started to form a new normal, where we could maintain social connectivity while practicing physical distancing. Even activities that had been slow to move online before, such as doctor's appointments and online education, took gigantic leaps to adjust to the digital format.

Stage 2: Staying online (May–Dec 2020). Staying online, and doing so for such a substantial period of time, also led to changes in the everyday lives of millions of people. Beyond any technical concerns, this stage was about the establishment of new routines and ways of being together online. Of course, this stage also included further technical adjustments and improvements, as well as physical improvements to deal with long hours of screen time (e.g., arranging sustainable work or homeschooling setups). In addition, online formats to maintain social connections were developed, including online coffee breaks, virtual conferences, and zoom parties. During this period, staying online became the new normal.

Stage 3: Beyond the new normal, beyond the stable state (2021–). We are writing at the beginning of 2021, and the pandemic is still spreading rapidly across the globe. Many people are hoping to get vaccinated, but a global solution remains months away. While there was a lot of talk about "going back to normal" in the beginning of the pandemic, less is said about this now. After a long time of this new normal, it is more likely that we need to think about how to move beyond this stage instead of going back. As formulated by Donald Schön, "there is no stable state." In other words, there is no normal state to return to after the pandemic. Instead, our everyday is constantly changing, and accordingly the normal is not a fixed state, but rather an ever-changing process. If we think about our daily lives along these lines—and consider how the pandemic redefined the screen-time debate from a focus on how to limit and contain it to today's "life on the screen"—then it is likely that we need to strive for alternative futures instead of looking back. In moving forward, we need to think about what role screens should have in our lives, and how we can meet, work, educate, and socialize in new ways, after Covid-19. While the pandemic forced many to move online, we can also try to imagine alternative futures where online, and the use of digital platforms, services, tools, and devices is not an exception but rather an integrated opportunity for future hybrid forms of professional, educational, and social activities.

back to top  References

1. Hui. Mobillådan är årets julklapp. (Eng: The mobile container is the Christmas gift of the year). Nov. 2019; https://hui.se/mobilladan-ar-arets-julklapp-2019/

2. Nutley, S. Distraherad: Hjärnan, skärmen och krafterna bakom. (Eng: Distracted: The Brain, the Screen and the Powers Behind). Natur & Kultur, 2019.

3. Helle, S. Smartare än din telefon: hur du använder mobilen för att må bättre, bli effektivare och stärka dina relationer. (Eng: Smarter Than Your Phone: How to Use the Mobile to Feel Better, Be More Efficient and Strengthen Your Relationships). Natur & Kultur, 2019.

4. Hansen, A. Skärmhjärnan: Hur en hjärna i osynk med sin tid kan göra oss stressade, deprimerade och ångestfyllda. (Eng: The Screen Brain: How a Brain Out of Sync with Its Time Can Make Us Stressed, Depressed and Filled with Anxiety). Bonnier Fakta, 2019.

5. Churchill, E. Designing for digital well-being, ACM Interactions 27, 1 (Jan.–Feb. 2020), 26.

6. Tiidenberg, K., Markham, A., Pereira, G., Rehder, M., Dremljuga, R., Sommer, J.K., and Dougherty, M. "I'm an addict" and other sensemaking devices: A discourse analysis of self-reflections on lived experience of social media. Proc. of the 8th International Conference on Social Media & Society. ACM, New York, 2017, 1–10.

back to top  Authors

Alexandra Weilenmann is a full professor in interaction design at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is interested in how digital technologies and social media are used in our everyday lives. In connection to the pandemic, her research team designed and released the Work From Home movement app (WFH), to examine how Covid-19 has changed our everyday physical activities. alexandra.weilenmann@gu.se

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor in informatics at Umea University, Sweden. His main work is within the areas of design, interactivity, and materiality. He is driven by a curiosity of what digital technology can be, what it offers today, and how people imagine and create new forms of interactions through design and use. His most recently published book is The Materiality of Interaction: Notes on the Materials of Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). mikael.wiberg@umu.se

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