Good Screen, Bad Screens: An Interview with Claire Fontaine

“We invest screens with a peculiar power, seeing them as symbolic scapegoats and saviors.”

What does the prevalence of screens mean for parents and children as they try to negotiate the extent, content and settings for the use of mobile devices? In a recent essay, Claire Fontaine, a researcher of education, technology, and inequality at Data & Society, discussed the apparent discrepancy between statements highlighting the educational potential of mobile learning and the recommendations to strictly limit screen time for children – and adults – at home.

danah boyd founded the New York City based research institute Data & Society in 2014 to focus on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development. Committed to identifying thorny issues at the intersection of technology and society, the Institute is perfectly positioned to question some of the assumptions that guide educators and parents in their approaches to screen time. In our interview for Innovate Learning, Claire gives background information and details research findings.

Your starting point for discussing the different lenses we use to look at screen time at school and at home is the amount of time adults spend with digital devices. How much screen time do you personally spend each day at home and at work? Is it in your view just right, or too much?

I start by discussing adult usage of screen media because I believe that the debate about kids’ screen time, how much and what kinds are helpful or beneficial, and beyond what point it becomes damaging, reflects a broader cultural anxiety about the attention economy. As a society, we are growing increasingly aware of the perils of the bargain we have struck, perhaps inadvertently, in which we trade access to our intimate spaces, data about our movements through time and space, and details about the minutiae of our daily lives for “free” services and information. We see ourselves as consumers but in fact we are the product. While we are right to feel ambivalent about the trade we’ve made it is also important that we recognize the screen time debate for what it is: a symptom of this ambivalence, refracted onto an idealized vision of innocent childhood.

The study I referred to in my essay was a 2016 Common Sense Media survey of parents of teens and tweens. Although the survey’s methodology could be critiqued for double counting screen time, such that an hour watching streaming video while shopping is counted as two hours, its findings are still interesting: that parents spend on average 9 hours and 22 minutes using screen media per day, with less than two of those hours devoted to work.

Despite a commitment to pursuing a balanced life, my own metrics are likely higher, in large part because my work is almost entirely screen-mediated. I say likely, because I have an allergy to the quantified self movement, and I’m not much drawn to the project of measuring, quantifying, and thereby controlling screen time, sleep patterns, caloric intake, exercise regimes, and the like. In general I regard such efforts as misguided attempts to achieve a limited sense of power and agency in anxious, insecure times. I prefer to use the state of my body and mind as indicators of when enough is enough; bleary eyes, distracted thinking, and bodily aches and pains are my clear signals to stop.

Your essay focuses on the contradictory views of screen time as impeding learning and development at home and accelerating learning and development at school. Why do you think this dichotomy exists?

The educational-industrial complex is powerful, a $13 billion per year industry. There is an astonishing amount of money being made by venture capitalists, charter school networks, well-meaning philanthropists with certain political agendas, and start-ups. These entities have correctly identified the existence of an emerging market that has yet to be fully tapped: students’ attention. Many of these entities also have valiant aims: of improving educational outcomes, ensuring the efficient delivery of educational resources, and enhancing accountability. But let us not forget that they are incentivized by a very real profit motive. If the influence of ed tech is one force contributing to the positive valence of school-based screen time, another, equally powerful force is the discursive devaluing of the domestic realm.

My thinking is the area has been shaped by Valerie Walkerdine’s deconstruction of mainstream developmental psychology and pediatrics. Walkerdine highlights how these bodies of knowledge undermine the intrinsic knowing of parents, disciplining them into certain modes of engagement with children. “Good mothering,” which can be and is practiced by parents of all genders, is characterized by pedagogically patterned discourse: posing questions, seizing on teachable moments, and scaffolding instruction. These techniques require surplus time and energy, which is unequally distributed across the population and clustered in affluent families, often practiced by a stay at home parent or domestic employee. Screen time recommendations come from a similar place. They codify, for the supposed benefit of the poor and working classes, middle and upper middle class approaches to media use management, approaches that presume a largely defunct dual-parent single-earner household model. Many families simply do not have the luxury of not using the screen as babysitter.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, recently issued updated screen time recommendations. Among other guidelines, the AAP recommends to limit screen time to one hour per day for children ages two to five years. In your essay you criticize the lack of evidence behind this recommendation. Can you elaborate on this?

This issue has been well covered by other experts in the field, most notably Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross who have done deep dives into the research on which the recommendations are based. There are several basic problems with the existing research: 1) because of ethical constraints, it focuses on correlation rather than causation, so while we know that more screen time is associated with less sleep and higher body mass index, but we don’t know that it causes it; 2) a lack of research on long term effects; 3) all screen time is not created equal. The reduction from a recommended two-hour maximum to a one-hour maximum for children ages two to five years seems to be rooted more in a general conservatism than in new research consensus. Readers interested in more detail might refer to Sonia Livingstone’s blog post on the topic. For additional perspectives, see Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone on balancing benefits and risks, and Mimi Ito on making space for joy, flow and wonder.

Historically, have other media such as books, radio or audio programs raised the same concerns as television and mobile apps?

Books have largely been considered a net good. The more children read, the better. The read-a-thon model, in which students raise money for their schools by soliciting donations from family and friends for each book read within a designated time frame is an example of the valuing of books as cultural artifact and instructional tool. Textbooks have also been considered a net good and useful compendium of knowledge for introductory students, although not wholly uncontroversial, as their production and distribution is shaped by the shifting winds of politics and economics. This is cause for concern among some educators, scholars, parents, and activists, since the same textbook publishers who decide what constitutes official, legitimate knowledge are also in the business of standardized test development.

These same large educational publishing houses, including Pearson, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw Hill are, as Monica Bulger has noted, also early investors in the growing industry of personalized learning systems. Textbooks are the precursor to personalized learning systems, designed for deployment through the “good screen” of the computer, and in contrast to television, the original “bad screen.” Having spent time reflecting on my own relationship to the good screen / bad screen dichotomy, I’ve identified roots in an residual evaluative teacher identity and attachment to what media scholar Ellen Seiter calls a “strong” theory of media effects, as well as my own nostalgic ideal of a “good” childhood – a less mediated and commercialized once, filled with grass and bikes, suntanned faces, and dips in the kiddy pool.

We invest screens with a peculiar power, seeing them as symbolic scapegoats and saviors. The wrong kinds, or the wrong uses, are linked in adult imaginations, popular perception, and pediatric knowledge to the potential degrading of young people’s brains, bodies, and educational trajectories. Meanwhile the right kinds and the right uses are associated with upward mobility, white-collar knowledge work, enhanced human capital, and the power to control information. Ultimately, I tend to suspect that this dichotomy, if we subscribe to it, tells us less about the world outside and more about the world within, and our relationship to our remembered past, and our fears and aspirations about our kids’ futures.

Prominent technology researchers and psychologists such as Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation) and Barbara Fredrickson (Love 2.0) have published titles on the detrimental impact of screen time on meaningful social encounters, personal connectedness, kindness, bonding, love and happiness. Should educational technology research pay more attention to these concerns when promoting the use of mobile devices for learning?  

Meaningful social encounters, personal connectedness, kindness, bonding, love, and happiness are central to the human wellbeing. Screen time, encompassing so many different platforms, rhythms, and practices, can promote meaningful social encounters as readily as it can detract from them. Educational technology research, insofar as it is interested in promoting deep learning, should absolutely attend to these concerns in recognition of the fact that learning is always socially situated.

I have found in own research that in addition to the social and relational motivations for young people’s media practices, and in addition to the motivations of general information-seeking and political engagement, personal reflective motivations are equally salient. Youth consume and produce media as part of projects of self-making and reflection on their own development. This dimension of their practice is almost invisible in mainstream formulations of digital literacy and digital citizenship.

The desire to document one’s change and growth over time, to document the self and then reflect on the documented self, is deeply felt among young people, and especially among those in the phase of life that developmental psychologists, pediatric experts, and lay commentators like to call adolescence. In this transitional time (and there are other transitional times where the same insight follows), young people are invested in observing themselves as developing individuals, in claiming their value and worth as human beings, and in negotiating their relationship to a broader public sphere in ways that are both supportive and affirming.

Personally as well as professionally your essay resonated with me in part because it articulated some of the conflicting views that I myself hold towards screen time and the use of mobile devices. Can you help everyone out and simply make the call: Good screens or bad screens?

Unfortunately I cannot. What I can say is that as a researcher and a parent, I’m well attuned to the gap between research and practice. Our politics and our personal choices are not always in strict alignment, and in my book, that’s okay. When faced with a question to which I don’t know the answer, I consult the research base, heading straight for the primary sources. I read them front to back, internalizing the abstracts while scrutinizing the methodology. I find much of use in the published research, but I’m also keenly aware of the way politics, ideology, funding streams, and personal connections impact the kind of research that gets done, and what gets published. And so I’m keenly aware of the limits of research.

I’m also skeptical of so-called parenting experts. This isn’t because I don’t believe in best practices, or because I don’t think these things are knowable — they are. But there are no prescriptions. I enjoy the work of Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, because it isn’t prescriptive, but instead reinforces the idea of learning, development, parenting, growing up, growing old, caring for others, and being cared for as social, relationship-oriented processes.  We don’t need peer-reviewed double-blind IRB approved “scientific” studies for this. We need to reclaim a public science that incorporates the embodied knowledge and experience of our mentors, our elders, the wise people among us, especially those too wise to offer their insights to just anyone. In order to access this knowledge we have to sit still, step back, watch and listen. We have to remember that kids know things that too many adults have forgotten. We can have a real authentic encounter with our kids if we can find the well of presence and humanity and curiosity within ourselves to do so.

Thank you for the interview!


Claire Fontaine is an educational researcher committed to social justice with a background in collaborative youth-centered methodologies. Her work interrogates the relationship between educational data and inequality, highlighting the ways that data masks processes of social reproduction, and proposing interventions that flip the script of accountability.

Prior to her role at Data & Society, Claire worked in the areas of teacher education, youth development, and college access. She began her career teaching English at an alternative transfer school for overage under-credited students in Brooklyn. She holds a BA in the College of Letters from Wesleyan University (2002) and a PhD in Urban Education from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2015) and is a founding member of the Collaborative Seeing Studio.

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