International Perspectives: “Too much, too slow, too fast” – Parents’ temporal experiences of digital technologies and family life

Written by Sarah Healy, Rebekah Willett, and Xinyu (Andy) Zhao

Introduction

Miriam and her partner were working as full-time university lecturers in Melbourne during the pandemic. Their three children ‘attended’ primary school from home during the lockdowns which lasted a total of 256 days. In the first lockdown this was manageable because there was only one synchronous school session per child per day. By the second lockdown this had increased to three synchronous sessions, or ‘touch points’. Miriam explained the impact of this on the household: “From a family perspective with three kids, and if they each have three touch points [with their teachers and classmates] in the day, that’s nine, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom of trying to balance technology, who needs what device, when, who needs what room to do this and, and so my husband and I would sometimes start our workday at 3:30pm”. School time and its schedules – dominated by the clock – increasingly took precedence over work time during the school day. When the workday finally began, Miriam said that the children did “whatever”.

These temporal tensions were brought about by spatial disruptions experienced by individuals and families during the pandemic. Governmental and institutional responses were inherently spatial; lockdown restrictions, stay-at-home orders, work from home arrangements and more. However, the significant temporal consequences of these spatial policies have been less acknowledged. As shown in the case of Miriam’s daily routines above, the altered spatial dimensions of everyday life changed families’ daily rhythms, sense of time, and structuring of activities.

In this blogpost, we draw from an international comparative study concerned with children, media, and parenting during the pandemic to discuss how parents’ varied experiences of time reshaped their perceptions of children’s use of screen and digital media. Drawing on qualitative data from the United States, China and Australia, we illustrate a mismatch between time as objective and measurable (sometimes referred to as ‘clock time’) and time as a subjective experience (sometimes referred to as ‘lived time’). We explore how this mismatch motivated parents to reconsider long-held assumptions about children’s everyday screen time; noting that parents’ temporal experiences were heavily influenced by the various ‘pandemic contexts’ produced within national, international and juridical boundaries.

AI generated image by Deep Dream Generator (https://deepdreamgenerator.com/) using writing for a related project as a prompt

Pandemic time

Clock and calendar time is perhaps the most common understanding of time. For children and parents, the familiar markers of time are the days, weeks, and months. However, when we talk about time in relation to the pandemic, it’s less about the ticking of clocks and the turning of calendars and more about how we perceive time in our own lives. Somedays felt monotonous and indistinguishable, leading to a sense of timelessness or too much time. There was also a sense of missed time and opportunity – a time in life that people wouldn’t get back. At the same time, the relentless ‘boom, boom, boom’ that characterised the weekdays in households like Miriam’s added a hectic note. These contradictory experiences of time infuse our shared narratives of this historical moment, remarkable because of how they made multiple dimensions of time more pronounced.

Too much, too slow, too fast 

Our study showed that parents’ temporal experiences of the pandemic were multifaceted, and these experiences informed how they think about the roles of media in the home. For example, the sense of ‘too much time’ that came with pandemic restrictions and school closures left with lots of ‘time on their hands’. To fill the temporal gaps which emerged, parents felt they had no choice but to turn to screens to occupy children’s free time and found themselves reconsidering their pre-pandemic family rules around children’s screen use as a result.

Children began to engage with screen media for a broader set of purposes and parents’ formed more nuanced understandings of the purposes of media technologies and greater distinctions in relation to media content. As Andrea, a US mother with four children aged 5 to 11 commented: “Disney Plus is a consumption, versus keeping in contact with others”. Another US parent contrasted interactive Zoom sessions with media such as TV that involved “just watching”.

Similarly, Tangli, a Chinese mother of a 7-year-old came to see media technologies in a balanced way after observing what her child really did with media during the pandemic: “Now I think screen devices are good and bad. They helped my son expand his knowledge base. He could use all those apps to find out about things he did not understand. That’s the advantage; but when he plays games [on these devices] from time to time, that’s not so good.”

Further, parents indicated that pandemic time enabled children to immerse themselves in hobbies and to pursue new interests, often aided by media technologies. This ‘slow’ time, then, gave parents new insight on the benefits of media technologies, greater appreciation for their children’s abilities for navigating and regulating their media use.

While a sense of sluggish time was pervasive, it was accompanied by parents’ feelings of not having enough time, or time passing too quickly. Juggling work and care responsibilities became an impossible task for many parents. To some extent, parents had to reconceptualise screen media in order to manage their own time as well as their children’s in a more feasible manner. And yet, while parents felt that there had been more and too much time for the children, they constantly felt that they were running out of time.

This was particularly the case for American and Australian parents in our study, perhaps due to the extended periods of lockdown imposed in the areas where participants lived. The demands of the never-ending pandemic and accompanying lockdown fatigue outweighed their concerns for children’s futures. For parents overwhelmed by the fast passing of time, making new distinctions between media use and content became a strategy to cope with multitasking in the home.

AI generated image by Deep Dream Generator (https://deepdreamgenerator.com/) made by modifying the first picture with the prompt ‘melting time’ 

Conclusion

Reflecting on parents’ everyday practicalities and varying temporal experiences, our intention is to highlight changes in parents’ understandings of children’s engagements with screen media. We hope this might mitigate parental guilt and anxiety experienced during the pandemic as family rules shifted and children increased their ‘screen time’.  In a so-called post-pandemic era, we want parents to continue re-assessing taken-for-granted rules related to screen time for children. In this fast moving and increasingly compressed timescape, we can expect our knowledge to continue to shift in response to everchanging practicalities of digital life with children, requiring parents to respond accordingly.

About the study

This post summarizes a portion of data from our project, ‘Children, Media, and Parenting in the COVID-19 Pandemic, which includes interviews collected in Australia, China, and the US with parents and caregivers of children ages 4 to 12. The data summarized here is part of a larger project involving four additional countries (Canada, Colombia, South Korea, and the UK). 

Caption for the header image: Figure 1. AI generated image by Deep Dream Generator (https://deepdreamgenerator.com/) using writing for a related project as a prompt

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