We're all Screenagers now!

By Ellis Cashmore, Aston University, Jamie Cleland, University of South Australia and Kevin Dixon, Teesside University


Headlines like these – and they are all genuine – leap off the page, knock you to the ground and go for your jugular. There’s no room for rational discourse or reasoned debate: just shrieking warnings about the consequences of this monstrous society we’ve helped create and how we’re headed for a maelstrom of dysfunctional families, bedevilled children and inconsiderate, insensitive, selfish near-citizens with the attentiveness of reddish carp.

We started the Screen Society project on the premise that the internet is the most influential piece of technology since the steam engine. The changes we have wrought since its introduction in 1990 (technically, it went live seven years before) are hard to keep up with: everything has been in motion and every motion affects another motion in a perpetual cycle of change that has impacted every conceivable area of social life. Try thinking of some area of your professional or personal life (and the distinction between them has been blurred by the net) that hasn’t been changed by a screen.

Screen Society refers to a world dominated by, as the name suggests, those flat panels on electronic devices we stare at every day and night. We used to goggle at screens in cinemas and, later with the rise of television, at home. Now we do it everywhere, immersed in cyberspace through the portals of our smartphones, tablets or computers.

At any second of the day or night, there are multi-layered conversations going on everywhere. It’s as if what Émile Durkheim, in 1893, called solidarité mécanique has returned to share space with the more apparent solidarité organique that’s characteristic of modern industrial society.

In contrast to the more orthodox approaches to research on weblife, we started with no preconceptions about good and evil: only a suspicion that a kind of unity or agreement of feeling or action among individuals with common interests was in continuous motion. A new equivalent of Durkheim’s social solidarity.

Our method was, logically enough, online self-selecting samples, split over time into three phases, the first to assess what users identify as the main features of life on screens. Then we designed a second series of questions based on the first series of responses; the aim was to let participants speak for themselves, not just about their relationships with the technology, but about the effects of screens on a range of topics. The third and final phase of the project’s empirical part comprises one question, the rationale being that we wanted the participants to provide a holistic account of the impact of screens on society and them as individuals rather than on certain topics. Should you wish to provide your own thoughts here is the questionnaire: https://bit.ly/4Screen-Society

We’ve been trying to push the boundaries of research in our own humble ways with this and previous projects. Online surveys have the capacity to include hyperlinks to news stories or academic research within questions that draw in the participants and challenge them to think in ways that traditional surveys can't.

Screen Society has been the most ambitious to date: online methods do not typically offer a promising platform for qualitative research, though we have 2,000 (and counting) responses, providing abundant opinion, perspective, speculation and impression. No one ignores the unpleasant possibilities of the net, but no one denies the almost limitless benefits. The results are surprising and, in a sense, counterintuitive. Much of the data is discordant, with discrepant experiences, conflicting claims, inconsistent perspectives and so on. We haven’t attempted to impose harmony, though of course there is an underlying unity in their users’ commitment to screens and the wonder world they lead to.

The project will yield a book, Screen Society, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan next year and available at a 20% discount to BSA members (find full details in the Members Area). We intend it to be an antidote to the research, or what passes as research behind the headlines above. Topical issues such as trolling, gender, children, gaming and dating are all covered and the effect of screens on politics and communities are also investigated. Panic-stricken accounts of so-called “internet addiction” are revealed as psychologized doom mongering. As readers will discover, users, or what we call Screenagers, smirk at the alarmists and challenge researchers to create a lens through which we can understand the transformations that are currently underway.

Ellis Cashmore (@elliscashmore) is Visiting Professor of Sociology at Aston University, UK, Jamie Cleland (@drjamiecleland) is Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at the University of South Australia and Kevin Dixon (@KevinDixon20) is Senior Lecturer in Sport & Exercise (Sport Studies) at Teesside University.