This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

This week saw The New York Times publish a very predictable piece on screentime levels in the pandemic, featuring some ‘experts’ and middle class parents acting as if their poor children were in grave, GRAVE danger.

🗞 Source Image via @boop

“I am not losing my son to this” said the law enforcement worker, without a hint of irony. Meanwhile less fortunate children are experiencing a pandemic related reduction in access to education due to LACK of screens.

We’ve seen this same narrative from The New York Times repeat on cue over more than a century, each new medium treated as a alien invader with no comparable past equivalents.

1956 (65 years ago)

Around the time the parents in above article were kids, the parents of their generation were fretting about screentime too: television. In a piece very familiar way it revolved around family dynamics as one anonymous family gave up television for a week.

Some choice quotes:

The girl unhappily opened a book that was on her required reading list

It was not the easiest Sunday afternoon. I guess many of us think we are intelligent enough to be independent of TV without quite realizing how much we rely on it.

The irony is books were treated like TV in the very same paper 58 years prior, in 1898 (more on this further down.)

1938 (83 years ago)

In this article another ‘expert’ warns about radio consumption, saying it causes boiler factory ears” whatever that means. Quoting a Dr. lends a scientific veneer to what is pure speculation, much like the addiction expert quoted in the 2021 screentime article (this needs a name, expert washing?)

1898 (123 years ago)

Reading too much, that’s what a syndicated 1898 NYtimes article explored, a British Lord said it was the “reading age” and observed “You enter a railway compartment and every one is reading, even the travelers on the dim “Underground” taxing their sight.”  (analogous to complaints of smartphone use on trains.)

Other New York Times pieces from the era focused specifically on ‘dime novels’ corroding influence on children: “He comes from a good family, but he yearned to be a bandit.” Many youth crimes were unquestionably attributed to dime novel reading.

This repeating pattern is what Amy Orban calls the ‘Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics’, after years of concerns, studies and worries we discover novel reading isn’t harmful to children. Then radio emerges and the whole cycle repeats, until we come to the same conclusion as we did with novels. Then TV emerges…