(Re-)structuring Time Through Data Representations

Representations of data are always retrospective. Even if occurring in supposed ‘real time,’ real time occurred some time in the not too distant past. Yet digital platforms have a curious way of re-structuring time. When online, networked or platformed time becomes more important than the way time is represented and experienced on a typical clock. Kaun and Stiernstedt (2014) write about how users on Facebook engage with time in a variety of ways – as archive, narrative and flow. Most digital platforms (re)structure time in some way.  For example, on the massive online game Fortnite, features and landmarks in the world change every 10-weeks (known as a season). In this way, players memories and moments – even their initiation into the game – are tied to a particular 10-week window, which is unmoored from actual years and months. In the case of children’s apps and devices, representations of time are prioritized, (re)mediating relationships and intensifying the opportunities for surveillance of both self and others. 


In this blog post, I want to focus on one type of data materialization – representations – and how these mediate our experiences. This extends on my previous blog post which was based on reflections from a scoping review into data in the home. Part of this involved reviewing the literature on digital monitoring. While digital monitoring tends to be part of the discourse on parental mediation and screen time, the implications of the data involved in these processes are an important, but rarely considered aspect of this.

The fascination with time is nowhere more evident than in discourses of digital parenting. Popular media panics around ‘screen time’ and ‘screen addiction’ have caused significant worry about what children are doing online and for how long. Through metadata children’s online activities can be captured and monitored. In this way, data becomes ‘deployed’ in the ‘solution’ to what are ostensibly a range of legal and social issues (i.e. regulation, privacy, civility etc). The great irony, of course, is that it is the generation of personal data and the ability for children to be tracked and profiled by technology companies and other third parties that is the cause for some of these problems in the first place. Nevertheless, media panics are powerful, so it is perhaps not surprising that there are millions of downloads of parental control apps. Pew Research in the US reports approximated 26-39% of families use parental control apps (Anderson, 2016). 

‘Parental control’ or ‘other-tracking’ apps are apps that enable others, namely parents, to monitor, filter and restrict children’s online interactions and engagements. Typically, these apps are marketed as giving parents ‘peace of mind’, blocking dangerous and explicit content online, as well as helping parents manage the supposed ‘screen addiction’ of their children. However, a large part of their function is monitoring how long a child has been online and on what platform they have been on. A troubling feature of these apps is that while supposedly offering to ‘screen time’ and ‘screen addiction’, they are also designed to share personally identifiable information of child and parent to technology companies and other third parties.

While these are troubling findings, it is interesting to consider that data materialized through parental control apps also reveal a range of latent digital practices. It could be argued that parents have always surveilled their children’s activities, however, data materialisations certainly intensify this. This has emerged as a ‘pressure point’ for families to negotiate as the relationship between parent and child becomes mediated by data. Representations of ‘digital’ time are now so commonplace on children’s devices and apps that it has become a part of online game play. For example, on the Nintendo Switch a player’s profile, which is visible to friends, displays how long they have played each game as well as when it was last played. In this way, a friend’s competency and skill is weighed up against the amount of time they have been playing the game. Not only does this enable parents to keep track of how and what their child is doing on the console, but it also means children can monitor and compare their game play against others.

Representations of data through visualisations, graphs and dashboards are perhaps the most common way that individuals make meaning from data. What is prioritized in these representations, including how they are formatted and presented to users is determined by the technology company. In the case of parental mediation, there is a positive feedback system at play where media panics about screen time and screen addiction are reinforced by representations of data that prioritise how long a child has been playing a particular game or using a social media platform. Not only does this present a rather narrow view of what data and metadata can be used for, but it recasts the conversation between parent and child into how long as opposed to why or what was learnt. In this way, representations of data not only (re)structure time but also (re)mediate our relationships.

As an alternative, it might be more productive to consider how representations of data can create new conversations about digital interactions that foster interpersonal relationships, rather than policing children’s digital activities (Livingstone & Blum-Ross, 2020). In fact, representations could be a potent way to disrupt the three Ss of data – surveillance, security and selling – and uncover new ways for thinking about time and our relationships with others.

References:

Anderson, M. (2016). Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring. Retrieved from Washington DC: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/01/07/parents-teens-and-digital-monitoring/ 

Kaun, A., & Stiernstedt, F. (2014). Facebook time: Technological and institutional affordances for media memories. New Media & Society, 16(7), 1154-1168. 

Livingstone, S., & Blum-Ross, A. (2020). Parenting for a Digital Future: How the Hopes and Fears About Technology Shape Children’s Lives. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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