A thought experiment: what if we talked about the over-60s’ screen time the way we talk about young people’s screen time?

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
a heart-shaped leaf on a gravel path

Author’s note, December 2022:

In recent weeks this post has gone viral through several newsletters and aggregator sites, for all the wrong reasons. It has been rather bizarre to see people taking a post which is, and only ever was, about specific issues involving UK digital regulation and surveillance capitalism in the UK’s specific political and cultural context, and projecting their own issues and aspirations onto it, misrepresenting it into something it is not. I’ve seen this post discussed in the context of every form of bollocks imaginable from behavioral science to American politics to aspirational self-help psychobabble, all of which didn’t so much miss the point but bypass it entirely.

Anyone who has interpreted this post as being about anything other than the explicit topic it was written about, which is to say, specific issues involving UK digital regulation and surveillance capitalism in the UK’s specific political and cultural context, got that wrong.

Laughably wrong.

And anyone who has chosen to deliberately misinterpret this post for their own interests, including self-promotion of their own “thought leadership”, has spoken only for their own motivations in doing so rather than my motivations in writing it.

If there is a lesson from that, it may be about seeing what you want to see, hearing what you want to hear, or reading what you want to read, all of which are the consequences of centering yourself in other people’s experiences, rather than upholding them in the context which they were lived through and documented.

I have no interest in teaching it.

Yesterday’s news cycle gave me a chance to tease out an idea that’s been in my head for quite a while.

The news in question was the revelation that

Young people now watch almost seven times less broadcast television than people aged over 65, according to a report from regulator Ofcom. It said 16 to 24-year-olds spend just 53 minutes watching TV each day, a two-thirds decrease in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, those aged 65 and over spend just under six hours on average watching TV daily.
-Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-62506041

I teased out that thought in a thread, which follows below. But first:

I’ve long been troubled by the hypocrisy of the UK’s obsession – moral panic, really – about young people, screen time on mobiles and devices, and the content they consume there; a hypocrisy born of the fact that as anyone knows, that statistic showing six hours of average TV viewing by the older generations is a generous underestimate, and one which does not even address the content they are taking in.

I’ve never understood the sanctimony about the need to “protect” young people from excessive screen time, when almost literal all-day TV viewing isn’t just central to older people’s daily lives: it’s a subsidised benefit, via free TV licenses, which is held to be something of a sacrament. This country wants them to live that way. And twelve years of Tory austerity cuts mean there’s very little else for them to do, and not much they can afford to.

And yet. It’s always about young people and mobiles; that other cohort remains sainted and untouchable.

They shouldn’t be.

This is, in fact, something I feel very strongly about, personally. I’ll tell you why; scroll down to the line if you just want to get to the policy thought experiment.

I watch very little TV. In fact, there are weeks when I might turn it on once or twice to watch live news. That’s partially because TV is just not my thing; it’s partially because I have tons of other ways I’d rather spend my time; and it’s partially what I’ve come to call my postmarital therapy, and the taking back control of my own life.

I wasted what should have been the best years of my life being a part of a family whose life, like so many British families, revolved around the television. The goddamn thing had to be on every waking minute, no exceptions, tuned into the most banal programming possible. This was not a family that got deep into box sets which pushed the boundaries of the craft of film and television. This was a family that stared at 40’s derring-do war films, 50s melodramas, 60s nostalgia, 70s cop shows, 80s murder mysteries, 90s game shows, and 00’s property and antiques porn – so much fucking property and antiques porn – plus a topsoil layer of nonstop WWII documentaries.

All day. All week. All month. All year. All the time. All there was.

And all devoured with the rapturous attention of religious penitents. Anything that interrupted that rapture, such as my rude attempts at conversation, or the suggestion of hobbies which did not involve the TV, were regarded as if I’d just slapped them in the face.

Let me tell you how deep the TV obsession ran in that family: we did not eat family meals around a table. We did not have a table. That family had never owned a table. There was no table. There were plastic trays, on your lap, in front of the TV. Family dialogue around the table? Ha. They’d shout answers at the game show, between taking slurps of their food off their laps like farm animals taking a feed. No other conversation was respected.

My suggestions to eat shared family meals at a table, the way I was raised – which quickly but briefly turned into desperate pleas, immediately abandoned – were met with a mix of mockery and xenophobia by the family I’d married into. Whodye hink you are? That’s no how we do things here hen. No, this was a family which did things exactly the way they have always been done, and exactly the way they were raised, and that meant eating off trays in front of the TV, engaging in the day’s worship of motherfucking Pointless.

“Pointless” indeed.

And so it came to pass that my own child was raised by her proper British family in the proper British way too: eating plastic meals off a plastic tray in front of the television. My say in my own child’s life, that is, my wish to raise her according to my unacceptable immigrant customs of making home-cooked meals that we could eat together at a table, was not even considered. In this democracy, I was outvoted by the natives.

I acquired a disgusting, nicotine-stained 70s folding table, which I used in a brief and desperate attempt to create family table mealtimes. That lasted about a week. It ended up being used once a year, for about 45 minutes, on Christmas day, while (you guessed it) staring at the television. The table served, rather symbolically, as an ashtray the other 364 days.

I did all that while forging a new career in the world of tech policy, where there is a hell of a lot of legislation being crafted around the idea that what young people see on a screen, and how long they look at that screen, is somehow the greatest moral risk to our society; and I did that all the while engaging in the emotional trench warfare of trying to create any sort of family life with people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s that did not involve staring zombie-eyed and slack-jawed at cock-sucking Flog It.

I failed, at that, but fortunately I failed upwards.

I eat meals, in the life I live now, at a table. I eat them alone, because my marital family – as you can tell – imploded up their own backsides. But in many ways, I was always eating alone, even when I was in that family, perching a plastic tray on my lap while they stared at the glowing box like they’d dropped acid.

So it’s not at all bad, in fact.

Because a life where you have to fight for your family’s respect against A Place In The Sun isn’t a life worth living. And a family which regards you as being in the way of the telly, rather than being a reason to turn it off, isn’t a family that’s worthy of you.

But please, yes, tell me again about young people and screen time and content and moral decay, and how the mobiles they’re engaging with are somehow a greater risk to their character than their own parents and their own grandparents and the family traditions they hold so dear, such as laughing in your face when you suggest shared family mealtimes around a table, a suggestion which might lead to talking to each other, listening to each other, and being present in that shared moment with each other. Tell me all about it.

Because I have all the time in this world, alone in this world, after the only family I had left in this world self-immolated in the bright glow of the TV screen, to hear it.


Here’s a padded-out version of a thread I posted on Twitter in response to the Ofcom story about screen time consumption and the generation gap. For the slow people at the back, the thread is actually about the UK’s online harms framework, and the Online Safety Bill, but also touches on other issues such as school device monitoring, the tagging of asylum seekers, and employer surveillance. In fact, everything I’ve included here is something I have heard said in these debates, either in public or behind a closed door.

This is a thought experiment built around the idea, as I’ve titled this blog post, exploring what would happen if we talked about older people, their screen time, and their content consumption with the same hand-wringing sanctimony we use to discuss young people, their screen time, and their content consumption. If the mere existence of that experiment offends you – perhaps, like the family I wrote about above, you’ve been culturally conditioned to regard any questioning of the older generations as something between blasphemy and first-degree murder – should you really be working in this field?

Right then.

Given how the over-65s are devoting more than six hours a day to screen time, which anecdotally is a LOT of subjectively harmful content about Nazis and (property) porn, shouldn’t we be looking after them – and their wellbeing – with safety tech, in-home monitoring, and a duty of care?

Surely if they have a telly box anyway, those tech wizards can wizard up a way to know the age and identity of the viewer, what they’re watching, and at what time? And to give family members the ability to see that granddad is watching that 18-hour-long documentary about Rommel again?

And surely the companies can report this to the necessary authorities, to keep people safe?

And surely, all that big data about viewers and the content they’re consuming can be used to do good things, like map the percentage of under-40s in a community who do not own a home against the percentage of over-65s in that community who spend at least five hours a day consuming Bargain Cash Property Grand Makeover In The Sun?

And surely that data from the tellybox duty of care scheme, correlating low home ownership with high property porn consumption, would be used by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport to declare property porn a form of legal but harmful content, and restrict it as if it is actual porn; because if the lack of access to affordable homes isn’t the greatest existential threat facing our young people today, then what is?

Now surely the tech wizards can just activate the camera on the magic device tellybox thingmy to take a screen shot of the room every 60 seconds, to check on the over-65s? To see who else is in the room and if they’re alone and such? It’s for statutory safeguarding purposes.

And the wizards should also activate the microphone thingmy on the box, so that companies and families can listen in to who the over-65 is talking to, in case it’s a scammy scammer trying to do a scam. That Big Tellybox refuses to perform this duty of care is nothing short of intransigence.

Big Tellybox must also be forced to pay a levy which will fund a deradicalisation programme for vulnerable, lonely men over the age of 60 who have been radicalised by endless playlists of harmful content glorifying fascism, racism, and war, and who now pose a risk to their societies and local communities. To prevent further radicalisation, the further dissemination of any televised content on WWII would be strictly limited by the Secretary of State.

Given the hunger winter ahead, it would also make great sense to require the over-65s to “check in” by being in front of the tellybox – say, five times a day, at specific times – or else the authorities are alerted. The check-ins are facial scans, to monitor their wellbeing.

The tellybox monitoring can also be used to monitor the home help care, in order to punish them for being four hours late because they’re covering two other people’s shifts because the others are off with covid.

Now surely the data collected from the tellybox duty of care scheme should influence fiscal policy decisions, to wit, staring at a non-interactive screen for over six hours a day is clearly both a leisure activity and a lifestyle choice, which can and should create a furious policy debate on why young workers who will never know pensions or retirement are being forced to subsidise the leisure lifestyles of people who, by definition, can afford not to work?

And surely the over-75s’ protests in defence of their leisure lifestyles would be swiftly shut down with patronising advice reminding them to cut out Netflix, takeaway coffees, smartphones, and cheap holidays in order to save up that £13 per month?

And surely in addition to the smart data from the tellybox duty of care scheme bringing a short, swift, and sharp end to free TV licenses for leisure lifestyles, that data can be used to bring payments for TV licenses onto a far fairer footing, as with utilities: to wit, surely an over-60 who can afford not to work and who watches five times as much TV as a young worker should be paying five times as much for the license?

This experiment could (and should) run on, but for now I hope I’ve made the point clear:

if legislation grounded in sanctimonious moral panic about young people and their screen time cannot stand up to those very same rules being applied to old people and their screen time, then it cannot stand up at all.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.