Background: Since 1999, a “two hours a day” restriction has been recommended for screen time for children, yet American households continue to consume far more media than such recommendations allow. At the basis of such largely ignored admonitions is a dosage model of technology in which a presumed homogeneous substance called “screen time” is the intervention and changes in some set of continuous and measurable variables (e.g., literacy, aggression, social acuity, BMI) are the outcomes. However, to treat “screen time” as a meaningful unit of analysis is to carve the world at the wrong ontological joints. If we want to make claims about what is and is not good for children and counsel parents on how to regulate, mediate, and participate in media use in the home, we need to understand the black box of screen time and unpack how technology is used in specific ways in specific material and social contexts, and the relationship of that activity to systems of meaning beyond the device or screen.
Purpose: In this article, we unpack the notion of screen time as a way to problematize the dosage model of media use and the regulatory admonitions given parents based on it.
Research Design: In this investigation, we use Stake’s instrumental case study methods to examine in detail a single child’s activity in the videogame Madden; the meaning, function and context of this play; and how it is tied to other forms of engagement and the activity of American football. “Madden” is our bounded case, but, as we will show, the meaning of playing Madden comes from its location within the broader activity of “American football.”
Data Collection and Analysis: Observations of the 7-year-old male’s gameplay and attending activities for a period of 3.5 months, with multiple informal interviews about his activity across that observational period, including a 90-minute structured interview midway through observations. Field notes and screenshots were taken on both informal and formal observations.
Findings: This case study illustrates how digital games, streamed and live video, print documents, tangible manipulatives, and physical action are caught up in a single coherent transmedia endeavor whose means and instruments are constructed first, perhaps, by media producers but then deconstructed and repurposed by users themselves. The videogame as practiced is a simulated system tied to the real world it represents, and, as such, play is deeply embedded in a complex semiotic, material, and social context.
Conclusions: Constructs such as screen time quantity distract us from other, more explanatory constructs such as productive practice, critical consumption, developmental progressions, and intertextuality.