Distraction Free Reading

Neoliberal Morality: Shame and Self-Improvement as Control over Young People’s Digital Productivity

“Put your phone away!” “Why are you always on your phone?” “Being on your phone this much isn’t healthy!”

These are words we all have probably heard before or said (in a well-meaning way) to friends, family members, or partners. While people of all ages spend increasing amounts of time with digital media, notably due to the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are especially scrutinized for doing so.

The presumed dangers to young people’s mental health, social skills, and intellectual development are repeatedly postulated by educators, parents, caregivers, the media, and wider social discourses. Youth are blamed for being too susceptible to the lure of digital media and lacking self-control. Simultaneously, they are asked to demonstrate digital skills on which their education, future job prospects, and social interactions depend.

A young person with short hair that almost covers their eyes sits in a dark room looking at their phone, while holding their head

Photo by Adrian Swancar/Unsplash

“Productivity” in the Digital Era

Young people find themselves in a bind where they are expected to do “productive” digital activities like learning, gathering information, or labor. Whereas speaking with friends, gaming, watching videos, or checking social media feeds are dismissed as harmful and addictive “time wasters.” In this sense, digital media are rendered as neutral technologies whose effects depend on how an individual uses them as opposed to their underlying infrastructure or ecology. Therefore, the responsibilities for dependence are placed on young people, instead of the people who design attention-capturing features. Youth are expected to individually control their usage for positive and productive purposes — with failure of doing so being highly moralized. Consequently, feelings of shame surround young people’s digital media practices, marked by their inability to withstand unproductive temptations. I argue that neoliberal ideals of individual responsibility and productivity evoke a morality that splits everyday digital activities into “good” and “bad”. This neoliberal morality is distracting and hinders the imagination of alternative digital ecologies that address issues like data exploitation and the monopolization of the Internet.

The Shame of Wasting Time Online

During my PhD research, while I have been working with young people aged between 13 and 27 in London and Germany, shame about certain digital activities has been frequently expressed. Participants described feelings of shame for grabbing their phone first thing in the morning, spending too much time on Instagram, or for wanting recognition from others by posting pictures to receive likes to boost their self-esteem. When speaking to Janine who is in her mid-twenties, I asked whether she posts stories to her Instagram account. She stopped for a second and then hesitantly admitted: “Well, yes…sometimes a bit too much, because it is..it is…well, yes it is actually quite bad. But yes. Mhm.” Particularly, the amount of time that was “wasted” with such activities was mentioned frequently. In contrast, learning, being informed, or for those already working, reading, and replying to emails were seen as “good” activities that gave digital media an overall positive connotation. Sophia, who was nineteen at the time of interviewing, even described her relationship to digital media as “a fight between creative activities and Netflix.”

Narratives of digital overload regarding young people (Prasad & Quinones 2020) are ever-present; it is no coincidence that media coverage keeps on asking if children are addicted to their phones or if their screen time is “dangerously” high. In many societies, young people’s status is one of “becoming.” As they are only on their way to “become adults,” youth are often framed as incomplete people who have not yet reached full personhood (Harlan 2016). In this respect, the “youth” are understood as being within developmental stages and are juxtaposed to the adults, who must guide these humans of becoming. Because they are framed as being emotional and lacking self-control, the oversight and disciplining of young people’s behaviors are required for their “proper” development.

Despite this portrayal of young people being overly naïve or immature about issues like privacy, I found that they were well informed. They were highly aware of the business models of technology companies like Facebook. Many spoke about the constant ads, the commercial interest in their personal data, unrealistic body images that would make them feel lesser, algorithms that filter their feeds based on business interests, and the way social media platforms are conceptualized to keep them engaged. Recurring feelings of shame did not arrive from unknowingly doing something “wrong,” but because one ought to know better than spending 30 minutes of their lives watching TikToks, for example. This “waste of time” is a widespread moral failing; shame is a negative feeling about the self. As Sara Ahmed (2014) points out, shame entails a fear of exposure to others and leads to concealment and attempts to hide. Whereas guilt requires a type of external punishment for a certain type of wrongdoing, shame is a negative feeling about the self. It marks personal and moral inadequacy that is spun as a sign of a weak mind or bad character. Spending time, time being capitalism’s central commodity, with fun online activities exposes young individuals to neoliberal morality of productivity. Without a doubt, current digital ecosystems do promote keeping users engaged and capturing their attention for as long as possible. Design features such as infinite scrolling, auto-play, recommendations on what to read, or watch or listen to next are all used to achieve this goal. This paradox of wanting to keep the consumer engaged, under a strong cultural valorization of productivity, has a shifting effect. To avoid feelings of shame, individuals take it upon themselves to optimize their behavior and plan their time online, all while they continue to perceive technologies as mainly neutral.

Self-Optimizing Your Way Out of Shame

In recent years, several scholars have pointed out how the quantification of the self and the rise of digital measurement techniques has fed into neoliberal narratives of self-improvement (e.g. Lupton 2016, Davies 2016). Similarly, most of my participants believed that digital media was neutral and that its influence mainly depended on how they used it. Making digital media work for themselves was their own responsibility, not one of its creators who seem to be untouchable and unwilling to change their actions. As a result, the young people I spoke to had developed strategies to limit unproductive time with their smartphones and social media. These strategies mainly depended on using built-in “screen time” applications that were integrated into their phones, in order to reduce the amount of time spent with a certain app or on their phones in general. The term “screen time” itself was often used as an indicator to describe their relationship to digital media. Spending 1-2 hours a day was acceptable to most as long as these hours were filled with tasks like education, work, news, or gathering information. However, any time spent above 3-4 hours, especially when used for social media, was worrying to them and might indicate that someone had a serious problem or was potentially addicted. Screen time’s measurability gives a feeling of control over the often-untamable forces of the Internet. As one of the participants commented on their uses of screen time, “it’s more about getting yourself a bit removed from it.” However, this perceived control can strengthen the assumption of failure when a person does not meet their personal goals; it also quantifies the morality of digital behavior by providing an overview of which app has been used for how long and gives reminders. Failure in this regard reinstates feelings of shame and stress.

Screen time is an interesting example of neoliberal morality that emphasizes the paradoxes of contemporary digital media ecologies. On one hand, these technologies “help” people to learn, work, and communicate while also creating constant distractions as well as a demand for the consumption of information, products, and services. Instead of substantially restructuring the ad-based digital economy and drive for data exploitation, products are offered to solve the issues of another product. Rather than removing attention-grabbing features, tech companies can claim “we’ve done something about it” and open another market for a problem more or less caused by themselves.

Shame As an Agent to Preserve the Status Quo

While digital media increasingly affect the lives of people of all ages, the societal focus on young people’s activities puts disproportionate pressure on youth. The images of a teenager sitting at the dinner table with their phone, a toddler playing with a tablet on an airplane, or young adults taking photos for their social media accounts have become signs of the damages digital technologies are doing to this generation. Although many online activities are framed as “time wasters,” activities like sending memes around are sustaining social relations, encouraging communication, and often support a sense of community. It is, therefore, through the experiences of young people, that the multifaceted frictions caused by digital technologies are coming to the forefront.

Shame produced through the strong neoliberal moralization of young people’s online activities maintains the power imbalances on which the current digital ecology is based; such shame supports the status quo (Ahmed 2014). It also stifles the imagination of alternative ways in which digital media could work. The young people I worked with primarily thought of how to improve personal habits or how to better control what others do online — like content moderation of hate speech, negative comments, and fake news. While the feelings of wasting time or being unfocused are commonly experienced stresses, their causes lie far beyond the control of individuals. Therefore, neoliberal morality surrounding young people’s digital media distracts from underlying structural power imbalances that cause them. It is not that issues often discussed around digital media are false, but the way we have been talking about them is. If these problems are to be solved, conversations need to focus on building equitable digital infrastructures, strengthening data sovereignty, and curbing the power of technocratic corporations. Shaming young people into changing their digital activities will not get us there.


Acknowledgments

This work is part of the POEM (Participatory Memory Practices) project and has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764859.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2014) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Davies, William (2016) The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. London: Verso.

Harlan, Mary Ann (2016) “Constructing Youth: Reflecting on Defining Youth and Impact on Methods.” School Libraries Worldwide 22 (2), pp. 1-12.

Lupton, Deborah (2016) The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Prasad, Aarathi and Asia Quinones (2020) “Digital Overload Warnings – “The Right Amount of Shame”?” In: Masaaki Kurosu (Ed.): Human-Computer Interaction. Human Values and Quality of Life. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 117–134.

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