My family are addicted to screens – and we’re all the closer for it

I’ve lost count of how many vines and gifs I’ve had to peer at on a teenager’s phone. Whatever else I shared with my parents, I don’t remember sharing this many laughs.

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So here we go, the opening scene of the first episode of the new series of House of Cards, which Ben and I have been waiting for avidly. It opens in a prison cell. Here’s a character we’ve met before, I’m sure of it: I recognise him. Who is he, though? What’s he done? Why’s he in prison? I can’t remember any of this, nor, indeed, much of the plot of the last series, but I’m sure I’ll pick it up as we go along. He’s on a top bunk talking to himself – ooh no, hang on, he’s reciting some kind of porn scenario.

The camera pans down to the bunk below, where his cellmate is furiously masturbating, and I do mean furiously, and at this point Ben and I both glance anxiously at the sitting-room door, hoping no kids are about to walk through it.

Call me squeamish if you like – and I’m not for a moment suggesting the kids are too sheltered to have seen such things – but I couldn’t help thinking, “Thank God we hardly ever watch telly as a family any more.” We should count our blessings that modern parents and teens have been spared the gritted-teeth, communal viewing of TV sex scenes, all staring resolutely ahead, hoping the ground will open up.

It was a formative and scarring experience for anyone my age, even though the scenes involved were tamer than the one described above. If I say “Bouquet of Barbed Wire”, most people in their fifties will know exactly what I mean, and I’m sure everyone has their own example. I remember one Christmas my grandad striding over to the telly with the vigour of a man 20 years younger in order to turn it off, because of snogging in the film Love Story. Not actual sex, just snogging.

“Times have changed, Lord Grantham,” said one of my kids to Ben recently, when he was complaining about something, and of course we’re not the prudes our grandparents, or even parents, were. I can talk to my kids about sex (if I have to) but I’m still glad I didn’t have to watch that opening scene from House of Cards with them next to me on the sofa.

I think of this when people complain about how the internet has made islands of us all, or bemoan how families don’t share things any longer, each individual member being wedded to a separate screen. Many of the things I share with my kids come to us via the internet, and so I can see how it brings us together just as much as it isolates us.

On the rare occasions we watch telly together the kids have their phones with them, conducting a snapchat while viewing. But then, I might be on Twitter, too, so who am I to talk? We’re the archetypal modern addicted family. It’s becoming a cliché, the image of no one talking, everyone locked into a personal screen, and we’re supposed to be cross about it, or to find it depressing. But much of the time I find our use of the internet is sociable, usually based on everyone seeking out jokes, and then sharing the jokes.

I’ve lost count of how many vines and gifs I’ve had to peer at on a teenager’s phone. Sometimes I get the joke and can honestly LOL; sometimes I don’t and they have to explain to me. But whatever else I shared with my parents, I don’t remember sharing this many laughs.

And I like the way the sharing goes both ways, the traffic between us moving in both directions. When we gather around my laptop at the end of dinner, I show them the latest Cassetteboy video on YouTube, or clips of Tom Hiddleston dancing on a chat show, and one of them lines up the current Top Ten on a phone for us all to listen to and judge. It feels like the old and the new styles of family life exist side by side. We eat together, then we laugh at stuff on the internet together.

And finally everyone retreats to a private space, to reconnect with that ever-present wider social group, or listen to music that would drive the others mad, or to watch whatever suits them. And it all seems fine to me. One of my daughters has just told me she’s watching House of Cards. That made me laugh. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue