Media, Childhood and the

By the time children reach the age of eighteen, they have spent more time with various forms of media than at school. This has been the case in industrialized countries since the 1950s, and the fact is often cited in debates on children and media. The popularity of the citation testifies to the central position the media hold both in children's lives and in adult perceptions.

The Dual Nature of Media

Modern media developed in tandem with modern childhood from the eighteenth century on. The media–from inexpensive magazines and "dime novels," to film and RADIO, and onto TELEVISION, computer media, and cell phones–are at once a set of concrete technologies and a set of symbolic, meaning-making processes. Most media are commodities that need to be bought in order to be used; they are used mainly outside of work and school; and they require a modicum of leisure time and money. As technologies, media serve to differentiate children according to access and application. But media also serve, for children, as a way to connect to other people, periods, and places, because they communicate messages that may transcend time and space. So media at once serve to divide and to unite children.

Media communicate information and entertainment by means of signs: letters, talk and sound, still and moving images, and mixtures of these. As such, media are not only a neutral window to the world, they are also and at the same time a shaping of the world through factual and fictional accounts. All signs need interpretation in order to make sense. Learning to understand letters and talk requires training, and in the case of reading the training is often of a formalized kind that historically develops with schooling. Conversely, the ability to decipher images and sound are integral parts of children's perceptual capacities from infancy, even if it takes experience with media to recognize, for example, genre characteristics. These differences play into children's abilities to make use of media, and, more importantly, they play into adults' reactions and their abilities to regulate these uses.

The historical relations between childhood and media thus develop in two interlaced dimensions, namely children's concrete and often divergent uses of a variety of media, and adult reactions to and debates about this development. These debates are public forums that form the institutional and normative framework within and against which actual content and uses are set. Hence the historical development of public debate on childhood and media is fundamental to an understanding of how the relations between actual children and single media evolve.

Media Debates

Every time a new mass medium has entered the social scene since the eighteenth century, it has become the focus of public debates on social and cultural norms. These debates serve to highlight, negotiate, and possibly revise these very norms. Participants in these debates are mostly middle class, often professionally engaged in education or cultural politics or personally involved in ethical or religious causes. Early on, the objects of debate were mostly defined in terms of class (the lower classes, the mob, the mass). But from the late nineteenth century on, they increasingly became defined in terms of age as more and more children entered what may be defined as a modern concept of childhood, in which economic production is severed from reproduction, including upbringing.

Public debate on media in general, and media and children in particular, follows strikingly similar routes throughout history. The North American media scholar Joli Jensen, in her 1990 book Redeeming Modernity: Contradictions in Media Criticism calls these routes the discourses of optimism and pessimism, respectively. It is significant that the discourse

Media–from mass-produced broadsides to computers and cell phones–has been a part of modern childhood since the eighteenth century. © .

of optimism, voiced by proponents of the new medium in question, is primarily linked to aspects of the new medium that may be associated with rationality, while the discourse of pessimism, voiced by critics of the very same medium, is linked to aspects that equally readily may be associated with emotionality. The new medium becomes a metaphor for discussing and debating wider sociocultural issues in relation to childhood and, by implication, to adult life.

Print Goes to Town

A little time to oneself, a bit of private spending money or parents' provision of the medium at hand are the preconditions for children to use media. Other preconditions may include the ability to read, since print media are the earliest and were for a long time the most popular media available to children.

The first medium to reach a juvenile audience was not aimed at the young. Ballads, broadsides, and chapbooks with emotionally charged and politically subversive tales, printed on coarse paper with crude woodcuts, had a wide readership in the eighteenth century. The French Revolution of 1789 created widespread fears of social insurrection, and religious groups and educationalists in countries such as Germany, Britain, and the United States warned against the perceived threats posed by these popular fictions. In Britain, cheap "repository tracts" were published by Evangelical groups as an antidote to the commercial fare. Decked out as sheep in wolves' clothing to look like chapbooks, they were often given away as prizes to poor children in the newly established SUNDAY SCHOOLS and other places of moral reform.

This early media development highlights three important aspects of public debate on childhood and media. First, modern media is universal in the sense that it has the ability to deliver all kinds of information and entertainment to large numbers of people very quickly. Much of children's media fare was not aimed at the young, and that is still the case. Second, the wider issues that modern media raise highlight struggles for power in the sense that the debates focus on the regulation of groups other than the ones involved in the debate. Children have often been among the first to adopt new media whose application challenges the received cultural standards, and adults, through their discussions, lay claim to and seek to redefine cultural norms and sociocultural competencies. Third, the attempts to counteract bad media content with good hinges on a view of children as more vulnerable and hence more malleable than adults. The debates set up and help sustain a division between juvenile and adult perception, which much popular media fare seems to under-mine. All three aspects tend to focus upon issues of violence or crime, which are linked to boys, and issues of sex, which are primarily linked to girls.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the combined forces of industrialization and urbanization created the basis for a wider juvenile readership. In most industrialized countries, children's books were aimed at middle-class readers of both sexes, while inexpensive serialized novels and magazines were brought out on a weekly or fortnightly basis from the 1830s on, catering to working-class and lower-middle-class boys with their crime, mystery, and adventure stories. Their heyday was before World War I. Investigations carried out in Britain in the 1830s demonstrated that three-quarters of working-class homes possessed books, and LITERACY was sought after by many children. By the late nineteenth century, the magazine market had been diversified to include very young readers and middle- and working-class girls.

Popular print media for children continued to cause controversy through the first half of the twentieth century, with the most explicit debate carried out in the early 1950s when so-called horror comics were introduced. Their most vicious critic was the American psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, the title of whose 1953 book, Seduction of the Innocent, summed up the prevalent view. Still, from the 1900s on, widespread anxiety over children's popular reading was beginning to be balanced by other, more optimistic, voices. Some teachers and librarians praised the beneficial effects of reading as a solitary experience of introspection and elevation of taste, much to be preferred to a new medium which was then beginning to vie for the attention of the young.

Public Pleasures

The major media that have reached young audiences since the beginning of the twentieth century are auditory or audiovisual in nature, from film, radio, records, and CDs on to television, videos, and the computer. Unlike popular literature, these media do not share their means of expression with media approved as art (e.g., the book) or information (e.g., the serious newspaper). Unlike popular literature, these media allow children to develop abilities to listen, watch, and move rhythmically beyond the confines of formal training.

From its inception in 1896, film was a true mass medium, and children and young people made up a sizeable part, and at times a majority, of its audience. In Britain immediately after World War I, juveniles accounted for about 30 percent of the cinema audiences, and in 1939 the renowned sociologist Seebohm Rowntree, in his comprehensive study of the city of York, stated that more than half of the cinema audiences were children and young people. In the United States, studies in the early 1930s showed that children and adolescents made up 30 percent of American cinema audiences and that early elementary school-age children saw a MOVIE twice a month, whereas adolescents saw one once a week on average.

Unlike reading, movie-going is a social event, and cinemas are public places whose attractions are visibly publicized on posters and billboards–characteristics that quickly made them objects of the debate over the regulation of juveniles' use of public space. This debate was most intensely focused on adolescents, many of whom lived in cramped conditions and found in cinemas an attractive space for romance that was not necessarily confined to the screen.

For younger children, cinema clubs and special screenings were set up between the world wars in many towns and cities, a practice that combined the monitoring of viewing through special programs with commercial promotion through product tie-ins. For example, in the United States the DISNEY company in 1931 started hugely popular Mickey Mouse cinema clubs, where young members not only enjoyed a weekly Mickey Mouse cartoon and feature film, but also joined in reciting the club creed and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," as well as participating in contests whose prizes were Disney toys. This fusion of public and commercial regulation was widely accepted and must be understood in the context of the prevalent views on media at the time.

Film and Media Effects Theory

After World War I, many Germans entertained the opinion that they had lost the war not on the battle field but in the press, and both in Europe and North America propaganda became a focus of intense professional interest between the wars. This interest was based on the widely held assumption that the media had direct and measurable effects on people—effects that could be turned to both beneficial and harmful ends.

In the history of childhood and media, this assumption combined with the view of children as malleable creatures, which had developed in the late eighteenth century. To this combination was added the fact that film is an audiovisual medium, which makes it more prone to being judged by its resemblance to external reality than are print media. So the question of film's impact on children became focused upon the issue of imitation: Would children emulate sex or violence in real life if they were exposed to sex and violence on the screen? Moreover, realism became a norm by which other media expressions were judged. The assumption of direct media effects merged with realism as an aesthetic norm. From this, debates ensued about whether children would be better served by fact than by fiction. Answers to this question played into the ways in which public debate tends to validate rational aspects of the media, aspects that readily lend themselves to informational genres. In contrast, the emotional aspects–aspects that are associated with fictional accounts—are downgraded.

Proponents of film applied the norm of realism in arguing for its educational potential. Film was called "the workingman's [sic] university," a "theater of democracy" and "the Esperanto of the eye"—all indications that film was for everyone and required no formal training.

In both Britain and the United States, the 1920s and 1930s saw major investigations into children and film, investigations that were framed by the effects tradition which a now-burgeoning media research field helped institutionalize. In Britain, the first enquiry was set up in 1917 by the National Council of Public Morals. Its 1925 report, The Cinemain Education, did not validate the accusations leveled against film for its debauching effects. In fact, it put the blame for juvenile DELINQUENCY on social conditions.

In many European countries in the 1930s, the debates on film and childhood were increasingly inflected by nationalist, even racist, overtones as Hollywood gained superiority over European film companies. In Britain, perhaps the most extreme example of this is The Devil's Camera, written in 1932 by two journalists, R. G. Burnett and E. D. Martell, who accused mainly Jewish financiers in Hollywood of undermining British strength and stamina in the young. In Germany, the dual development of rapid modernization and inflation after World War I impoverished the academic and administrative middle classes as well as many self-employed people. As the cultural elite lost its social stronghold, its opposition to new cultural artifacts intensified. A well-known film critic, Herbert Jhering, writing in 1926 equated American film with a mental militarism that seduced the masses–a curious historical irony given the contemporary strengthening of the Nazi movement.

Europe had a strong tradition, begun in the nineteenth century, of public regulation and reform for the public good, which made many adults turn to educational films as an antidote to the perceived ill-effects of the commercial output, and public funding of special films for children continues to be a mainstay of cultural policy in several European countries. Not so in the United States, where pressure groups furthered self-regulation measures by the industry.

In 1928, the Reverend William H. Short and his Motion Picture Research Council commissioned a series of studies to be financed by the philanthropic Payne Study and Experiment Fund. Their resulting eight volumes, published in 1933 and 1934, are among the most detailed investigations of movie-going and the main findings corroborate the findings of their British colleagues. In addition, the studies show that films were important to the young not so much because children directly emulated their content but because films created interpretive frameworks for understanding their personal problems and aspirations.

Religious groups especially continued to campaign against the medium of the popular film, and in 1934 the Hays Code, which was written by an influential Republican, William Harrison Hays, was made mandatory. It was the film industry's self-imposed code of conduct, monitored by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and was aimed at scenes of perceived indecency and violence. The Hays Code thus gave credence to the propaganda underlying the effects theory, not the more nuanced results of empirical research.

The division between European public regulation and industrial regulation in the United States continued when television gained ground in the 1950s.

Media Domestication

Unlike film, television in Europe and the United States developed in the privacy of the home. And unlike reading, watching it was a family affair well into the 1970s in the United States and the 1980s in Europe, when multiple sets became the norm. In other parts of the world, television has remained a collective and often public affair, demonstrating that contexts of use depend on wider social traditions and options–including access to electricity.

With the advent of television, an audiovisual medium became an everyday experience in the lives of the very young to an unprecedented degree. The day's flow of programs were divided into slots, graded according to gender and generation, and serving to regulate children's daily routines as no medium had done before. Most TV networks developed children's sections that produced both informational and entertaining programming. Cartoons became an absolute and longstanding favorite with children until they reached ADOLESCENCE.

In the United States, television, like film, developed as a commercial enterprise within broadcasting networks, with public broadcasting playing a negligible role in program development and viewing. In Europe, television, like radio, evolved as a public-service medium–an institution that catered to the public good, independent of both the state and the commercial media industry. John Reith, the legendary first director of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), professed that the aim of public service should be to "inform, educate and entertain" all groups of society, including children, with programming that had a decisive focus on the first two aspects well into the 1970s. Children's sections, along with the news and drama sections, remained the main pillars in public-service broadcasting until the late 1980s, when the combined forces of statutory deregulation, computer media, and intensified global media commodification served to inaugurate new alliances between public and private media sectors.

From the early days of television, institutional differences meant that most European children were addressed as future citizens, whereas American children were addressed as future or even present consumers. These differences played into public debate and research priorities. The notion of citizenship is closely bound up with nineteenth-century ideals of public communication and reform based on print media, and so television's ability to reach children even before they went to school or were able to read had many European educators, politicians, and parents question the relations between books and television: was viewing ousting reading as a pastime?

This displacement thesis, where one form of leisure eclipses another, became a central element in media investigations, and its importance was reinforced by the subsequent introduction of a spate of new media technologies through the 1980s (videos, Walkmans, satellite television) and 1990s (computers, Gameboys, Discmans, cell phones), making comparison with, and possibly displacing, older media technologies an immediate cause of debate. In 1958, the British psychologist Hilde Himmelweit and her colleagues published Television and the Child, whose main results demonstrated that television, being a novelty, to some extent displaced reading and "doing nothing," but that the displacement was most pronounced for activities serving similar functions. With its social-psychological approach, the study pioneered a new trend in media studies, which asked what individual children did with media rather than what media did to children.

This uses-and-gratifications approach resonated with media scholars in North America, where it remains the main research tradition. In tune with postwar views on children as consumers, it focused on individual needs and active choice, thereby stressing children's independence as long as this independence was exerted within the commercial domain. A study published in 1961 by Wilbur Schramm and his colleagues, Television in the Lives of Our Children, largely corroborated Himmelweit's findings and framed future discussions on children and television in terms of parental guidance and safe scheduling. In the 1980s, these discussions gained new impetus from, but were not radically challenged by, the introduction of video recorders, which facilitated children's viewing of a wider range of films.

Transgressing Boundaries

Both Himmelweit and Schramm, as well as later studies, showed that most of children's television viewing did not consist of children's programs. Still the most prevalent medium in children's lives, television acts as a leveler of age, gender, and ethnic boundaries. With television, the relationship of childhood and media has come full circle: the medium reaches nearly everyone, just as the earliest print media did. The main themes in the debate about that relationship has also come full circle in that media culture now reaches all children and does so both in public and private spaces: are children to be protected from or educated by the media? Are media a cause of cultural optimism or pessimism?

The media situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century in many ways radicalizes earlier concerns and contradictions. The introduction of satellite television and computer media in the 1980s and especially the exponential growth of the Internet in the 1990s brought a new urgency to old questions about children's autonomy as independent beings or their protection as vulnerable minors in relation to their exposure to media violence and sex. The different routes pursued by European and North American broadcasters in addressing children were undermined by a commercial computer and Internet industry of potentially global reach, and it threw into relief the dilemmas involved in addressing children as future citizens, as beings in need of protection, or as present consumers in charge of the joy stick, the remote control, and the parental purse.

The development toward global and commodified media production equally threw into relief the historical changes in the debates on childhood and media. In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, the debates addressed specific media output, focusing on its ill effects, often in shrill voices that bordered on panic, making the discourse of pessimism the most clearly heard. Since then, the debates have become more diffuse and short-lived, mixing the discourse of pessimism with a discourse of optimism, which has focused on media as resources and children as possessing rights.

This has made the dilemmas no less complex: should media be defined as commodities or a public good? What are CHILDREN 'S RIGHTS in regard to media? Commercial media producers lay claim to a definition of children as mediawise, rational consumers who should be able to buy whatever media output producers make available. Public-service interests stress the 1989 UN CONVENTION OF THE RIGHTS OFTHE CHILD, which stipulates the child's rights to privacy (article 16), freedom of expression, and access to a diversity of media (articles 13 and 17), which it defines as part of the public domain.

The early debates were played out against, and played into, a sociocultural context in which the boundaries of gender and generation were as well defined as the hierarchies of culture and taste, making the stakes easy to define, oppose, and defend. Later debates operate within, and lay claim to, sociocultural contexts where it is no longer feasible to uphold such hierarchies–not least because of media culture itself, which has become more complex and differentiated. From the late 1990s on, media producers began incorporating prospective opposition into their marketing strategies. This is seen, for example, in the promotion of controversial music groups whose "explicit lyrics" are highlighted and in advertisements for television concepts such as the reality show Big Brother that focus on the special attractions allegedly found in a blurring of public and private boundaries.

The development of mobile media, through which children may reach and be reached by images, sound, and print at nearly all times and places, operates within a socio-cultural context where discourses of pessimism and optimism, protection and rights, citizenship and consumerism, are the important stakes. No longer confined to the intimate sphere of the home or the regulations of broadcasting and film censorship, the mobile media generation of children faces a future in which they have to tackle old, adult concerns under radically new circumstances.

See also: ; ; Consumer Culture; Theories of Childhood.


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