Friday, April 17, 2009

Kids and media literacy: A young adult's more optimistic perspective on the next generation

"I've never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don't watch them; I watch how people behave around them. That's becoming more difficult to do because everything is 'around them.' " -- William Gibson, February 2006*

It can be difficult to take the topic of childrens' media use seriously—there is a venerable genre of "sky is falling" articles decrying the decline in morals of the younger generation and the inability of their parents to deal with advancing technology and an overbearing media. Yawn. But as much as we might roll our eyes, we cannot deny that the pace of technological change in media has advanced more in the last couple of decades than in most of human history. It definitely bears studying.

One topic stood out for me: young children’s Internet usage—particularly in communicating with each other, posting user content, and access to information. As a member of the first computer-native generation, and one which is now beginning to reproduce, I hope to bring a slightly more nuanced perspective than the kneejerk Ludditism from the older generations of educators and child advocates.

The last of a breed

The current generation of college students is the last generation to really remember what it was like "before the Internet." The Gen-Xers (born 1965 to 1982) were older children by the time powerful home computers became widespread, and most of them were long past their formative years before the Internet had become what it is today. We are the transitional generation—the Web came into widespread use during our childhood and teenage years—thus we are the last one to understand firsthand its transformative effects.

Today’s middle- and high-schoolers are at the forefront of this wave. They have grown up with a mouse in one hand and a text-messaging cellphone in the other, but still appreciate the significance of recent advances such as the rise of YouTube, Wikipedia, and the near-ubiquity of broadband access which enables streaming video content and the uploading and downloading of massive files.

The cycle accelerates?

Our generation is starting to reproduce (scary, I know) and it will be interesting to watch what happens when a highly computer-literate cohort raises children of its own. Many current parents are astoundingly computer-illiterate, particularly when it comes to their children's web usage. Their ability to effectively to control the content to which their children are exposed is stymied by this technological barrier. They have enough trouble with television, movies, and music—areas in which they themselves are quite technologically conversant.

People will make the argument that filtering software and V-chips will never work, since kids tend to be more technology-savvy than parents and will inevitably get around the restrictions. This is true, but misses the point. Kids will always get their hands on forbidden content, but you don’t need to hand it to them on a silver platter. Resigning oneself to the fact that your eight-year-old will sneak a look at a dirty magazine or watch Saw V at the neighbor kid’s house is different from piping Laguna Beach and Nip/Tuck directly into his or her bedroom. Restricting content communicates the message that this sort of material is not suitable for them at their current age. (Some types of content, of course, is unacceptable for users of any age, and this message is something that all too many parents seem to have failed to pass along.)

The rebuttal, of course, is the "forbidden fruit" argument: that which is banned will only become more desirable. This is a fair point, but the idea here is not to be arbitrary and draconian, but to combine content restriction with talking to your children about what kinds of programs and images are acceptable/unacceptable, and the reasons for it.

Ubiquitous connectivity

The fact that today’s children are more browser-savvy than their parents is only one component of their technical literacy. There are wider sociological effects as well. Children who have been born in the last few years will never have experienced a world without broadband internet, cell phones, and other forms of connectivity. Because of this, they are increasingly growing up online as much as offline:
“Young students don't differentiate between the face-to-face world and the internet world," said Susan Patrick, who oversees technology for the [Department of Education]. "They were born into the age of the internet. They see it as part of the continuum of the way life is today.” (Wired*)
This manifests in many ways, but particularly in posting user content, interuser communication, and the ways they think about access to information.

There is a general trend among adult and especially teenage users for user-generated content to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, updated increasingly often. We have gone from emails, to blogs, to instant messaging, to sites like Twitter where users post "tweets" or brief status updates of 140 characters or less.

And with cellphone and wireless access, it becomes possible to update in real time. Updates become ever more frequent as the complexity and size of the content shrinks correspondingly. I think we are approaching the smallest possible conceptual units, beyond which meaning begins to break down. Indeed, we are also approaching the point where it all blends into a continuous hum of background noise and whereas many of us are still entranced by its novelty, perhaps the next generation of kids will learn to tune it out from the beginning, simply as part of their "coping mechanism" the same way we learn to tune out extraneous conversations in a room.

The older generation likes to rant about Twitter, but the thing is, it's not for you. And anyway, the quality (or lack thereof) of its content is to blame on the users, not the medium itself.

A more intellectually significant, but still related, advance is the ubiquity of easily-searchable information on the Internet. Of course, databases and searchable catalogs have been around for decades, especially privately, but every year more and more information becomes quickly and publicly accessible. Examples include Google, Wikipedia, and any number of scholarly catalogs like JSTOR.

Wikipedia is something of its own beast and has several obvious drawbacks, so it is perhaps most useful as a portal guiding you to further sources, both online and in print. (This is how I've used it in my own academic and personal research.) For many, it is has become the first destination in information queries, but one would hope that most people don’t stop there.

As more and more content becomes uploaded to the web, and the web becomes accessible nearly everywhere (with the advent of Mobile Web on cell phones, Wi-Fi hotspots in restaurants and libraries, and municipal wireless networks going up around the country) the relationship between information access and physical location has been severed. This conceptual shift is important because it changes the way people learn. There is a realization that accurate information is only a wireless device away. This is still a novelty for many older users who are accustomed to having to physically hunt down a book to look something up. The next generation, and to a lesser extent my own, will soon take this for granted.

Media background noise

Furthermore, I argue that the astounding number of households with almost continuous television activity is evidence of a related trend:
Two out of three zero- to six-year-olds live in homes where the TV is usually left on at least half the time, even if no one is watching, and one-third live in homes where the TV is on “almost all” or “most” of the time; and children in the latter group of homes appear to read less than other children and to be slower to learn to read. ("Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers"*)
A television left running all the time, even if no one is watching, may communicate to children the message that it is an appropriate thing to be absorbing continuously. (Conversely, it may end up as simply background noise to children, as noted above.) It is, in some ways, the opposite of the user-generated content, because television viewing is a passive exercise, especially if it's running while the user is reading or writing something else. And yet, at the same time, as television converges with the Internet, more and more of the content on the "tube" is user-generated:
Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product. Pseudo-modernism includes all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all ‘texts’, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener (although these latter terms, with their passivity and emphasis on reception, are obsolete: whatever a telephoning Big Brother voter or a telephoning 6-0-6 football fan are doing, they are not simply viewing or listening). (Alan Kirby, "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond"*)
Children now enter the world without preconceived notions of divisions between “passive” television content and “interactive” Internet content, or between “online” and “offline” experiences, and it will be interesting as time passes to watch how the next generation, growing up entirely within a wired context, will come to terms with the ever-increasing convergence of all these media forms.

What does it mean?

Our generation and those that came before it have had to integrate, to one degree or another, newly invented technologies into our existing lives, but the children of tomorrow will have all these tools available from the beginning, and no one yet knows how they will make sense of them or what uses they will put them to. But I'm definitely looking forward to finding out.

* Works Cited:

Associated Press. "Pre-schoolers Play Online." Wired, 4 June 2005.

Kaiser Family Foundation. "Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers." 2003.

Kirby, Alan. "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond." Philosophy Now, November/December 2006.

PC Magazine. "Q&A: William Gibson." February 2006.


  1. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for your interest in my writing. You may like to know I have a book out next month based on the article you quote called "Digimodernism" (the term "pseudomodernism" was changed). I have a lot in there about children and the media.

    All the best,

    Alan Kirby

  2. Thanks Alan! I will definitely take a look at the book as well.

    Just out of curiosity, how did you find my post so quickly? Do you have some sort of autonotification feature installed?


  3. The magic of Google Alerts...