This essay will look at how the representation of childhood on British television has changed and the part the media and new technology may have played in this change. It will discuss Postman’s (1983) concept of the death of childhood, and media manipulation, and compare it with Tapscott’s (1998) view of children gaining empowerment through the media. It will look at other forms of media and new technologies, how they impact on children’s lives and how they integrate to create intertextuality.
Finally It will briefly discuss Martin Barker’s media case study and look at how children create their own media. The images of childhood represented in television have changed in the past few decades. Gone is the view of childhood as a time spent making things and doing activities, where children’s main influences were their parents and where children were seen as un-knowledgeable, passive and accepting. Children are now seen as active and knowledgeable media consumers who spend more time on media related activities than any other activity.
While parents are still heavily influential, television offers a perspective and influence previously unknown. Joshua Meyrowitz in his reading ‘The blurring of childhood and adulthood’ stated, ‘Television now escorts children across the globe even before they have permission to cross the street’ (M. J. Kehily & J. Swann, 2003 p217). The un-knowledgeable, passive child has been replaced by the media savvy, active, challenging child who commands entertainment.
Children’s television has changed dramatically in the last few decades, from a small number of programmes at specific times of the day, on only one or two television channels, to an abundance of programmes available at all times in many formats; terrestrial television, cable, satellite, video and dvd, and with whole channels dedicated solely to children’s entertainment. The content of the programmes has also changed. Children’s television in the fifties and sixties had very simplistic storylines, and used puppets and maternal-like presenters and was aimed at young children who were innocent f the activities of the adult world. Programmes for older children tended to be narrated stories or programmes with the aim of passing on knowledge and skills, and for both younger and older children the representation of the child as innocent was maintained. Nowadays many children’s programmes are aimed at a specific group, often relating to age or gender, such as the ‘Tweenies’ which is aimed at pre-school children, the ‘Power Puff Girls’ aimed at girls and ‘Power rangers’ aimed at boys.
Even young children are aware of the distinction between programmes and may not admit to watching a programme that is seen as belonging to the opposite gender or a lower age group. While children’s programmes represent children as being knowledgeable, sophisticated and demanding consumers of the global media, the representation of the child as innocent and in need of protection is still maintained, most notably to generate emotional viewer responses in advertisements, dramas, and films. As discussed in Multimedia childhoods (M. J. Kehily & J.
Swann, 2003 p184) surveys have shown that for children in industrialized countries, accessing the media is the biggest leisure activity, with children spending more time interacting with the media than they do interacting with family and friends. This gives the media, and those behind it, a huge influence over children. Some people see this influence as the media manipulating children while others take the opposing view and see it as a tool for empowering children. In his book ‘The disappearance of childhood’ (1983) American critic Neil Postman holds the electronic media responsible for the decline of modern civilization.
He blames the increased access of children to adult information, and describes television as a ‘total disclosure medium,’ through which children learn about previously hidden aspects of adult life, such as sex, drugs and violence, that they didn’t have such easy access to when it was only available in print form (M. J. Kehily & J. Swann, 2003 p187). He believes that television has contributed to social ills such as teenage promiscuity, and child crime. That witnessing what were traditionally adult themes on television has led to a shortening of childhood resulting in the boundaries between adulthood and childhood becoming blurred.
Others, such as American journalist and media consultant Don Tapscott(1998), see children as, ‘hungry for expression, discovery and their own self development’ (M. J. Kehily & J. Swann, 2003 p189), and view the media as an instrument for children’s empowerment. Tapscott believes that the internet in particular has given children a powerful set of tools to think, speak and play with. While he agrees with Postman that there is now a blurring of the boundaries between adulthood and childhood caused by media technology, Tapscott views the changes elicited, by the internet in particular, as positive.
Postman views children with the romantic discourse of childhood, as being in need of protection from the influences of television and the media and supports a return to a time when children knew their place. Tapscott views childhood as a social construction and argues that rather than children returning to a more traditional way, adults should move forward in order to keep up with their children. Both Postman and Tapscott’s points of view suggest a ‘media determinism’, but whether the media is seen as manipulating or empowering depends on whether the child is viewed as a vulnerable and passive, or competent and active, user of the media.
With new technology it is difficult to see children as just passive receivers of the media, but easy to see them as active consumers making meaning, with their own culture. Stephen Wagg in ‘One I made earlier: media, popular culture and the politics of childhood’ (M. J. Kehily & J. Swann, 2003), wrote about how contemporary children’s television programmes take the part of the child attempting to appropriate elements of his/her culture.
Programme makers now try to bring the once ignored social world and culture of the child into programmes; in games, humour and interviews with pop stars or actors/actresses from other television programmes. Children’s presenters have changed from being parent or teacher like, to being more like an older brother or sister, more in tune with the youth of today. Children’s television, particularly Saturday morning television, no longer tries to pass on knowledge or skills, but instead refers to other media, in particular music and films, and draws on the consumptive power of the child viewers.
Even very young children watch the Saturday morning television due to the regular cartoons, and while watching will take in information about other media such as music, dvds, computer games, and related toys, thus increasing their consumer power. The popular view that children and parents are being manipulated by advertisers and the market, held by people such as Kline (1993), has been challenged by studies into how young consumers, rather than being manipulated, actively use manufactured goods to form their identities and make meaning. An example of how young people actively use the media and the market is the music scene.
Young people, and the music industry, understand that chart success is not in the hands of the band, but in the hands of the music consumers, hence the regular appearances on children’s television of bands with a cd to release. This cross-media convergence has been termed intertextuality and is seen in television programmes, films, games and the internet where one media includes or refers to another media. This convergence pre-supposes that the user is media literate and can relate to many forms of media, and is prevalent in media intended for children.
As children’s use of technology and media has increased, this intertextuality has led to a children’s media culture, where if you don’t have knowledge of the referred to media text then you face exclusion, a situation many parents find themselves in. The Pokemon phenomenon is an example of intertextuality. Pokemon started as a computer game, became a television programme, then a game of trading cards and culminated in a film, books, magazines and toys. Pokemon relied on the active participation of children as cross-media consumers and succeeded in generating over seven billion dollars worldwide.
While the extent of the Pokemon success could not have been not anticipated, other manufacturers, such as Disney, now purposely use intertextuality, by releasing related merchandise alongside, and even prior to, the release of a film. While this can be viewed as exploitative, it can also be viewed as offering new opportunities, or as a bit of both. While access to a wider range of media can be empowering, the fact that the content is not created solely for children can lead to access to inappropriate adult content. Many children have access vicariously to violence and death through the use of computer games.
Green et al (1998) describes children born in the 90’s in the West as ‘immersed in a world of electronic images and virtual reality’ (M. J. Kehily & J. Swann, 2003 p294). While children can learn new skills through the use of these games, some have negative connotations, in particular the issues surrounding gender. Alloway and Gilbert’s (1998) analysis of video game culture found that female figures are under-represented, and when they do appear are generally seen as weak or inferior, while the focus on male figures is one of power, aggression, superiority and strength.
Violence in computer games and films is often blamed for an increase in violence in children and young people. Martin Barker in his media case study (Audio 6 Band 6) claims that the pervading discourse of childhood, that children are innocent, unknowing and in need of protection, leads to the presumption by adults that children can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality and so need protecting from the media’s evil influence.
While adults are judged to be critical and able to think rationally, children are not afforded the same luxury. Barker believes that adults have used the issue of the media being a danger to children as a way to fulfil other agenda, such as the passing of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Bill (1955), which while being put across as a social concern was used for political gain. The media issue is also used to explain uncharacteristic child behaviour.
For example after the killing of James Bulger it was suggested that the two boys responsible were influenced by the film ‘Child’s Play 3’, thereby reinforcing the idea of innocent child versus evil media. The view of the child and the media working against each other can be challenged by looking at the way children find their own uses for the media, with some engaging more than others, producing their own music and home movies.
The increase in recording equipment such as videos on mobile phones, and the launch of internet sites such as ‘Myspace’ and ‘Youtube,’ have made it easier for children, like Andy and Chet from Cheesy Productions (Video 3 Band 8), to produce and share their own media. So while the media shape aspects of children’s lives, children themselves are helping to shape aspects of the media. In conclusion, the change in the way children are represented on television reflects the way children’s lives have changed in the last few decades.
Some changes have been influenced by the media, in particular children’s leisure activities and their global knowledge. In other cases the media has had to change in order to keep up with children, for example the changes made to Saturday morning television. The media and new technologies have definitely had an impact on children’s lives, with some changes that can be viewed as negative, such as the early introduction to adult concerns like sex and violence. But other changes, such as having the tools to aid global discovery and self-expression, can be viewed as positive.
M.J. Kehily & J. Swann, (2003) Children’s Cultural Worlds, John Wiley & sons Ltd in association with The Open University
U212 Media Kit, Video 3 Band 8 Cheesy Productions, (2003) The Open University
U212 Media Kit, Audio 6 Band 6 Martin Barker on a media case study, (2003) The Open University