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Where are the Kids?

No one thinks they are taking away a basketball or bicycle when they give an adolescent a phone.  But there is an implicit swap at work.

The College of New Jersey’s Sarnoff Collection includes a 1948 RCA television, its small round screen surrounded by a hulking box of wood and clunky Bakelite knobs.  The black and white television still works, these days using its limited lines of pixels to show You Bet Your Life to visitors who walk by.

It’s a stark reminder that it’s glow even then was showing us our future.  Television was one of the the earliest forms of screen-based technology. It would soon alter the psychology and even physiology of most of us living in the Western World.

I’m speaking less of television itself, than its constituent elements that made it possible to deliver sound and pictures in a box.  Now, of course, the technology has evolved and exists in many platforms:  everything from phones to virtually every desktop. The ubiquitous presence of screens in our lives has come to dominate us in ways that ‘Bet Your Life’ host Groucho Marx could have never imagined.

What seems so noticeable is the screen’s effect to freeze children in place, a kind of physical demobilization from an earlier time when older children were the most ubiquitous travelers around our neighborhoods.

Most adults find reasons to sentimentalize their childhoods.  It’s a generational perk. But even with those caveats, it remains true that the roaming habits of earlier generations provides a sharp point of contrast; in the twenty first century our stay-inside-kids venture less frequently beyond the front doors of their own homes.


Growing up in Denver, I was one of those “free range kids” that boomers revere.  My territory was a big part of the eastern section of the city on the wheels of a modest three-speed bike. There was an expectation that I would wander home when I was hungry. And I was careful to stay off the city’s busiest streets.  But for an adolescent a bike was its own form of freedom machine .

Favorite east side haunts included City Park, the city Zoo (free), the fences along the city’s airport runways, the Fox Theater in Aurora, and a wonderful natural history museum (free).  Situated in the middle of City Park, what is now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a towering glass foyer that still features a panoramic view of the city center.

Once a drunk near the museum tried to steal my bike.  I said “no” and he left.  It would have been a long walk home without it.  Besides, stories of child abductions didn’t haunt the airwaves, leaving most parents comfortable with the basic decency of the city’s population.

A recent study in Seattle found that children between the ages of 10 to 16 now use only 12.6 minutes per day for vigorous outdoor activity, compared with over 10 waking hours of motionless staring at screens. That’s a staggering imbalance. Research from Britain’s National Trust suggests a similar result, with kids in the U.K. spending half the time of what their parents as children spent outdoors.  As a result, these days teens tend to be a bit thicker and slower.

Of course many kids in tough neighborhoods are deprived of their birthright to explore their surroundings.  Since nearly one in five of American children live below the poverty line, we are talking about a lot of children.  It’s also true that prior generations of Americans weren’t necessarily spending unscheduled time in verdant city parks.  As a child, my father in law was sent out on winter days to pick up coal along the railroad tracks. In northern Michigan this was in no sense “recreational;” the family was desperate for the fuel to stave off the cold.

Our lives have given way to mediated experience instead of richer forms of lived experience.

Even so, many families today have sufficient means to live in a cocoon of non-stop digital entertainment. Computers, phones and electronic games are on more than they are off.  These platforms provide a kind of electronic wallpaper that can have the effect of putting kids under voluntarily house arrest: victims of a kind of what I call ‘screen thrall.’  One effect of their constant digital contact is to even make a tame backyard can look potentially threatening.  Our lives have given way to mediated experience instead of richer forms of lived experience.

And so we are on the period of widely reported police interrogations of any parents who let their adolescent children walk to school unescorted. In my neighborhood on most mornings I see kids escorted to the street from their house in the family’s massive SUV. It ferries them from the front door to the street, where parent and charge sit and wait for the arrival of a bus.

If this sounds like we have made ourselves prisoners to our digital technologies, it’s more of plea for a sense of balance.  A screen demands a sedentary viewer.  No one thinks they are taking away a basketball, jump rope or bicycle when they give an adolescent a phone or tablet.  But there is an implicit swap. We only need to look around at empty yards in most neighborhoods to know where the kids have gone.

Media Matters


The long view of media effects reminds us that we are never left untouched by new communication forms.

Few ideas are as evocative in communication analysis as those that argue that big social changes are driven as much by particular media forms as by the ideas carried in those forms. The conventional view of communication is that we have ideas, information or thoughts, and then we choose the medium to deliver them, concluding that a given  choice is not that consequential.

A media determinist sees things differently.  Most clearly laid out by Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan in the 1970s, media theory argues that the vessel turns out to be as important as what it is carrying.  McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message” doesn’t quite get it right.  But a panoramic “big picture” view of communication effects certainly justifies the conclusion that dominant media forms usually create unanticipated and sometimes huge social changes.

Madonna and Child,1284 wikipedia.org
           Madonna and Child,1284                                wikipedia.org

For example, academician Neil Postman and others have argued that television has transformed the idea of childhood, mostly by ending it.1  There’s a little hyperbole here, but also a valid point embedded in the observation.  In the Middle Ages, for example, children were thought of as incipient workers: more or less adults in training.  Even in their first decade the young were expected to take up the burdens of the working world; there was often no particular interest in isolating them from the secrets and challenges of adulthood.  We see hints of this in paintings of children from this period, which often portray the young as just smaller versions of everyone else.

Mary Cassatt, A Kiss for Baby Anne Wikiart.org
Mary Cassatt, A Kiss for Baby Anne                            Wikiart.org

Many generations later the idea of childhood was especially nurtured by the Victorians, helped by more affluence and the spread of age-graded literacy.  They saw the young as a vulnerable and innocent group to be sequestered from the perils and problems of adulthood.  Look at the children portrayed by painter Mary Cassatt or other artists in the last few centuries and you get the idea. The goal of creating a protected world for children  was also supported by the growth of children’s literature, which used age-appropriate language to support adventurous but “safe” narratives.

Yet television imposes no literacy requirements.  Electronic media are nearly as accessible to children as to adults.  Think of a news report that includes an interview with a mother who has just lost her son in a shooting.  There are obviously limits to what children viewing such a news item can understand.  But the raw emotion of the mother is apparent even to a five-year-old.  They will experience the cues of distress directly.  Obviously, that would not be the case if the account existed only as a written news story.

Using the logic of media determinism can make our social histories look very different.

Most parents sense the difference. The pervasiveness of visual/presentational media means there are very few safe refuges from the dark corners of the culture.  As media determinists sometimes put it, there is really no such thing as children’s television.

Using the logic of media determinism can make our social histories look very different.  A few more examples:

  • The Enlightenment and an emerging belief in human rights was abetted by the development of printed texts. Printing decentralizes the control of information and ideas, ultimately weakening the informational monopoly of the church after the 16th Century.
  • The invention of the telegraph hastened the development of news wire services and the journalistic principle of objectivity. Objectivity was needed if the services were going to sell stories to different parts of the country.
  • The photocopier contributed to the downfall of the old Soviet Union. Cheap copies of political tracts made in private countered the power of government-sanctioned printers.
  • Civil stability in one-party states like China and North Korea is continually threatened by the internet and social media. The online content crosses these political borders with difficulty.   But even with government-imposed electronic firewalls isolation from digital content is no longer possible.
  • Our growing obsessions with all kinds of screens is undermining our social intelligence. Heavy personal media use in the young seems connected to their rising social anxieties about engaging in face to face interaction.

Of course attributing large social changes to just one dimension of a complex culture can be risky.  Even so, a macro-view of media effects can be a timely reminder that new ways to connect to the world always change us. They continue to redefine new forms of daily behavior that start with early adopters before they are acquired by the broad center. The cycle completes itself when a new norm is accepted without much notice.  So walking alone and apparently talking to no one no longer suggests schizophrenia.  We now assume a phone is their link to another.


1Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, Revised (Vintage, 1994).

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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