I have been researching on this topic the last few weeks as context for a potential artwork. Whether or not the artwork is realised, this topic actually has interesting implications on education, the law, culture and the notion of family. Among the few books and internet research that I did, Neil Postman’s 1994 book “The Disappearance of Childhood” deserves special mention for its lucid style and strong evidence. I also read David Buckingham’s “After the Death of Childhood” (2010), which takes into account the Internet whereas Postman’s book focused heavily on the impact of television. I would like to share some of my findings here.
First of all, childhood as we know it has only been in existence for around 400 years since the Age of Enlightenment. That was when the humanist idea of childhood as a state that needs to be nurtured and protected came about, and parents were expected to care for their children as special beings rather than treating them as miniature adults. Child psychology was also invented around this time. The romantic notion of childhood as a state of innocence, of natural play and curiousity, was also celebrated. Children were seen to belong to a garden of innocence, needing protection and careful nurturing through formal schooling and parenting. Children were not officially adults until they were educated and literate. Only when they were literate were children able to access the world of adult knowledge through books. Before the printing press was invented in the 15th Century, there were no children. Knowledge was passed through oral tradition and apprenticeship. Children were treated no differently from adults. They received the same working conditions and punishment for crime as adults.
Fast forward to this present day and age – the Age of Information, of television, Internet and electronic games.
“Kinderculture – the Corporate Construction of Childhood” (1997) talks about how childhood has been commodified, through media advertising, into experiences that define childhood, e.g. Disney, child models, Mac Donalds. Children are treated as consumers and this consumerism comes to define childhood. This is a different notion of childhood from its Enlightenment origins.
The Information Age holds no adult secrets from children. It reveals all – sexual relations, politics, money, violence, illness, death, war/famine, society. Childhood is expelled from the garden of innocence. Some say this leads to children developing cynicism and indifference. This could be reflected in the crime statistics for children, and the rise in teenage pregnancies and drug abuse.
There’s a school of thought that is optimistic about the impact of the Internet on children. The Internet is seen as empowering to children, e.g. children participating in TED talks, virtual online communities for gaming, awareness of adult interests, becoming active media/cultural producers rather than passive consumers, computer literacy as a new language of communication.
In either case, there is no separation between the notion of adulthood and children. The social hierarchy is broken, as children have the same access to information as adults.
Electronic media can be seen to be counteracting the influence of two main institutions of childhood – the family and the school. Electronic media are now surrogate parents as children spend more time on them than with their parents. The Internet offers knowledge as a substitute for school, and caters to personalized interests, one’s own method and pace of learning and the possibility of learning as part of an online community. This is opposed to an outdated Industrial model of education that molds children towards the needs of the economy and some say, robs them of their natural play and curiousity.
Postman critiques television as being hostile to the idea of literacy. As opposed to print media, television heralded a graphic revolution that demands an emotive response rather than an intellectual one, e.g. obsession with celebrity, sensational news reporting that creates a numbness to social context, implications, the importance of events, as sense of proportion, moral dimensions. In television, there is no reasoned discourse or argument possible, and consumerism is promoted like a religious experience. Adults are treated on an intellectual maturity of a ten year old. Television does not differentiate between children, adults and the elderly. There is a cognitive regression here that erases the distinction between childhood and adulthood.
A possible conclusion to all this is the educational imperative of teaching media literacy to children in a guided environment that emphasizes the importance of values, rather than trying to control their access to electronic media (be it social media, electronic games or the Internet). The social aspects of technology should be promoted and exposing the corporate curriculum and its social and political effects another goal. As Postman says “new technology cannot replace human values.”