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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Children and Computers: New Technology - Old Concerns
Ellen Wartella Nancy Jennings

Early Media: Recurrent Patterns in Controversy and Research

Debates surrounding the introduction of earlier media have highlighted the novel attributes of each technology, but the promises and concerns have been fundamentally similar. In general, proponents of media innovation argue that the new technology benefits children by opening up new worlds to them, while opponents argue that new media might be used to substitute for real life in learning ethical principles, undermining children's morality and causing them to engage in illicit sexual and criminal behavior.3 Research on children and media also has followed a recurrent pattern, reflecting the shifting focus of public concerns. In each case, initial studies have tended to examine which demographic groups of children were gaining access most quickly, how much time they spent with the new technology, and their preferences for different genres or types of use. Then, as the technology became more pervasive, research has tended to shift toward a greater emphasis on how the content of media exposure may be affecting children.1 In fact, the overwhelming similarity in the research studies from epoch to epoch—across movies, radio, and television—is quite striking.

Children and Movies

When films were first introduced into American society in the early 1900s, proponents described them not only as a form of entertainment, but as “a means for education, a business, an adjunct to the stage, a resource for religion, and a great new social force.”4 Through film, they argued, people could see for themselves “the majestic tumult of Niagara . . . a locomotive with rods and wheels in full swing of motion . . . and the animated presence of far-off peoples.”5 Meanwhile, opponents soon labeled movies as immoral for exposing children to scenes of violence and debauchery. They argued that movies were the cause of crime, delinquency, and sexual misconduct among teens.3

Early studies about children and the movies cataloged their attendance and the type of pictures that appealed to them.1 One noted study conducted in 1929 documented in great detail the moviegoing habits of 10,052 children in the Chicago area. The study's author found that nearly all the children attended the movies and that they were often exposed to screen experiences far beyond their years.6 Concerns over movie content soon gave rise to calls for censorship and for restricting the distribution of films that might “corrupt the morals of children or adults or incite to crime.”7 By 1931, some 40 national religious and educational groups had adopted resolutions calling for federal regulation of motion pictures.3 The film industry responded by embarking on a public relations campaign promising better pictures and admonishing parents to supervise their children's trips to the movie theater.

Alice M. Mitchell, about the movies, 1929:

“The sweetness, the hopefulness, the joyousness, the crude, the morbid, the grotesque of life are mixed in a huge bowl, sometimes not proportioned to reality but convincing, nevertheless, and tasty. Youth does not know the difference. Youth, because of youth, does not have the wisdom of years to weigh the real with the unreal, the usual with the occasional. To him, it is all life. And if it does not fit within his own life, then his life is not real.”

During the 1930s, the research community shifted its focus to studies on the effects of film on children. The 1933 Payne Fund studies—12 volumes of research conducted by the most prominent psychologists, sociologists, and educators of the time—provided a detailed look at the effects of film on such diverse topics as sleep patterns, knowledge about foreign cultures, attitudes about violence, and delinquent behavior.8 For the most part, these studies concluded that a film would affect individual children differently depending on the child's age, sex, predispositions, perceptions, social environment, past experiences, and parental influences.

Children and Radio

As with movies, the introduction of broadcast radio in the 1920s was accompanied by proponents' promises of a vast potential to bring a variety of information and entertainment into homes, schools, and churches, ending isolation and unifying the nation.3 Yet opponents feared that radio would undermine activities such as reading and going to church, and they expressed concerns about advertising and poor program quality. Newspapers reported parents' complaints about children gulping their meals so as not to miss a favorite radio show and waking with nightmares from listening to “lurid radio bedtime stories.”9

Azriel L. Eisenberg, about radio, 1936:

“The popularity of this new pastime among children has increased rapidly . . . This new invader of the privacy of the home has brought many a disturbing influence in its wake. Parents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior patterns of their children. They are bewildered by a host of new problems, and find themselves unprepared, frightened, resentful, helpless. They cannot lock out this intruder because it has gained an invincible hold of their children.”

Unlike the movie industry, radio was regulated from the beginning by the federal government, which granted licenses to broadcasters and assigned frequencies. And radio avoided the kind of sex themes that had brought about frequent calls for censorship of movies.3 Nevertheless, during the 1930s and 1940s, radio was attacked for its treatment of crime and violence, particularly in children's programs, and was charged with contributing to juvenile delinquency, providing youngsters with both method and inspiration for criminal acts. Complaints about the quality of radio programming for children resulted in parent letter-writing campaigns to program sponsors. During the 1940s, the networks responded by suspending programs that were most objectionable, and the National Association of Broadcasters promised to air such children's classics as Treasure Island, Robin Hood, and The Wizard of Oz .9

The earliest studies of radio once again examined children's listening habits and preferences. For example, an early review of research on children's radio-listening habits documented age differences in children's attraction to and preferences for certain radio programs.10 Later radio studies in the 1940s examined a wide range of effects on children, including their emotional reactions, ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, school performance, and responses to advertising as reflected by their product requests. These studies revealed that the effects of media use could be powerful, but that other factors, such as the child's developmental level and family circumstances, could modify the impact.11

Children and Television

Television emerged as a mass medium in 1948, and speculation about its impact on other amusements, business, social life, education, health, and society's institutions and values soon became a national pastime.3 Proponents once again touted the potential to bring not only sound, but a wide range of images into the home—from opera, theater, and sports, to political events, educational talks, and demonstrations. Television was described as “the biggest classroom the world has ever seen".12 At the same time, questions were raised about how it would affect children: Would it debase their tastes? Distort their values? Teach violence and crime? Cause withdrawn and addictive behavior?13

Opponents voiced concerns about how television might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of American culture.3 Similar to concerns about previous media technology, accusations that television was a prime mover in juvenile misconduct and delinquency soon followed. Detractors to the new technology charged that crime and violence were television's mainstays and children its victims. Even if not harmful, the quality of television entertainment was described as plodding and dull, its culture nonexistent, its service to religion and education negligible, and its influence on politics damaging.14,15

Wilbur Schramm, et al., about television, 1961:

“It brought the world to everyone's living room, but most particularly it gave children an earlier look at far places and adult behavior. It became the greatest and loudest salesman of goods, and sent children clamoring to their parents for box tops. It created heroes and villains, fads, fashions, and stereotypes, and nowhere so successfully, apparently, as with the pliable minds of children.”

The television literature, as with earlier media literature, began with studies of children's use of the medium and preference for different types of programming, but soon turned to questions of impact.1 As early as 1955, Congress was holding hearings on the effects of televised crime and violence on juvenile delinquency, and by the 1970s, several initiatives had been introduced to change the nature of children's programming and severely restrict the amount and type of television advertising directed to children.16 The broadcast industry and network producers responded, for the most part, by resisting regulation and discounting the idea that television viewing caused negative behavior.17 Meanwhile, the research community responded with an avalanche of studies examining the effects of program content on children's attitudes, values, and behavior. Reaching a peak in the late 1970s, these studies most often focused on evaluations of the relationship between televised violence and children's aggression.

In 1980, Boys Town published an exhaustive review of nearly 3,000 studies of television's impact on children conducted over the previous 25 years, concluding that television can exert a powerful influence independent of the particular content portrayed on the screen.16 The simple availability of television was associated with delayed development in a child's verbal skills and in the amount of effort applied to academic tasks. In addition, however, the viewing of particular content was linked to more specific effects. For example, some studies indicated that children who viewed more cartoons and action-oriented programming were more impulsive and less analytic in their cognitive tempo and style (that is, how they processed information), whereas children who viewed other types of programming improved their cognitive skills and academic performance. The review directed several recommendations to researchers, broadcasters, and legislators, but pointed to parents as having an important role to play and a vital stake in the outcome, and developed a separate publication summarizing the study's findings for parents in particular.

In sum, controversy and research on each previous wave of new technology—from movies to radio to television—focused initially on children's time spent using the new medium, followed by assessments of how use of the new medium affected children's knowledge of the world, attitudes, values, and moral conduct. In addition, for the most part, society has relied on parents as the primary gatekeepers for safeguarding children from media's potentially harmful effects. In the following section, a more detailed discussion is provided of how these recurrent themes are manifesting, once again, with the advent of computer technology.