The Technological Child


This article originally appeared in Issue# 30

We'll call her Susan. She is 32, happily married to Brad, a successful aerospace engineer, lives in the home of her dreams, and is proud to be the first university graduate in her second generation American family. Yet she describes with visible anguish her fears of failure in rearing their two young children, Cheryl and Marc, ages 8 and 5.

"My children have all the opportunities — many that I never had — yet they just are not taking advantage of them,' laments Susan. 'Worse yet, I just don't feel that we are as close as we should be — our children are slipping away from us. My parents were the most important people in my childhood; sometimes I feel that I'm not much more than a convenience to my children.

"Where am I failing?"

Susan's situation is not all that unique among upwardly mobile families in our rapidly changing society. There are many Susans and Brads being counseled by family physicians, pastors, school psychologists, and educational specialists. Outwardly, there is no obvious problem like marital distress, drugs or learning disabilities. Nor is it necessarily the ease that the children are performing poorly in school or in their peer relations.

Mostly, the symptom is an increasing feeling of distance between parent and child.

The child's interests differ from the parent's expectations. Even values visibly differ — as in choices of friends, the desire to play a musical instrument, to read books, to watch television, or to engage in various play activities. There is a visible discrepancy between the parents' model of childhood (what they remember of their own upbringings, even in what they read about child rearing) and the reality of their own children's lives.

This phenomenon of increasing psychological distance between the generations may reflect more than a therapeutic challenge for our times. There is good reason to believe that we are witnessing changes in the nature of childhood itself.

Just as our ancestors crossed the cultural cusps from tribal to agrarian social orders, or from agrarian to industrial ones, it is common knowledge today that we are rapidly transforming from an industrial to a so-called "information society."

Changing Childhood

In lay terms, CHILDHOOD refers to the period in one's life between infancy and puberty. But in more reflective uses, the suffix -hood is critical. The stress is upon the "condition" or "state of being" of that age range.

For example, beyond a contrast in chronological age, how is childhood different from adulthood?

Some contemporary writers argue that we are experiencing a "loss" of childhood. This theme is dealt with, among others, by Marie Winn, in Children Without Childhood; Vance Packard, Our Endangered Children; Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood and David Elkind, The Hurried Child.

On one hand are the problems of children whose parental circumstances, attitudes or behaviors, deny them a full chance to be "child like." This includes the consequences of today's changing family conditions, from single parenting to the attempt to "hurry" a child's development.

On the other hand is the fading contrast between many experiences of adulthood and childhood. For example, prime-time television delivers the adult world of violence, sex, and nearly every deviant behavior directly to the child viewer. Children are left to find meaning in such supposedly adult themes as murder, rape, and adultery. The loss of the "adults only" barrier diminishes the contrast between adulthood and childhood.

As our culture has increasingly shifted its messages from the printed page to the audio-visual media, the barrier of literacy is lost between adults and children. One notable instance is that those of us who experienced World War II as children could not follow the gory details of battle except in a few magazine photos and sanitized newsreels. Compare this to television coverage of modern wars, from Vietnam to Lebanon — where battles are vividly brought to our television screens.

Surely, observations of changes in adult/child media sensibility are clear arguments in support of the "fading contrast" thesis.

But there are further considerations. If we have learned anything from more than two decades of serious social scientific research into the effects of mass media, we have found that most specific messages in the media, particularly on television, do not typically have a direct, one-on-one effect on individuals. Instead, they seem to contribute to a broad set of expectations and values associated with society. An act of media-portrayed violence may not so much prompt emulation of that act as to create a general feeling that violence is a usual —and perhaps even expected —characteristic of our society. And individual interpretation varies drastically.

These issues raise further important questions concerning the "childhood's loss" thesis:

  • How do children perceive presumably adult themes in the modern information environment?
  • What modified expectations must parents hold toward children who have these new experiences?
  • Is the increasing psychological distance between parent and child a consequence of parents looking back to a form of childhood that is vanishing?

Is the increasing psychological distance between parent and child a consequence of parents looking back to a form of childhood that is vanishing?

New Directions

The virtual explosion of the information environment during the last decade, as well as its increasingly "electronic" character, adds to the force of this dynamic. As media philosopher Marshall McLuhan observed nearly two decades ago, the message is often as much in the medium itself (the technological "character" of a videogame, for instance) as in its content. The child of today has more experiences available literally at his or her fingertips than our great grandparents were likely to have had in a lifetime.

The variety and character as well as the content of these alternatives enhance the changed environment. Modern children can choose between two or three dozen television programs, a universe of music, including recordings with visual fantasies built in, and videogames offering vicarious involvement ranging from saving the galaxy to parading as a gobbling yellow dot. Therefore it's not too surprising if print media are less interesting to the modern child who finds that audiovisual experiences are more emotionally exciting and less demanding intellectually.

Among other diversions, traditional toys such as electric trains and model airplanes are being replaced with robot-like toys, as with the currently popular "Gobots" or "Transformers."

If there still isn't enough to satisfy them, today's child can turn to a personal computer for fun and fantasy. Formerly available only to a small cadre of engineers and scientists, the computer is becoming a play and learning tool for children as young as the preschool generation.

Another mark of the current decade is the coalescence of electronic media and computing technologies into other experiential forms. The "Star Wars" series brought technologies in vivid and persuasive images to the motion picture screen. Walt Disney's "Tron" was itself created with computerized animation. The latest developments in videogames combine computer control with the high resolution images of the videodisk. This combination allows a child to control images, actions, and alternatives in a highly sophisticated media representation and expands the possibilities for experiencing and manipulating hitherto unknown dimensions of time, space, and speed.

Programmed World

The environment of the child in our evolving information age is becoming totally artificial. It delivers what we program into it, offering new dimensions of experience, often amounting — both in its content and in the satisfaction it provides — to a deification of technology. Such a childhood offers more experiential alternatives than any in our history. The child of this world is growing in an environment of, by, and for technology. It is a world of the Technological Child.

The technological component begins before birth, when many couples form a prenatal relationship based on ultrasound tests. Many parents even know the child's sex in advance, and conception itself may have been planned. Decisions about toys, clothing, even nursery school, are made before birth. Contrast this with cultures where a child is not even named before it survives the first two or three years of life.

The children who begin life in this environment are growing up in ways as different from their parents as did those who made the transition between agrarian and industrial society in the last two centuries, or, for that matter, the parents and children of many of today's newly industrializing nations.

"Like the children of immigrants learning the language of the new land, the first generation of children to have home computers may develop a literacy and an ability to communicate that their parents cannot match or even understand."
The Shape of the American Family in the Year 2000

In these discontinuities between today's generations of adults and children - parents and offspring, teachers and students — we are directly witnessing the process of broad social change. Unlike the meager but significant "know-how" passed across generations by our tribal ancestors, the Technological Child is inundated with information. The transfer of the potential for technology-culture interaction is growing beyond the controls of the adult generation. Parents of computer-using children often ask what it is their children know that they do not!

Increasing contrasts between the technological "haves" and "have-nots" also create discontinuity among the children themselves. This applies not only to the richer and poorer nations of the world, but also to different economic classes within most developing or developed societies, especially our own. There is emerging evidence, too, of a growing discrepancy between the sexes, especially as computer industries design machines and programs more appealing to boys than to girls.

These discontinuities form the basis of our thesis that the most significant impacts of the new information age ultimately will be social ones, with their origins already evolving in the experiences of our children. Many of their problems - and opportunities - are based on adaptation to this new environment. As in the history of other great changes in social existence, our children will be the beneficiaries or the victims in the years to come. If we understand the dynamics of this change, perhaps we can make the best decisions now in matters of their education, mental and physical health, and the promotion of the best of their distinctly human abilities for relating to one another.

Our larger challenge — as teachers, pastors, counselors, or parents like Susan and Brad — is to understand the nature of this most recent of social transitions and to prepare our children as best we can for this new age. Indeed, the value structures of our increasingly technological future world are being internalized by our children long before they are brought to bear upon important life questions.

Hopefully, we will rear a generation of children who can ask "why" rather than just or "if" rather than just "when."

Author Bio: 

Frederick Williams, Ph.D., formerly was professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, and Victoria Williams, Ph.D., was director of the Palos Verdes Learning Center. They currently live in Austin, TX.