Margaret Cassidy is Associate Professor of Communications at Adelphi University, where she teaches courses in media history and criticism, communication theory, and media and children. Her research focuses on the role of media in the lives and education of American children, past and present. She is the author of BookEnds: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms (2003).
“Text me when you get there”—Digital Kids, Helicopter Parents, and the Promises and Perils of Twenty-First Century Childhood
In 1858, a minister named Alfred Beach delivered a sermon entitled “Our Children: Their Dangers, and Our Duties.” He talked about the difficulties of raising children “at a time and in a place filled with obstacles and perils.” In particular, he objected to the new media of his day, the mass press, which he felt produced “a constant flood of poisonous matter” to tempt, distract, and corrupt youth.
Reverend Beach was neither the first nor the last adult to worry about the fate of children in changing times with changing media. From Socrates’ objections to writing to contemporary adults’ worries about smartphones and social media, a common theme in media history is that new media change children’s access to information and ways of interacting with others, and adults are not sure this is a good thing.
I study media history because I like the way that historical context helps put our present experiences into perspective. As an academic and a parent, I see how badly in need of perspective we are right now. It’s a peculiar time to be a parent—at least, a middle class American parent. We are a notoriously anxious bunch; we are the helicopter parents. We coach our kids’ sports teams, we serve on PTA committees, we bring our work to the park so we can keep an eye on our kids while they play. And while we hover, we talk nostalgically with one another about the freedom we enjoyed as kids, walking to school by ourselves, leaving home on a summer morning and not coming home until dinnertime, gathering in the park for afterschool ballgames without adult supervision. And then comes the melancholy commentary on how “things have changed,” “it’s a different world now,” “kids grow up too fast these days.” We nod understandingly and make sad faces, as if these statements are so obviously true that there is no point in questioning them.
But what are we talking about? Where is the evidence that times are so bad? Would a nineteenth century working class parent really think now is a worse time to be a kid than when their children had to work in factories or stay at home to care for younger siblings or boarders, when measles, polio, and other now-rare diseases were likely to kill some of their children? What about parents raising children today in parts of the world that are torn apart by war, disease, terrorism, or natural disasters—what would they think of our reluctance to allow our children to walk a few blocks to school every morning? There is probably much more evidence supporting the claim that middle class American childhood is safer now than ever before than there is evidence to the contrary. So what’s really going on? Do kids really grow up too fast these days? Because sometimes it feels like we’re not allowing them to grow up at all.
We seem to be living in a time when the changing media environment is upsetting adults in several ways. New media give children extensive, private access to all kinds of information. They put our kids in touch with all kinds of people. We don’t always know who they’re talking to, what they’re sharing, who is talking about them, or what they’re learning.
New media are also unsettling because of the way they skew our perception of the world. They show us every horrific thing, every freak occurrence, every bizarre situation that we never knew existed. We learn all about what is possible without really understanding what is probable. Even when we intellectually understand the (relative lack of) risk, we can’t quite dismiss the possibility. Of course it isn’t all bad news. There are plenty of ways that new media might be used to cultivate a happy, healthy experience of childhood. But these possibilities are too often obscured by all the news that makes the world look like a terribly dangerous place.
I recently re-watched the movie ET: The Extraterrestrial, and I couldn’t help but think that this movie would never be made today. Think about it. Elliott, the film’s protagonist, is a ten year old boy. Now think about the freedom he enjoys in that movie. What mother doesn’t realize her son is outside, in the middle of the night, playing catch with some unidentified creature in the shed? Who lets their kids ride their bikes in the woods? Without helmets, no less? If ET were to be stranded on earth today, he’d never get home because no kid would ever be outside, alone, at the right time to find him.
Whenever the media environment shifts in a way that affects children, adults wonder what to think, what to do, what this shift will mean for their children. This is not “history repeating itself” in some futile way; it is a process that we have to go through whenever there is a change in the media environment. Back in 1858, Reverend Beach decided that “These dangers are such that we cannot remove them. Our children will have to meet and encounter them…..They must then be, in some way, prepared to meet them…and this must be our care,–this is our work.” This is still very good advice. Maybe we should try to focus less on protecting children and more on preparing children for the world they face, and the media they will use to understand that world and interact with others in it.