An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture

Historical Views: Children, Technology, Play
Speaker: Henry Jenkins


It is often claimed that children are more comfortable with digital technology than their parents. How does this differ from the situation surrounding the introduction of earlier media, such as radio? Is there anything unique about the way children are responding to digital media? Conversely, is there always a generational gap in attitudes toward emerging technologies? Does this generational gap partly shape or explain the fears adults express about the role of media in their children's lives?

In recent months computer games in particular have been sharply attacked as harmful to teenagers. What is your view of this controversy? Are there similarities between computer games and earlier forms of children's play?

The figure of the innocent or imperiled child has figured prominently in efforts to regulate the content of the Internet. This concern for protecting children from harmful influences would seem to be one of the hardest arguments for free speech advocates to combat. How useful are historical precedents in understanding this ongoing debate?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Henry Jenkins: I have spent a lot of time in the last three or four months reflecting upon and engaging in debates about violence in youth culture that have sprung up in the wake of the Littleton Massacre. I got called before the U.S. Senate to testify about this issue and have been interviewed by journalists over 100 times about tthe question, so it is one that is very close to my heart and will allow us to begin to answer a range of questions about children's relationship to digital media.

What struck me about the aftermath of the shooting is that we entered almost immediately into a kind of moral panic about children's relationships to technology. I often like to show two covers of Time Magazine. One is "The Monsters Next-door; How Could Nice Kids Have Done It?" and the very next week, the answer was provided with the next cover story which was "A Horror Image of Children On-line. The Washington Post, a week after the Littleton shooting, found that 80% of Americans thought that the Internet had something to do with the Littleton Massacre, while 60% thought that the availability of guns had something to do with the Massacre. So the statistics suggest that the panic surrounding Littleton was directed against digital media. It seems to me that it represents one of the battlegrounds in the so-called digital revolution.

We really have to ask why it was so quickly stirred up. The repercussions for children and youth were enormous. You may have read John Katz's coverage of this on; other people have covered this as well. I am getting more and more stories flooding in by e-mail. There are stories of schools that have taken kids off the Internet because they were terrified of what they might encounter there. You hear of kids suspended because of speaking out in class, writing essays defending some aspects of their culture which were under assault or expressing any sympathy at all toward the two kids who were involved with this particular shooting. We hear stories of any kind of pop culture insignia being grounds for suspension. In one notorious case, a kid was suspended for wearing a Star of David to school because the teacher mistook it for gang paraphernalia. This was the adult response to this phenomenon and I think we need to really worry about what that says for our society. Pending legisation in Congress would treat violent entertainment as a new class of pornography, thus excluding it fom the protection of the First Amendment, authorizing new and far-reaching forms of government regulation over entertainment.


I want to suggest four historical frames for looking at this phenomenon, because none of this debate has looked historically at all in these larger questions.

First, a lot of discussion to protect innocent children doesn't acknowledge that the idea of the innocent child is itself an historical concept. There is a huge debate among historians about where this concept comes from, but it is largely a late 19th early 20th century phenomenon that we began to talk about children as innocent in this way. Some historians argue that it emerged during a time when the economic value of the child as labor was giving way to a sentimental re-evaluation of the child that was partially to explain to people why you want to have a lot of children -- because they are sentimentally valuable to you, they are innocent things, your responsibility is to protect them, they are no longer a revenue stream for the family.

But the term "child" is itself is very vexed in this discussion because, for example, the legislation would restrict those 18 years and under. Yet the rhetorical force of the term "child" in this debate seems to imply we are protecting five and six year olds from contamination by a violent media. I think most Americans and most people around the world feel differently about the kinds of culture consumed by 16 and 17 year olds than they do about three, four, and five year olds. But the language of the child has a rhetorical force that prevents us from confronting the range of ages and increasingly we are adopting policies (and I think MIT is among the places that are adopting policies) which are treating college students in an infantilized way. We are expanding a kind of semi-adult/semi-child class from 18 to 21. We have engrossed more and more of youth culture into this category of the child, and we need to break that down historically and understand where this category comes from and that it is not an automa tic, "oh, yes we want to protect our children" -- well what is a child? "We want to protect our children's innocence" -- well what is innocence? These are questions we want to address more directly.

Second, part of the panic about this is that children are more connected to the wired world than their parents. There is fear of this world that is unknown. Technologies that are part of children's lives and not of adult lives sparked part of this moral panic. Historically, we need to recognize that this is not a new phenomenon.

Every major media revolution has had children as early adapters. I would reference now the work of my colleague, Shari Golden, about children and radio. The discourse about radio as it was introduced was that it was a technology that was better understood by children than adults, or at least that was how it was perceived in many cases. The radio was introduced in the classroom as a tool for learning. It was particularly important for people who didn't learn in traditional ways. Radio was seen as linking children with larger communities within an ethos of public service.

Yet there was also an anxiety about children's misuse of radio, which was one of the key rhetorical devices for pushing away from an amateur radio system into broadcasting. That is, to regulate amateurs, one device was to inspire panic by claiming that "men in short pants," as children were sometimes called, were misusing this technology and surely would have a negative impact on the culture. We need to think about how this debate is being used as a wedge to react against digital media's entrance to the culture.

The third frame needs to be positioned in terms of the context of the larger history of children's play. Maria Tatar talked about violent imagery running through children's literature. We can begin to get into a productive debate when we try to create a nuanced distinction between different kinds of violence. It is that nuanced discussion that is not there when we simply talk about violent images having an immediate consequence for kids.

We also need to put it into the history of children's play. I have written about the continuities between backyard boys' play as historians describe it in 19th and early 20th century and the kinds of themes or images or material that are in these video games. Backyard play is often violent, brutal, and competitive. I don't see a radical break between what boys imagined when I was a boy and what they imagine today. My classmates were drawing vivid pictures in crayon on notebooks in the back of the classroom of WWII people blowing each other's heads off; it seems to me that violent imagery was very much a part of the culture that I was involved in. Much of that play took place outside of adult sight. It took place in the back lots, in the back of the classroom, and it was only brought into view if the teacher collected that sheet of paper.

What has changed is that our kids have limited access to space where they have unsupervised play. As a result, the aggressive impulses that have been part of children's play for a long time are brought into view. They are now being staged in the living room and mothers, for the first time, are confronting the messy business of how we turn boys into men in western culture and it's a scary thing. The imagery is disturbing, but I don't think it is fundamentally different from the role that violence played in earlier time periods.

Finally, we need to situate this attack on digital media into a larger historical context. What struck me when I was speaking to the Senate was that this language of the "Culture War" was being used by both democrats and republicans on the Senate Committee to talk about what was taking place in this event. All of them were on board with "The Culture War." I remember eight years ago Pat Buchanan, speaking at the Republican Convention, first introduced this term, "Culture War," into a larger public venue and people attacked it as extremist rhetoric. Now it no longer seems extremist to liberal democrats, and that worries me a great deal. I argue that what we are seeing is a three stage process in the so-called "Culture War". The first stage was the "moral majority" and the attempt to legislate morality directly through the use of church authorities involved in political discussions. The second stage is the attack on political correctness. It was an attack on the institutions of the university, and especially on the humanities and social sciences -- particularly the new idea of multi-culturalism. They have finally assaulted the ability of humanists to speak of cultural matters because we are now all "tenured radicals." The third stage is now a return to a pseudo-science -- the so-called science of media effects and an appeal to medical authorities like the American Medical Association (AMA) to police and regulate the contents of the culture. There is continually a de-credentialization of humanists when we try to speak out on these issues because we are "not quantitative social scientists." We have no calling on this. David Grossman, a leadi ng advocate of this new legislation on free speech, says the real critics are not Siskel and Ebert, but the AMA. The idea is that medical authorities should be the ones who govern our culture.

I think we have to pull back and examine the history of the attempts to regulate popular culture on scientific or medical grounds. Go back to medical authorities trying to regulate playhouses or the various ways in which medical authorities have been evoked in a discourse of public hygiene or pathology has displaced more debatable questions of taste. I think we need historians to break down this assumption that medical language is an adequate way to address the debates in our culture, and that medical language is somehow above politics and therefore cannot be challenged.

So if we apply history in this way, we can break down the assumptions about the child and we can begin to introduce continuities in the history of children's play that are necessary in order to combat what I was alluding to earlier with the way in which violence is thought to be a force of modernity, corrupting a pure innocent state of childhood that came before, that is, a more authentic childhood which has been corrupted by commercial violence. I think we have got to take that directly on by re-examining the history of violence and its role in children's culture.



JoAnn McGlynn: I am a high school English teacher in Concord, New Hampshire. We just inaugurated a yearlong media literacy course which all our juniors must take. Columbine had quite a dramatic impact on us. In the next two weeks we will be practicing a lock-down at our school with all our population. But we are also pretty lucky to be the "first in the nation primary state." One of our juniors has invited all of the presidential candidates to come to our school to talk about school violence. So far Al Gore and Alan Keyes have agreed to come, and I wondered if you could suggest some questions to ask these candidates?

Jenkins: I happened to catch graduation speeches from many of the major presidential candidates, both republican and democratic: George W. Bush, Orrin Hatch, Al Gore, Bill Bradley -- they all had the same sound bite. They were all applying the same arguments that talk about media violence. They were all quoting David Grossman and his argument that video games were essentially simulator technology that teach our kids to kill -- that they are used in a military training situations and if they are applied in ordinary situations they will have the same effect.

You could try to find differences between presidential candidates on this question. Have they in fact simply embraced a view that this technology is bad and youth culture is inherently corrupting? Have they written off kids as voters? One of the things that Orrin Hatch said at the hearing that really haunted me was, "This culture is abhorrent to any American who thinks." He was describing our youth's culture. Now what are the implications of a politician who has described youth as unthinking -- presumably as not ready for citizenship? Simply because he cannot understand their culture, they are presumed to be outside of citizenly thought. I would love to see Mr. Hatch challenged on the statement that any American who thinks would be appalled by video games. I find that frightening.

I would question them on that level and see if there is a difference between the parties on this question. I think right now there is not. There is no distinction between democrats and republicans in their attack on youth culture. It has been taken off the table in a true Clintonian way of taking issues off the table by capitulating to republican ideology. We need to press at that difference.

It is abundantly clear that these politicians are casting judgments about a form of culture that they have not themselves seen. I would tell your kids to ask, every time these guys reference a movie, if they actually watched that movie.

We saw Bill Bennett stand up before the congressional hearing and say that "Basketball Diaries" was a film that glorified drug use and violence. Now I think anyone who has actually seen that film would be hard-pressed to support that interpretation of it. When you see Leonardo Di Caprio pale white, wracking with pain, spittle dripping down his pretty boy cheeks, it doesn't look like a fun place to be. The point of the film was to show precisely why people got involved with drugs and violence and how they came out the other end -- the horrors of it, the consequences of it, and how you can rebuild your life through creative arts. And to read 20 seconds out of that film as advocating violence could only happen if you were shown 20 seconds of videotape by an aide and you didn't see the work itself.

Whenever a politician talks tabout popular culture ask them, "Have you heard the whole album?" "Have you seen the movie?" "Have you played that game?" "Have you watched that television show?" Because the kind of literalization of interpretation that's going on is what happens when a senate aide translates popular culture into a sound bite and hands it to a politician, who then delivers with absolute moral conviction, believing fully that they are attacking something that lives up to that description. Nine times out of ten it doesn't.

So those are questions I would encourage your students to ask because we need to empower them to recognize that they are people who think, that their popular culture is one of their major vehicles of expressing their political concerns and if politicians declare war on their culture, they are writing them off as members of the electorate and they have every right to be really upset by that.

Audience Member: This is a conference entitled, "Media in Transition" and the subtitle is "An International Conference." I was struck by the lack of international dimensions to the discussions here. I don't want to make this a comment about where is the multi-culturalism and minority issues, but rather what I want to talk about is children, new media and the cultural pedagogies of teleological expression. That is to say, how do different cultures across the world approach this technology?

In place of looking at the users, I want to suggest that we look at four global discourses or forces: nationalism, modernity, post-modernity, and capitalism. I essentially see children and their texts as interfacing with those discourses. If you look at non-media -- the American Dolls collection which is of interest to Sherry Turkle, or Star Trek or Titanic which are really useful as folktales, or the Montessori experience which is of use to Mitch Resnick, or violence and television which is an issue everywhere -- all of these are sort of global vocabularies, but have very specific conjectures depending upon where you are. So we really need to contextualize this discussion within a global international context.

Lerman: You raise an interesting point. We have focused predominately on the American/US perspective. Would the panelists like to respond on a more global scale?

Resnick: We have done a lot of work using some of these technologies in Costa Rica where I have spent a lot of time. One of things we have done there was to give people the raw materials so that they could be the designers and bring their own culture into the ways that it then gets expressed. Of course, even the building blocks that you give someone will have culture embedded in them, but at least you are less subject to some of those problems than you would be elsewhere. We have seen in some places that the computer is seen as a representation of the future. It comes across even more strongly outside the United States, not to say that it is weak in the United States, but that it is even more a symbol of the pathway into the future. We fall into the risk of thinking that technology itself is the answer.

Turkle: Mitch and I were together in the former Soviet Union in the mid-eighties. At that point, being a programmer, knowing something about computers was connoted as a kind of way out -- a way to be part of something not dirty, something clean, something western -- it was the most important emotional charge on the technology. I would also say that the technologies are made very much in the shapes that will be very easily appropriable in the culture in which they will be deployed. On a tiny note about Tamaguchis, Japanese Tamaguchis die if you don't take care of them; American Tamaguchis can be reset. And this very small design change actually has massive implications for how this technology is experienced -- its role in children's thinking and so forth.

Resnick: One other thing about the experience in Costa Rica. There were seeds of much richer possibilities for the computer because the craft tradition was much stronger there than you often see in the United States because there is such an emphasis on delivered entertainment, that there is not a strong craft tradition. This is true in many other countries. When we brought some of these materials to a teachers in Costa Rica, they brought a rich range of craft materials from their homes to elaborate the different types of sculptures they that would build from this. There was a much stronger connection to this new technology than we expected from a rural Costa Rican community. They appropriated it readily since they are very accustomed to taking their materials around with them and making things all the time.

Lerman: When it gets to network computers there is an enormous political dimension. I was doing some work in Malaysia and clearly the conflicting desire to regulate the content coming in and the equally strong desire to become part of the global system is an enormous tension which you see repeated in China and in many other countries in very different ways. Of course, that conflict is still playing itself out. In effect, the question being explored is: "Can we have all the global benefits of being on an Internet, but still have a degree of political control over the content that flows?" My personal answer is probably "no" in the long term, but in the short term it can create enormous stresses.

Peter Walsh: The kinds of things you are talking about -- toys, conflict between generations, folklore -- all have a long history in the culture, and I would argue they probably have biological origins. Do you think the new technology is moving them along the same path they have been going in the past? Or are they moving them off in a new direction? Are they reversing them? Is there something fundamentally new about the computer and the things that we call new media that is changing these historical events, distorting them, or are they just increasing them and moving them along the lines they have been moving?

Tatar: I do see a real danger in globalization because we are creating these master narratives to which I referred earlier. It is interesting that the gentleman who spoke earlier mentioned Star Wars and Titanic as narratives known by all adolescents. I want to connect that with something that Henry said. It struck me that he kept referring to "their culture," to the adolescent culture as if they really owned it and created it -- hasn't that been imposed on them to some extent? Hasn't Nintendo created it? I think about the way that I observe 12 year-old boys playing Nintendo -- they love to play it and have a great time, they are glued to the set and then afterwards go outside and play baseball, and then they start to critique their own playing of Nintendo. They are sort of upset by the fact that they spent so much time in front of the screen even though they seemed to have been enjoying it while they were doing it.

Jenkins: The question of ownership of culture has multiple layers. Certainly it would be naive and simplistic to say the content of that media was simply and directly a reflection of contemporary viewpoints. On the other hand, youth often do feel a sense of ownership over forms of popular culture, and it is not simply over the material, but the uses they have made of it and the way they integrated it into their own lives. They have taken up those characters and turned them into a personal mythology or symbol system onto which they have mapped meanings.

When I hear young people talking about this as their culture, it's that they have adopted certain symbols from a whole range of options. Most records fail, most televisions shows are canceled and so forth. They have selected certain things that really speak to them and then have developed a culture around those things. That is as much a folk culture as it is a media culture. I see folk culture as continuing to operate quite strongly among children and youth culture around these media products. I see it as at least as much their culture as any other traditional materials of childhood. But we do have to be sure of what we are talking about when we claim ownership over culture. It is a slightly different phenomenon when you are talking about something that is commercially produced and released for profit. But is that any different from stories told by adults and then released for education that kids nevertheless invested into and found new uses for at various points in their earlier cultural eras.

Audience Member: Henry, when you spoke at the beginning about college kids being infantilized, I noticed the shifting around of the term "children." In fact, you seem to be talking as much about what we used to call "teenagers" as what we would call "children." The very way we use the word "children" is going to have a lot to do with how we debate this question. I would also suggest that you were arguing that it is too dangerous to turn this over to the doctors and we have to keep these arguments in the hands of the humanists and Sherry Turkle is arguing that we need to bring back the basically humanistic language of Freud and Piaget into the discussion of how children perceive these machines. And Mitchel, you were talking about how we have to become like children; we have to finger-paint; and Maria was talking about peasants and how we make folktales or fairy tales for ourselves as adults, not necessarily for children. So it seems to me that one theme that unites all of this and the way we understand this new media with respect to children is very much how we think of what a child is and at what point a child is no longer a child and is entitled to independent treatment. That strikes me as very important.

Jenkins: Exactly! That to me is the essence of the question, how do we define a child? What values do we map on the children and isn't that the corner of the debate? We often want to act as if children were sheltered from adult politics, but the reality is that almost every major debate of the 20th century has been fought through the figure of the child who often becomes a kind of human shield from criticism. Whoever mobilizes the figure of the child first in the political debate seems to be exempted from attack because to attack them is to attack the innocent child and that's an enormously loaded category -- that of the child and where it blurs into youth seems to me a very ambiguous and constantly changing question.

Turkle: I have just a story. When the TY Company announced that they were discontinuing Beanie Babies, it made the front page of the New York Times. My daughter, who is now a 8 year old precocious reader, saw the story and felt a sense of ownership. When I was growing up, I never thought that any of my toys were being written about on the front page of the New York Times. Anyway, she read the article and it said that many attribute this decision to "Pokemon." she looks up and says to me, "That's not right, they never asked any kids about this." There was really a sense of ownership and participation. We are seeing the consumer group of children with their consumer power and the political economy of that move as an important backdrop to this entire conversation. So that you have an 8 year old say with complete confidence about the New York Times, "This is not a quote from a child, what do they know about whether its due to Pokemon?"

Compiled by Mary Hopper

  Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture
  • Maria Tatar, Fairy Tales Across Media
  • Mitch Resnick, Children, Toys, Media
  • Sherry Turkle, New Media and Children's Identity
    media in transition    agenda    speakers    summaries    papers    dialogue