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CHILDREN, MEDIA AND THE RELATIONAL PLANET:some reflections from the European context - 1

*This speech was presented at "Cultural Ecology" seminar supported by the Hoso Bunka Foundation, which was established by NHK, the public broadcasting firm in Japan, November 6, 1998, Tokyo, Japan.

1. An ever-quickening changing society

We are caught up in a historical period characterized by the ever-quickening pace of social change. It is becoming increasingly clear that both new technologies and new social and cultural phenomena are taking us towards a very different society in the future, but we do not know exactly what it will be like.

These rapid changes call for greater ability for people to understand one another across countries and across generations. In addition, the increasing cultural diversity of European nations demands an improved ability for young people to understand and work with people with different perspectives. Children's democratic socialization becomes extremely important if we wish to develop a citizenry which is flexible, cooperative, responsible and caring. But, we can perceive a great challenge ahead: how should we socialize our children so that they can live responsibly in a world where many of its segments are as yet unknown?

During last decade such questions have been raised in different European meetings, including different meetings of our Ministers. For example, as far as in September 1989, the Final Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Family Affairs on Methods of child-upbringing in Europe today and the role of family services, held in Nicosia, analyzed the increasing preoccupation in the European society for the influences on our children of the big changes going on in the European Society. In point 9 of that document, we can read:

The Ministers felt that methods or habits of child-upbringing in the modern family and the influence of various elements in modern society need to be further investigated by specialists. As a contribution towards the achievement of the goals and ideals that are those of the European democracies, it is possible that, in the light of further investigation, modified types of guidance might be needed...

Among their conclusions, I would like to point out paragraph 28:

The Ministers proposed that consideration be given at national and international levels to conducting scientific research and other studies into the effect that modern child-upbringing methods have on later life and specially on adolescent and youth behavior. In all research attention should also be given to the role of extra-familial socialization agents.

That document was a basic background for the approval of the Council of Europe Project on Childhood Policies in which I was personally involved for 4 years.

European authors debating modern socialization processes in our countries have been emphasizing during many years that at present children's socialization is depending mainly on three major social agents: family, school and television. But television is no more "only television": now we must speak also about the new screens (Barthelmes, 1991; Casas, 1993; 1998).

More recently, different European researches are showing how peer relations may have been underestimated. Television and other new technologies seem to play an important and influential role through peer relationships, among children 6 to 16 years old, in the European countries (Suess et al., 1998).

Anyway, new technological equipments have reached both homes and schools - and both, parents and teachers have meet new challenges in their daily relations with their children. Public opinion has been told to be divided in Europe in a kind of binary determinism: Optimistic versus pessimistic (Sefton-Green, 1998). Some optimistic people think that computers themselves (and other technological equipments) will improve our lives and facilitate global communication. Some pessimistic people think that they will bring more control of our lives and dehumanization.

Many parents and teachers are feeling they are loosing authority - not only because they feel unskilled, or they are reluctant to change old schemes of knowledge transmission -, but also because children have access to an increasing quantity of knowledge through other means. Young people can access other sources of authority which differ from those that adults conventionally believe they control. Ideas of parental authority are clearly changing in Europe. But there is also the conviction that formal education (school) is being detroned from the top of the tree of knowledge (Sefton-Green, 1998). School has been considered as the prime mode of entry into democratic society, and now big questions are rised about how this entry will happen in the next future.

The influence of media interacting with the influence of peer groups has suggested that we are in front of youngster's new cultures, but also of children's cultures, which are very often very different - and rather authonomous - from adult's and from adult's expected cultures.

One the one hand, adolescents have always wanted to have their own identity, clearly differentiated from adults. This normal psychosocial process seems to be starting more and more early in children's lives in our countries. Adolescents and youngsters are clearly occupying spaces in our cities and in our social life, when adults are not there. If they can't feel they own physical spaces, then they occupy spaces symbolically (as for example, with graffiti).

Youngsters are becoming more and more active social agents - and children also are. Allow me to explain a curious example. Some years ago, when Son-Goku cartoons were by the first time in a Spanish television channel, there was a merchandising mistake and children could not find products with the characters of the cartoons in Barcelona shops. Many parents of under 12, by that time, were pushed to go to one of our Sunday morning markets (Mercat de Sant Antoni), where children had organized themselves to exchange photocopies of their own designs of the cartoons (Munné & Codina, 1992). This behavior was so motivating for children that it can still be observed at present in my city. Children demonstrated they can be active, organizing their own spaces and interests.

On the other hand, some new technologies are creating new communicational problems between parents and children. Traditionally children were supposed to be not-yet as competent and skilled as adults. At present it is undeniable that many children are much more skilled dealing with new technologies than many adults; some times adults do not have enough information to speak with children, and children are the ones updated.

We have been discussing in some European fora that we can't analyze all of these new social phenomena with old schemes. The need of adopting new ways of relating with children as citizens has been often defended: We can't continue considering children as the social category of the not-yets. However, many adults do not accept that children are not only our common future, but also are present citizens, and that new ways of promoting responsible citizenship socialization processes must be adopted.
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