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CHILDREN, MEDIA AND THE RELATIONAL PLANET:some reflections from the European context - 3

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.
 
3. Children's cultures
Children and new technologies are becoming key topics to think about our common social future, at the international arena. "Screen" technologies are probably the most relevant for different reasons: they are related to information, to communication possibilities, to "new" cultures, to the development of new skills, to knowledge construction, etc.
Audiovisual technologies, multimedia, and other technologies are influencing our everyday's life, our life styles, our ways of entertaining and also our ways of relating and communicating with other people. They also stimulate our capacities (cognitive, sensitive, emotional, and creative) using different new possibilities: interactivity, virtual reality, etc. Such new tools have also put new elements into the academic and epistemological debates: we are not only in front of new situations - fantasy and virtually have become "real", because we can interact with it, and change it (Munn & Codina, 1992). They can be potentially used to stimulate, promote and practically experiencing values that are very important for international understanding and co-operating: respect for natural and cultural diversity, peace, tolerance, democracy, and so on.
Of course new situations and new technologies also imply new risks (Barkler & Perley, 1997). We must not forget the negative side and the negative social impact of some technological developments and work together to prevent and to avoid them.
The effects on a child's socialization of broadcasting certain competitive values accenting rivalry, aggression and violence, especially via the cinema and television, have been repeatedly studied, debated and denounced, sometimes with contradictory results (Martn Serrano, 1990; Barkler & Perley, 1997). Particularly violence and any violations of human dignity and of human rights must be combated.
In the International Congress on Children, Young Persons and Audiovisual Media (Valencia, January 1991) it was already repeatedly underlined from different research results that all over Europe, boys and girls watch all sorts of television programs, the same as their parents, and usually their viewing is not restricted to programs that are, in theory, specifically aimed at young audiences. This is vitally important when analyzing the relationship between children and television.
Children's cultures are quickly changing, as well as children's cultural consume of leisure (Munn & Codina, 1992). A soon as video-games and computers - and more recently Internet - fascinated children, new risks have been pointed out: more face to face experience is needed by children to develop some social skills, physical activate of children may be decreasing too much, new psychological pathologies may appear, hand-writing and reading abilities are lower, horror and violent films are used just to impress peers, and so on. It is also obvious that new opportunities have appeared, and that we are not always maximizing them.
Descriptive surveys have been developed recently in Europe to know the level of new technologies use by adolescents and youngsters in our countries. Big differences appear: In Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, more than 60% are at least weekly using a computer; in Greece less than 20%. In Finland and Sweden next to 30% are using Internet at least weekly; but less of 5% are using it in Belgium, Greece, Spain, France or Portugal.
 
Table 2: Using new technology weekly by youngsters 15 to 24 years old in the European Union

However, if we analyze the tendencies, in all European countries the use of all new technologies is fast increasing among youngsters. The differences among countries are depending on the historical differences in the development of the so-called technological advanced society in each country (Inglehart, 1977; 1990).
Some European coordinated researches are at present exploring other aspects of new technologies use among younger children, 6 to 16 years old. In general, all households with children of that ages have much better media equipment than those with no children.
 
Table 3: Media equipment in Finnish, Spanish and Swiss households (in percent)


But we must go more far away. It is very important to know, not only how many new technological equipment there are, and how they are used. Culture is much more, and includes human interaction also to produce non-material products. We need more relevant information about which roles are playing new technologies to improve human relationships, human interactions, and children's socialization process.
Of course, such research is not completely new. I am only stating that we need much more. For example, in the European coordinated research by Suess, Suoninen, Garitaonandia et al. (1998), they have found important differences of relationships among peers mediated by media (television and the new screens) use, depending of age groups, of gender and of country. They have also found that, in general, in the studied European countries, the use of media (TV and new screens) does not substitute for communication and interaction with real people in any of the age groups. While there are friends around, younger children usually prefer play to media use, and they certainly prefer the company of friends to the company of media.
Of course, such research is not completely new. I am only stating that we need much more. For example, in the European coordinated research by Suess, Suoninen, Garitaonandia et al. (1998), they have found important differences of relationships among peers mediated by media (television and the new screens) use, depending of age groups, of gender and of country. They have also found that, in general, in the studied European countries, the use of media (TV and new screens) does not substitute for communication and interaction with real people in any of the age groups. While there are friends around, younger children usually prefer play to media use, and they certainly prefer the company of friends to the company of media.
Belonging to groups and fan-cultures seems to be of special importance for 12 to 13 years-olds in Switzerland, while in Finland this might be said to belong more to the culture of 9 to 10 year-olds and in Spain to 15 to 16 year-olds. These differences in cultural timing might be seen to be connected with the level of independence of children and the role of the family in their lives. This kind of very strong commitment to a certain youth group belongs to the stage when children are gaining more independence from their parents and are moving towards youth cultures and building up an individual identity (Suess et al., 1998).
Media use and media contents can be used in strengthening peer relationships and a sense of group identity. Different subcultural groups express their group identity by similarities in media use. When children grow older (in general, from puberty on), media-related play with peers is substituted by discussions with peers about media contents. Even though children and teenagers in Europe tend not to watch television in the company of their friends, they very often make comments and speak about the television programs and films which they have seen. Also console and computer games are common topics of conversation - both electronic device itself and the different games - particularly among boys. Curiously, girls often playing games do not speak with peers about them as often as boys (Suess et al., 1998).
From a very early age, gender differences in media use a have been identified in all European countries. Girls and boys prefer different media and they have different media related conversations. Both, boys and girls, spend their time watching television or playing computer games or console games, but they prefer different TV programs and games, and, in general, boys play more computer games and are more interested in computers, and they talk more about them, than girls do. But there is one exception - girls are very interested in some aspect of computer culture: electronic mail and chat groups on the Internet - in Finland, for example, they are using this facilities more often than boys (Suess et al., 1998).
In another research, developed with a small sample of parents and children in Barcelona city (Casas, 1998b), we have found that 50% of parents of children often playing video-games never have a conversation with children about such activity. That means that an interesting activity in the life of some children has never got a place in the communicational spaces with their parents. For us that has been a worrying discovery.
Probably what Llull (1980) said - about television six different types of social uses - could be useful to analyze the use of other media:

- may act as an environmental resource.
- can be used for regulating daily activities.
- may facilitate communication by offering common topics for talk.
- can be used for seeking or avoiding contact with other people.
- their contents may be means for social learning.
- may be used for demonstrating competence or dominance.

As we have already said, we can't think on children only as "future": They are also a relevant part of our "present", they are active members of our societies. We must also "understand" how children themselves are thinking about media and new technologies, are using them, and are relating them with their own personal future, through present expectations, wishes and aspirations.
Through the mass media, not only do children absorb values and behavior patterns, but they also perceive the adult world's attitudes towards them, the attributes that as "minors" they are afforded, and the roles assigned to them in social dynamics. These adult attitudes as perceived by children through the mass media are a rarely examined subject whose in-depth analysis is overdue.
Important research activities have already been developed in different countries focusing on the analysis of the relation between personal and psychosocial variables of the child, and different behaviors or different ways of using and relating with new technologies. But we are missing comparative research in which different general contexts (social, cultural, educational, and so on) are taken into account to analyze the global implications and global possibilities of different new technologies, and of different ways of using them, in children's lives.
Such research could be key in order to debate how to maximize the positive aspects of new technologies in different (transnational) contexts, and how to prevent any wrong impact in their lives.
There are some important perspectives to develop research in this field which, up to now, in my personal opinion, have not been paid as attention as they worth. Let me expose four of them, in a quick summary:

a) Interaction of children with different new technologies.
A lot of research has been developed on "present" interaction of children with different audiovisual technologies. Review publications on the state of the art are available. It is clear that more international comparative data are needed. But, from my point of view, what is needed is research about the perceptions and evaluations of children and teenagers (up to 18 years old) about the role of new technologies on their own future.
A theoretical model (M.A.P.) on aspirations and performances of children would be useful to design research to explore such aspects of social reality in children's lives.
 
b) Social interaction among children, mediated by new technologies.
During the last decades, interactions in peer groups have been given growing importance among developmental psychologists and among educationalists. Research on audiovisual means has shown that children's cultures are an useful broader concept that may take into account the influence of peer groups.
New technologies play important roles in the changing dynamics of children's cultures. Research on such roles may be considered from the micro to the macrosocial level: From the study of the child-child interaction, to the study of the interrelation among different age groups, and the influences from elder to younger groups of children in the development of new cultures and values.
 
c) Social relations between children and adults, mediated by new technologies.
We have an important amount of research on how children know and use different technologies, how much time they invest on them, and so on. There is not that much research about how children's experiences and knowledge on new technologies is present and is recognized in the dialogs and personal communications established between adults and children.
Some preliminary research comparing information that children have and that adults have about some new technologies offers relevant different results. At the same time, research shows that important percentages of parents feel unable to properly dialog with their children about some new technologies (e.g.: video games, computers), or even they never speak with children about the activities of boys and girls with such technologies, although children's consider such activities as very important for themselves. As a result of such situation, new problems in the adults-children communication have been identified, which could be taken into account to avoid confusion in the adults-children interactions, and even negative consequences in the personal relationships.
 
d) The media-ecology context and the impact of new technologies in children's populations.
To evaluate the impact of any new technological application in children's lives we need assessment instruments which may be used transculturally and transnationally. The construction of such instruments requires an accurate previous methodological work, including comparison of different samples.
But also an important deal of conceptual work is needed. Which social changes due to new technologies should be considered positive and which not? What should be considered "good practices" in the development of technological applications to be used by children? The main goal orienting such a research line, in my personal opinion, should be grounded in the question How new technologies can improve children's quality of life in different regions in the world? Of course, that question must include the challenge of improving children's rights in different contexts, when appropriate, in reference to UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
An additional point, which rises important question marks in front of us -as experts willing to promote children's rights and children's quality of life- is related with the inequalities and gaps of knowledge which are appearing between those children who have access to modern information technologies and those who are not. Which strategies and which plans of action are needed, nationally and internationally, to overcome such inequalities? How to evaluate the success of such plans?

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