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CHILDREN, MEDIA AND THE RELATIONAL PLANET:some reflections from the European context - 4

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.

4. Children's quality of life

Quality of life studies, in the sense we understand quality of life at present in social psychology, appeared at the end of the 60s as a proposal of approaching social change in a different perspective.

Very often sciences have been only focusing in the phenomena showing things going in the wrong/ill/or "bad" direction. For example, western medicine has been for centuries only interested in illness/disease/sickness. Just a few decades ago a rising interest appeared to study how things go in a good direction, or how things may improve even if they are not bad: for example, through health promotion.

In social sciences we have been studying during decades how do social problems work, and only very recently we have become interested in how to promote well-being or quality of life. This change of perspectives, from the negatively connoted constructs to the positively connoted constructs, from my point of view, is a silent, but very far-reaching revolution.

The material conditions of living have been taken, during the first half of this century, as good indicators of well-being and of progress. More and more, social scientists stated that what is important is how people do experience their own lives, and that material conditions may not indicate anything about people's real worries and needs (Campbell, Converse and Rodgers, 1976).

At the end of the 60s some serious attempts to develop major research about people's happiness or satisfaction with life, or with specific domains of life, appeared and important scientific debates started (Casas, 1989; 1996).

Actually the concept quality of life has so many meanings in Europe that it would not be appropriated to speak about it without explaining a little bit about my own theoretical assumptions in relation to it.

For some people its meaning is synonymous of welfare. For some other it is equivalent to material well-off, comfort, or even luxury. For others it is related to well-being, happiness, good life, and so on.

Some aspects actually related to quality of life have been considered objects of scientific research only very recently. That is the case of happiness, satisfaction with life, psychological well-being, and so on. For decades these phenomena have been considered subjective, and "therefore" of no scientific value. That was the consequence of a very limited way of understanding science, the positivist perspective.

In the 1960s some things started to change in a deep sense. Different theoretical conceptualizations and scientific models for QOL (quality of life) started to be developed, trying to conciliate material ("objective") and non-material ("subjective") aspects of the environment. QOL started to be considered a function on material and psychosocial environment:

QOL = f (Em, EPS).

Such non-material and "subjective" phenomena as perceptions, evaluations and aspirations about our own life have become of key scientific value and are taken as components of most of the research on quality of life (Campbell, Converse and Rodgers, 1997).

In social sciences, as well as in social life, very often quality has been used as opposed to "quantity". To know to which extend we agree there is quality in some domain of life we need some consensus about what is "good quality", that is to say, we need some normative standard to compare with "reality". We need more discussion on values meaning "quality". What is duality of children's life?
Pediatricians, developmental psychologists, as well as pedagogist and other professionals have invested a big deal of energies this century along to understand what is good for child development. Parents usually also want "the best" for their children. But experts often disagree, or change their mind, and parents may also disagree with them. Also the Convention on the Rights of the Child stands for children's best interest. We have become aware that there are important cultural differences (or diversities) about what is good for children (Childwatch International, 1995; Ennew, 1996; Casas, 1997). That brings us to the topic of social representations of childhood, and of their "social" problems, and of the ways society (and social policies) must deal with social problems of children (Chombart de Lauwe, 1971; 1984; 1989; Casas, 1995; 1997).

Undoubtedly social representations on children influence in a relevant way on how children construct their own social identity. One of the authors that was conscious of these interactions and has reviewed them several times is Chombart de Lauwe (1971; 1984; 1989). For this author representations are products of both human psyche and culture, interacting. They allow communications between individuals, and, particularly, between generations (Chombart de Lauwe, 1989).

Chombart de Lauwe, more than twenty years ago already pointed out the links between social representations on children and childhood, and representations that children construct about their social environment -important aspect of their socialization-. She illustrated the increasing role of mass-media, in our societies, in giving information and images that are related with these links, and that contribute to the constructions of complex universes of socialization.

If we overview the research referred to the quality of children's lives, when we speak about elder children (8 to 12 year-olds), and sometimes also about teenagers, we find very few publications in which children have been asked (I have found, nevertheless, some brilliant exceptions in Japan: The International Comparative Survey. A child's view of what a family should be). The most usual research in Europe in that field is about the attribution of needs, or the perceptions of quality, that adults (experts or parents) do about children. That is a misuse of the concept "quality of life", because it betrays the basic definition of the concept: people's owns perceptions, evaluations, aspirations. So, in practice, what is labeled research on children's quality of life, is not truly on the quality of their lives but on other's perceptions or opinions about their lives.

Traditionally what is good or best for children has been decided by parents or by experts. First experts "knew" about children's needs from their own view as experts; step by step, it has been assumed that experts must also take into account the perspective of the child, because it may be different than adult's. But, even though this change of perspective is very important, it has still been taken for granted that children must not be asked, because they do not know (are not-yet capable or competent) what is good for them. Who is right and who is wrong has been decided on beforehand. If we compare this situation with the recent historical process of studying quality of life, we may suddenly wonder about this being the right question. Maybe if we ask children, sometimes they will agree and sometimes they will disagree with different groups of adults, and then we may rise a question mark about the reasons of such disagreements and learn out of them.

Disagreements between children's perspectives about their own lives, and adult's perspectives about children's lives are an important dimension of social life. Adolescents and youngsters in general are well-known as much more "risk-takers" than adults; having new amusing experiences, knowing their limits, is very important for them. For adults "security" is much more important. For youngsters, security measures imposed by adult may be considered simply limitations to their freedoms and "must not" be taken into account; and so on.
Traditionally there has been a strong reluctance of social scientists to accept children's self-reported information as reliable (in agreement with the adult's social representation of children as "not-yets" - Verhellen, 1992; Casas, 1996). The consequences have been dramatic in some arenas, as for example judicial processes (Casas, 1997).

This attitude has only recently started to change. We even have an available number of publications recommending how to communicate with children better (Richman, 1993). As Garbarino, Stott et al. (1989) stated, it is adult's orientation and competence that raises the difference of children's competence, even in judicial proceedings.

We had assumed that we can understand children's points of view just thinking as adults. And now we are only starting to learn from children themselves which are their real perspectives to understand many things in their/our common social world.

Developmental psychologists have been for long time testing instruments to ask children in order to understand the cognitive capacities and other skills of children. After them, probably those more interested in knowing children's points of view have been publicists and professionals involved with the media: children are consumers, are television audience, so their preferences must be asked. In recent years we have been able to read publications in which children are asked just to know what they really think about something. We have a number of researches asking about their opinion on the family (CRN, 1994; Van Gils, 1995), about their own rights (Cherney and Perry, 1994; Ochaita, Espinosa and Grediaga, 1994), about their neighborhood or city (Casas, 1996), and so on.

We actually need to exchange and disseminate much more research results on children's owns perspectives and opinions about different aspects of their lives.

Step by step we, researchers are accepting that the challenge is to understand children's perspectives, to avoid children's exclusion from real social life -from social participation-. We can no more with no criticism share the general adult's consideration of children as "not-yet" competent. Human life is a process, and nobody gets suddenly "already competent" one day, the day that a law says he or she has "become adult", formally entering a different social category.

An example of data collecting produced by children themselves, which is in the very beginnings, is the one focused on children's evaluations and expectations about their urban environment or about their neighborhood. Environmental psychologists have been studying for some decades the relation between perceived environment and "objective" environment. Children's points of view about their neighborhood or their city has been often explored through designs or compositions, which only allowed to analyze the views of a very limited number of children, with outstanding components of adult's interpretations biases.

At present, Internet is offering new ways of data collecting from children, as you know very well in Japan, because of the pioneering experience of CRN. Forums open for children to discuss different topics of their interest are already active in many places (for example, at the municipality of Barcelona: http://www.bcn.es/infancia). Appropriated content analysis of their discussions and proposal on their lives offers new interesting perspectives to better understand children's cultures.
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