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CHILDREN, MEDIA AND THE RELATIONAL PLANET:some reflections from the European context - 5

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.

5. Quality of life and children's rights

What is the relation between human rights, children's rights and quality of life? We have traditionally assumed that the rights, and particularly children's rights, are related to two "p", provision and protection - both of them refer to negative situations that we must overcome. After the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child we are speaking of a third "p" principle, that is more positive: participation.

The lack of respect towards some rights is reflected in deprived material conditions of living. Such situations can be identified and evaluated by observers, by experts.

From a historical perspective, any human right actually recognized "objectively" (tentatively evaluated with "objective" social indicators) started being just an aspiration of small groups of people; that is to say, started as a "subjective", psychosocial behavior of a minoritarian group. If we assume our aspirations, and we want to be proactive from a positive perspective, we must start speaking about two more "p" principles: prevention and promotion. These two principles offers us a link between the Convention and the quality of life studies.

A traditional attribution from the adults group to children's group is their lower competencies, their lower capacities for knowledge, their lower information and understanding of world "as it is" (Postman, 1982). Adults have traditionally supposed that some information must be reserved for adults. "Common sense says" that some information must not be given to children and some others must only be given if adapted to their capacities of understanding.

These limitations brought that right to information was included in the Convention:

Art. 13.- The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, ...

Art 17.- States Parties recognize the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international resources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health. To this end, States parties shall:(a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child...

It is now not only a problem of lack of information on the part of children. The real "problem", because of TV, seems to be also just the opposite: Children have a huge amount of information, sometimes bigger than adults, about all topics, because they are more hours in front of TV (Von Feilitzen, 1991). These information include all kinds of topics traditionally considered inappropriate for children, and even these having a broad consensus they are prejudicial for children's well-being (violence, unlimited consumerism, and so on). If different amounts of information -of knowledge- was an important element for differential categorization of children, as suggested by Postman (1982), the old categories are in someway in crisis.

That suggest that we, adults in general, are those who must change our minds to accept and understand the new children's capacities and competence in front of different new technologies. As soon as we accept and understand them better, we will be able to test ways of promoting them in different contexts and in different countries.

Improving children's situation in the world is not only related to protecting them, but also to increase their quality of life.

In our postmodern, iconic societies, we have the challenge of offering new images of children and childhood. Media have a crucial influence to change the "old" social representations on them; but they have also the capacity of changing representations which are not in the direction of the best interests of the child.

In the international macrocontext where child research develops, the Convention on the Rights of the Child of the UN has raised new challenges for the international community of researchers and gives strong support to changes in the focus of child research.

As many authors have pointed out, the Convention on the Rights of the Child opens a new historical period for children over the world (Verhellen, 1992; Miljeteig, 1994). Both in a sociological and in a psychosocial sense the Convention even starts a "new childhood", a new image of what children are as a social group or as a social category (Qvortrup, 1990; Casas, 1991; 1998). Which are and must be the consequences of such event for the international community of child researchers?

Traditionally, child research has mainly been produced in industrialized countries, and their products have also been "consumed" primarily in the same countries. Even among such countries, the research produced in English has been much more supported and disseminated than research produced in other languages. All of that means that a great deal of research production, with important applied implications, has not reached, or only reaches very slowly non-industrialized countries, and therefore, their children often do not benefit of its learning. Besides, child research capacity building and utilization in developing countries is still in its very primary steps, so the western culture bias is an important limit to understand children's situation in other cultures.

On the other hand, in our European societies children are socially represented as a different category of human beings than adults. Our actions for children, and our interaction with children are contextualized by the traditional representations of children being a different social category of people. We have needed a separated Convention to make internationally clear that children also belong to the group of these having human rights. We must think more about that.

For example, the ages established by different national legislation in European countries to fix different competence have been shown to be highly diverse and inconsistent (Council of Europe, 1996). That has lead to the consideration, even among scientists, that the prevailing adult centric idea of "competence" must be reconstructed. Consequently, other related concepts such as "social participation" and "responsibility" need also to be reconstructed from the perspective of children.

It has been told that child research has been mainly research about children, that now we are also considering research for children, and that we are still very timidly starting to develop research with children.

The Convention offers a new framework; it is the opportunity to build up a new psychosocial context (attitudinal, representational) for children. The great challenge is now to ensure that the promises of the Convention become a reality for all children through effective implementation throughout the world. And beyond the Convention, we may also start new relationships and new networking to improve our actions for the quality of children's lives throughout the world.

The role of universities and research institutes in the implementation of the Convention has not been much in the focus of the attention up until now in many countries. But both of them, and also scientific researchers in NGOs can contribute substantially to the implementation and monitoring of the Convention (Miljeteig, 1994).

Research from literally all disciplines can contribute to supporting the process of implementing and monitoring the Convention. Experience has shown that an inter-disciplinary approach to children's issues often turns out to have a cross-fertilizing and fruitful effect (Miljeteig, 1994).

Next, there is a great need for efforts to analyze and interpret the Convention as a whole as well as the implications of the various provisions. The concept of children's rights (and other concepts related to it, as for example "the best interest of the child", as pointed out by Australian lawyer Alston, 1994) will have different meanings in different legal, political and cultural systems, and it is necessary to ensure that the specific traditions of a country are taken into consideration in the implementation of the Convention without distorting its major universal principles.

We could also add the particular challenge posed to researchers in industrialized countries as formulated in the 1994 State of the World's Children Report directly speaking about technologies (UNICEF, 1994):

To undertake intensive research efforts, in cooperation with scientists and technicians from developing countries, in order to develop and deploy the kind of technologies which will raise living standards and fulfil legitimate aspirations without endangering the biosphere.

Different challenges raised by the Convention bring us to new perspectives to take children into consideration, and in depth, face us to new ways of socially represent children and childhood. This challenges can only be given answers if we become an interactive relational and international community identifying and aiming similar goals. We believe that by networking we will be able to sum up efforts to contribute to the construction of the new -yet developing- childhood of our planet, both disseminating scientific knowledge world-wide and contributing to change people's representations of children and childhood in order to integrate children's perspectives and their best interest in our political developments and in our every days life. That includes giving grounded scientific support to increase children's social participation, and to the development of activities for children and with children.

With the Convention I believe that a new Era, a new historical period has indeed started for our children. Even if changes are slow, we have evidence that many changes have started. But to consolidate changes I think we, scientists, have the challenge to invent, to create new images of our future childhood and to develop and illustrate social skills to make them become real. Only maintaining a high consensus, but increasing intensity of our attention towards children's rights, social representations on childhood will change in the direction of looking as "common sense", as "the best logic", improving the situation of children's rights in the world.

The gap between technological advanced societies and developing countries does not seem to be decreasing, at least in some huge areas of the planet as Africa. Probably you know that you have more telephones in Tokyo area than they have altogether in the countries of the so-called black Africa.

But, also in many parts of the world the increasing gap is between rural and urban areas, or between cultural, ethnic or religious minorities and the majoritarian group. How this situations - and even others as armed conflicts, political changes, economical crisis, and so on - are influencing children's socialization processes? Will be able to find alternatives to avoid negative effects on children's lives?
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