Up until a few generations ago, children learned about the world around and beyond them—about their culture and people, about their imaginative and spiritual life—through direct personal experiences. They learned about their culture and history through tales, rituals, stories and advice as told by family members and wise elders. Children learned about their surroundings through exploring—touching, smelling, being outdoors, taking care of animals—all of which provided them valuable material for a generative and creative childhood imagination. Children were socialized through “the immediate experiences of their senses in a setting limited to the people of tribe and family, the livestock, wild animals, and physical characteristics of a narrow milieu.”1 This is how human culture has hitherto been built up and handed down.
Each successive media technology has altered this primordial landscape. New media are not adopted in a vacuum, but are layered on top of the older media; they coexist with and are informed by the older forms of communication, cultural values, and social practices, even as they alter them.2 The adoption of the written word, beginning in the late forth millennium B.C.E.,3 changed how we communicate—allowing information to be stored and disseminated, but also eroding memory and oral culture.4 The invention of the printing press brought about a long revolution in reading, in books and education, one that allowed the majority of the world’s people to become literate only as recently the years following World War II.5 After the First World War, the widespread adoption of the first non-print media in the form of radio and cinema brought forth a whole new experience of popular culture and mass media.6 Information, entertainment, news, popular culture, were now disseminated with a ubiquity and a rapidity never before seen. Media came into our very homes, and became available around the clock. Television became a central focus of home life, and it changed our familial and social relationships—largely by diminishing them.7
We had barely begun to deal with the changes wrought by these media experiences when ‘new media’—the Internet, video games, virtual reality and social media—burst onto the scene. Children are routinely exposed to new media from birth, and they will grow up before we have time to reason through all the ways in which it impacts them. If this were an experiment, it would be one of colossal proportions: an experiment on connecting, monitoring, disseminating and controlling information, under conditions that humans have never before experienced. We do not know how this will affect children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and creative development, and the ways in which this will shape the human cultures of the future.8
It is not only the nature of the changes that require our consideration, but also the sheer pace of the technological change. Internet users worldwide have grown at a speed that is unprecedented for any media platform to come before.9 The Internet and new media have now taken up a majority of our time, transforming our daily habits, exposing us to a new set of values, and displacing other activities. For the first time ever, American adults are spending eleven hours per day interacting with media—a clear majority of their waking hours.10 The situation is similar for children. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the role of media in the lives of children and youth tells us that 8- to 10-year-olds are exposed to media for almost eight hours a day, 11- to 14-year-olds for nearly 12 hours a day, and 15- to 18-year-olds for about eleven-and-a-half hours per day.11 The media children are using include television, music players, computers, and video games, with TV continuing to be the most-used medium across all age groups.12 People of all ages are playing video games on average a little over an hour per day.13 The authors found that the use of media was increasing, and that children aged eight to eighteen “spend more time with media than in any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping[.]”14
Within these broad categories, however, individuals have distinct ‘diets’ such that they are engaged in very different activities with their media time.15 Media exposure works much as our eating habits do—our health is shaped by patterns of use and habits that persist over the long term, with some media diets being associated with much better outcomes than others. After all, children use the Internet for a whole host of reasons, many of which are good ones: to learn about computers, to find information, to do homework, to explore hobbies and topics of interest, as well as for entertainment, games, and for social purposes—including connecting with loved-ones and making new friends.16 Computer use in the home is strongly linked to the educational and socio-economic status of the parents, and many parents purchase computers for the purpose of better educating their children. The evidence shows that Internet use at home is indeed primarily for school and education.17 The Internet, being a repository for knowledge, contains plenty of beneficial content for learning and entertainment—books, videos, news—as well as violent, sexual, hateful, and other undesirable content. The bulk of human knowledge is either found online, or is indexed somewhere online.18
Not all Internet use is beneficial for child development. When it comes to screen time, about 39% of screen time is passive—watching or listening—while 26% is used for communicating.19 About 25% of screen time is taken up by interactive consumption, which includes such activities as browsing the Internet or playing games.20 Only 3% of screen time is classed as ‘creative,’ including activities such as writing, making digital art or music, or programming.21 This has significant impacts on the development of children’s imagination.
In Chapter 1 we review the recent literature on the challenges that the Internet and new media pose for child development. Many of these harms are not direct ones; they do not work, for example, in the direct way that benzene causes cancer. Instead, they affect children’s emotional, social, and cognitive development in subtle ways that change long-term habits, orientations, and values in undesirable ways. These we term ‘virtual’ and ‘intangible’ harms. We discuss the ways in which violent content can harm children’s emotional development by promoting aggression and desensitizing children to real-world aggression. A constant barrage of advertising subjects children to worrying forms of manipulation, while promoting materialism and indoctrinating them into ‘brand’ culture and a life of surveillance. Much of this media manipulation is designed to promote unhealthy foods and habits, and to encourage lifestyles that are sedentary, unreflective, and uncreative. The Internet, particularly video games and virtual-world games like World of Warcraft and Fortnite, can result in what the DSM-V now terms Internet Addiction Disorder.22 Social media subject children to bullying, harassment, and exploitation—with the difference that a child bullied on the Internet is exposed to a much wider audience and confronted with defamatory material that is seemingly ineradicable. Children’s cognitive development can be impaired by the overuse of the Internet, while beneficial activities such as sleeping, reading, and exercising, are displaced.
In Chapter 2 we introduce what we term the ‘Laws of Media Engagement,’ which provide a framework for understanding the effects of the Internet and new media. Media that is more immersive and interactive affects us more, while new media is especially adept at co-opting our perceptions to control what messages we receive, for how long we use the medium, and how hard it is to stop using. New media also shapes the kinds of information we understand to be ‘true’ and ‘reliable.’ One aspect of the Internet and new communication technologies is that it becomes exceedingly difficult for the user to perceive and thus to modulate the media’s effects. Much of the intangible harms of new media arise from this combination of manipulation and the lack of critical self-reflection with which we approach new media.
Chapter 3 introduces the ‘imaginationless generation.’ Here, we describe the ways in which new media stifle and weaken their users’ imaginations. This is an entirely novel condition, one to which children have never before been exposed. Continuous exposure to imagination-suppressing media now begins at the very youngest ages. We argue that this can pose long-term consequences for the development of children’s creativity and creative imagination. In a world increasingly dominated by algorithmic thinking and artificial intelligence, we are encouraged to develop our essential ‘human’ qualities—like emotional intelligence and imaginative problem-solving—to help us compete in a marketplace dominated by Artificial Intelligence.23 But the Internet and new media sap precisely these emotional and creative aspects of our intellect. When the technocracy privileges artificial over human forms of intelligence, it risks turning us all into robots.
In Chapter 4 we begin to address the issue of Internet regulation. Using regulation in its broadest definition, as that which ‘steers human behavior,’ we describe the present architecture of the Internet and traditional forms of legal, ‘command and control’ styles of regulation and discuss their limitations. We also look at technological forms of regulation, such as regulation by code, which is embedded directly in the technologies themselves as well as the popular filtering and blocking methods of content control. These forms of techno-regulation are imperfect and, paradoxically, they encourage us to trust filtered content all the more since it leads us to assume that the material we see has been vetted and approved. These forms of legal and technical command-control lend many of their greatest benefits to authoritarian governments, and consequently pose some of the greatest threats to individuals and our rights and freedoms.
Chapter 5 picks up this discussion, focusing specifically on freedom of expression. We examine some of the leading cases in Canada and the U.S. in which courts have ruled on the constitutionality of regulations that protect children from harmful media content. There is no magic solution to these challenges, nor do we believe that forced intervention or prohibition by any authority—whether it be the government, media corporations, police or parents—will ultimately be effective in moderating the harms of media consumption. In dealing with the subtle, psychological, and social harms of Internet use there is little place for command and control-style regulation. Compliance in this environment is increasingly contested, and punishment is often an incentive rather than a deterrence.
Chapter 6 focuses on the regulation of children’s Internet use at home by parents, discussing the strategies parents use, what works, and how parents and families can be better supported in their quest to moderate children’s Internet use. Parental regulation has the potential to be more effective than either legal or technological forms of regulation for a number of reasons. Children learn best from role models, through modelling, imitation, and reinforcement. Parents’ media use, what they do and what habits they cultivate in the home on a day-to-day basis, is perhaps the biggest factor in the development of children’s own media habits.24 Unlike legal and technological regulation, parental regulation is a personal, immediate, culturally-sensitive, and values-based form of regulation.25 Parents are best placed to establish appropriate rules and guidelines for media use. They are the best teachers for their children about their family’s values, beliefs, and cultural practices, and how to interpret the images children see in the media.26
The evidence shows that children who are most likely to suffer harms from media use are those whose well-being is suffering in other areas, as well. Children who experience psychological and socioeconomic deficits, including family breakdown, abuse or substance addiction, are also more likely to suffer the more serious harms of Internet use, such as addiction, bullying, and exploitation. The converse is also true: children and young people with high levels of well-being, who have strong familial and social relationships, who are doing well in school and participating in extra-curricular activities, have relatively few problems with their media use.27 As Hogan states, “for most children, living in a loving home with consistent messages, fair discipline, and strong attachments between family members lessens the potentially harmful effects of media.”28 Even online, what harms children is what has always harmed them, and what protects them from harm is what has always benefited them: close attachments, loving families, supportive communities, a good education, strong values, resilience and a sense of self. These relations and values are precisely the ones that are eroded by new media. While parents need more information and support to improve their regulation of children’s Internet use, what is most needed is a commitment to the well-being of children and families overall.
In this book we argue that the best approaches are those that are personal, particular, and that focus on human relationships and individual well-being. The challenges of new media play out in the realms of identity, values, morality, culture, spirituality, and they will be solved there, as well. Accordingly, we have devoted Chapter 7 to a discussion of how ancient cultures can help us understand the challenges posed by new media. The problem of how to construct a successful culture, to cultivate productive values, and to socialize children have been solved many times over by successive human cultures: indeed, solving these problems is one of the main purposes for which human culture and its varied tools of communication were designed. Here, we focus on one example that we have drawn from our own culture, the ancient story of the Tower of Babel and its explication through Rabbinical Midrash. At base, this story is about relationships—with God as well as one another—as well as how communication affects cultural reproduction and political organization. Although this story will be most familiar to Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible, we aim to encourage reflection among all our readers on the ways in which their own customary myths and stories can inform these issues.
In this book, our goal is to offer up a much-neglected discussion of the intangible harms of Internet use, and to explore a multi-disciplinary approach to the protection of children in the virtual world. We aim to build a bridge between the diverse fields that study children’s Internet use, including child development, social sciences, communication studies/media ecology, as well as law and regulation. We use the Laws of Media Engagement as an anchor to explore this complex and loaded discussion, striving to understand the media from multiple facets and thus draw lessons about effective regulation. Our ultimate aspiration is to be able to tell those students, academics, educators and parents reading this book that we have done our best to try and answer one question: how to protect children from the varied and intangible challenges they face in the virtual world.
In this book, we find the most difficult challenges of all are the ones on the cultural front. These force us to ask what will become of a generation of children raised on a steady diet of digital media with its barrage of advertisements, its promotion of consumerism, violence and hostility, and its dumbing-down of intellectual exchange and civic life. The Internet and social media have reduced individuality to narcissistic identity performance, and the individual has become a mere substrate to be acted upon by the ambitions of others—to be manipulated for sales, exploited for sex, nudged for votes, and mined for data. In this book we ask what kind of adults will these children raised in this environment grow up to be? What values will they hold? What kind of culture will they create?
Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, “Introduction: Why a Handbook for Children and the Media?” in Handbook of Children and the Media, ed. Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer (London: Sage, 2000), xi.
Haejung Paik, “The History of Children’s Use of Electronic Media,” in Handbook of Children and the Media, ed. Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer (London: Sage, 2000), 8.
Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Spinoza, “Literacy,” Our World in Data (2013, rev. 2018), https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.
Jeremy Bailenson, Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How it Works, and What it Can Do (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 51.
Patti M. Valkenberg, Children’s Responses to the Screen: A Media Psychological Approach (London: Erlbaum, 2004), 117.
Fottrell, Quentin, “People Spend Most of Their Waking Hours Staring at Screens,” MarketWatch, August 4, 2018, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/people-are-spending-most-of-their-waking-hours-staring-at-screens-2018-08-01.
Victoria J. Rideout, Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts, Generation M2 : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010), 5.
Common Sense, The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Teens and Tweens (San Francisco: Common Sense Media, 2015), 13.
Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia Greenfield, “Digital Media and Youth: Games, Internet and Development,” in Handbook of Children and the Media, ed. Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer (London: Sage, 2012), 86–7.
Groves, Christopher L., Jorge A. Blanco-Herrera, Sara Prot, Olivia N. Berch, Shea McCowen, and Douglas A. Gentile, “What is Known About Video Game and Internet Addiction After DSM-5,” in The Wiley Handbook of Psychology, Technology, and Society, ed. Larry D. Rosen (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons), 502.
Natalie Rens and Juxi Leitner, “A Survival Guide for the Coming AI Revolution,” The Conversation, March 2, 2017, https://theconversation.com/a-survival-guide-for-the-coming-ai-revolution-72974.
Marjorie J. Hogan, “Parents and Other Adults: Models and Monitors of Healthy Media Habits,” in Handbook of Children and the Media, ed. Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer (London: Sage, 2000), 671.
Steven J. M. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Evidence (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 14 of Chapter 12.