Children in the Digital Age
After 50 years of controversy over the impact of television on children, a new world of
online media is emerging that may have even greater impact on them. Almost one
million children in the United States are now using the World Wide Web, according to a
research and consulting firm specializing in interactive technology, and 3.8 million have
Web access - a figure that will grow rapidly in coming years.
Like adults, children will increasingly be connected to a vast digital universe that
transcends the family, the local community, and even the nation. Education will expand
beyond the classroom and other traditional settings, as more interactive "edutainment"
becomes available. New personal and portable technologies will enable children to
inhabit their own separate electronic worlds.
The dazzling graphics and engaging interactivity of the new multimedia technologies will
make them potent forces in the lives of children. If harnessed properly, the new media
could enhance their drive to learn, provide them with access to a rich diversity of
information and ideas, and enable them to reach across community and national borders.
But there is also peril: Video game channels, virtual shopping malls, and manipulative
forms of advertising targeted at children could further compound the problems in the
existing media that have troubled parents, educators, and child advocates for decades.
We are in the midst of the formative stage of this new digital age. Government policies
are being debated and enacted, marketing and programming strategies are being
developed, and services for children are being designed. If we are to believe some
hyperbolic visions of cyberspace, the information superhighway will be a great
equalizing force that will bring unprecedented opportunity for all. Improvements in
education and other benefits for children are often at the center of these visions. But
history offers us cautionary lessons. In this century enthusiasts have hailed every new
medium - from radio to FM to television to cable to satellites - with claims that it would
reinvigorate our culture, expand educational opportunities, and enhance the democratic
process. None has lived up to these claims. In each case, powerful commercial forces
have used civic values to gain support for the new medium - and then squelched the very
policies necessary to serve the public good.
In this recent phase, powerful media companies have already poured vast amounts of
money into lobbying to shape the 1996
. From the beginning,
corporations were able to frame the debate. While some political leaders, such as Al Gore
as a senator, compared the new information superhighway to the interstate highway
system, the Clinton administration's vision quickly became a privately built and operated
national information infrastructure (NII). The
is designed to
encourage competition by deregulating the telecommunications market. Public interest