Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Over the past half-century, the advent of each new electronic medium or technology has been both celebrated and viewed with alarm, often simultaneously. Television, cable television, video games, computers, the Internet, cell phones, and iPods have each been regarded with dismay and sometimes downright panic by adults concerned with learning and education. It might be worth noting that the growing popularity of the novel as a new writing form in the mid- nineteenth century was viewed with similar alarm. The general notion then was that novels would ruin young minds. Today, however, novels are widely respected, are the subject of serious study by young people, and are believed to foster imagination, creativity, and independent thought. More often than not, both dismay about the problems and excitement about the opportunities presented by electronic media and technology focus on characteristics of the medium itself, such as visual displays, interactivity, and the like. The assumption is that time spent with media or technology, regardless of content or quality, is central to the way they shape youthful learning and academic skills. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.”
But the influence of electronic media and technology on youthful learning and cognitive development cannot be so neatly summarized. It turns out that content matters. High-quality educational television programs seem to have positive effects for children's learning, academic skills, and academic engagement. The significance of content probably explains why examinations of the links between total amount of viewing and achievement are not particularly useful (and indeed have resulted in very few links being demonstrated). The centrality of content has even begun to emerge in examinations of television and attention problems. In a 2007 study, Frederick Zimmerman and Dimitri Christakis report finding links between high doses of entertainment television before the age of three and attention problems five years later. Educational TV viewing, in contrast, was not associated with subsequent attention problems.125 Fundamentally, the implication is quite straightforward: not surprisingly, children learn the things we teach them.
This simple point, however, keeps getting lost amidst the furor over electronic media and children's learning. The empirical evidence suggests that electronic media are no different from any other teaching tool—good for some things, bad for others. The work ahead is to discover the nuances of this truth—in essence, what is beneficial, for whom it is beneficial, and when it is beneficial.