Research on childhood in the media has inherited from perspectives coming mostly out of sociology, where the child was considered in relation to two institutions, the family and the school. In many ways, the child was and still is construed as the student or the learner, in a relation of dependence to the adult. The socialisation of the child is mostly examined within the frame of these institutions of social reproduction and how they take him or her in charge. The more recent view of the child as an autonomous person, endowed with agency, comes in the shape of Childhood Studies and incorporates the media as part of this autonomy (telephone, internet), never far from the material conditions that allow for this autonomy (access to more money as a way of being integrated in the consumer market). This analysis is further integrated in the mutations of family styles, especially in relation to media consumption: families are considered less and less authoritarian (media control by adults), and more and more liberal (no control by adults) or participatory (negotiated control by adults and children).
Within Childhood Studies, the equation may vary with the countries and regions considered: the degree of autonomy and agency of the child can be fostered, tolerated or denied; the belief in the creative genius of the child can be mitigated by the need to educate him or her. The usual attributes of age are no longer delineated just by physical development but also by areas of interest and emotions. The boundaries of the body are also demarcated by moods, abilities and capacities. Social, cultural and mental realities are more taken into account thanks to neurosciences and social cognition. As a result, well-being has also been enriched as a multidimensional construct, moving away from material and physical dimensions to incorporate psychological and societal ones, in relation to education, risk and, increasingly, young people’s own self perception. In relation to media, this construct implies the consideration of the emergence of “mediated well-being”, as media intervene more and more in the ways children are empowered or inhibited in their self-construction and their social learning. This emergence is confirmed by the fact that media have come to represent the second activity of young people after sleep (1 500 hours per year on average), far ahead of time spent with teachers (830 hours per year on average) and even parents (50 hours per year of quality time on average).
As the boundaries of childhood are being renegotiated so are the boundaries of media. The characteristics of media have evolved as well they have become more and more ubiquitous in the household and as many more combinations across media and with mix media have become possible (especially with digitization). This complexity has produced a qualitative shift in communication: more channels have led to more decentralized distribution of messages; more options for the audience have increased the interactions with communication processes; and ultimately with digital media, more opportunities to modify format and content have allowed for more autonomy and creativity. Media have added many technological layers to their offer, going from terrestrial signal to satellite and cable; they can combine mass communication (one to many) with interpersonal communication (few to few), with options such as e-mail, discussion lists, chat services, social networks; they have moved from mass-scale (broadcasting) to small-scale (narrowcasting) to micro-scale (microcasting such as blogging, twitting, …), and some already anticipate the nano-scale of mediawares. They have come to form a multimedia environment that children seem to navigate much better than the adults, and where knowledge and content traditionally available only to adults is now of easy access to them.
A recurring pattern can be noticed as concerns mediated well-being: with each new media, the debate on harmful content and harmful behaviour is re-ignited, via media panics (defined as intense public concern over the media, conveyed by the media themselves). The new programme (reality programming for example) or the new vehicle (internet for instance) is perceived as a risk for family patterns and mainstream culture. In the United States, where such panics often start, it was so with the Payne fund studies on movies as early as 1933 and has continued ever since with television and violence (Surgeon General’s report in 1973), internet and cyberpaedophilia with the Communications Decency Act in 1996… It seems that the tension between ill-being and well-being is a legitimizing force for each new media. The issue of childhood and its stakes for society is mobilized to validate new contents, new formats, new vehicles and new social practices that are of interest to adults and to the media industry. At the same time, the perception that mediated learning moves away from legitimate institutions such as the church, the school and the family, to include media that do not present themselves as institutions and socialize children without adult supervision, is not easily accepted by communities of interest such as teachers or parents. As a result, they tend to deploy means of slowing down media penetration and, within media corporations themselves, the long standing ones tend to invent legal and procedural tools to decelerate the potential for disruption of the new comer and take advantage of it in the process.
These rapid changes bring with them the realization that childhood is a social and cultural construction and that media are taking a bigger and bigger portion of the time to do such construction. The future is all the more difficult to predict as the media are on shifting grounds as well. Some uncertainties remain as to how the two subsystems of the digital era will evolve: TV-based developments will continue and so will computer-based developments. Digital media might seem as if they have displaced audiovisual ones but in fact, online television remains a major provider of stories, as narrative remains a central piece of social learning and interaction. The audiovisual networks are still the providers of dominant narratives (series, games, cartoons,…), that are then recycled on the digital social networks.
There is a shuttle screen situation as it were, in which what happens on the top surface screen of audiovisual media sources for fiction and information is discussed within the deep bottom screen of digital network media with feedback to the top surface screen (with fanfictions and webseries for example, but also modified scripts and scenarii according to audience reactions…). Even traditional reading and writing with book format is captured in the maelstrom of the shuttle screen, as paper moves to video display in the shape of tablets and pads. None of these mediated forms of storytelling are going to disappear; their relative order and hierarchy of use is going to be tailored on the cursor of people’s desires and abilities…