Children's Media Culture in the New Millennium: Mapping the Digital Landscape

Article excerpt

Abstract

A new "children's digital media culture" is swiftly moving into place on the Internet. In this article, the author describes the technological, demographic, and market forces shaping this new digital media culture and the rich army of Web sites being created for children and teens. Many nonprofit organizations, museums, educational institutions, and government agencies are playing a significant role in developing online content for children, offering them opportunities to explore the world, form communities with other children, and create their own works of art and literature. For the most part, however, the heavily promoted commercial sites, sponsored mainly by media conglomerates and toy companies, are overshadowing the educational sites. Because of the unique interactive features of the Internet, companies are able to integrate advertising and Web site content to promote "brand awareness" and "brand loyalty" among children, encouraging them to become consumers beginning at a very early age.

The possibility that a child's exploration on the Internet might lead to inappropriate content, aggressive advertising, or even dangerous contact with strangers has given rise to a number of efforts to create "safe zones" for children--that is, places in cyberspace where children can be protected from both marketers and predators. Federal legislation now requires parental permission before commercial Web sites can collect personal information from children under age 13. Several companies offer filtering, blocking, and monitoring software to safeguard children from harmful content or predators. Generally lacking in debates concerning children's use of the Internet, however, is a more proactive definition of quality--one that would help ensure the creation and maintenance of Web sites that enhance children's learning and development and not merely keep them from harm. In the concluding section of this article, the author recommends actions to promote development of a quality media culture that would help childr en become good citizens as well as responsible consumers.

In its 1993 report Agenda for Action, the Clinton administration presented a vision of a twenty-first century world transformed by a powerful new "information superhighway." Children figured prominently in this vision of the digital future. The Internet would connect everyone in an electronic global village, bringing "the vast resources of art, literature, and science" to all, and making the "best schools, teachers, and courses" available to "all students, without regard to geography, distance, resources, or disability." [1] With this promise, the government announced its goal of linking every school and library, every hospital and clinic to what it called the National Information Infrastructure (NII) by the year 2000. As the new millennium dawns, we are swiftly moving into this digital age. Although few people still refer to the information superhighway or the NII, the Internet itself-with the advent of the graphically rich World Wide Web in the early 1990s-has become a much more user-friendly tool, rapidly making its way into homes, schools, and libraries, [2] and playing a prominent role in the lives of many American children. [3]

For the most part, surveys indicate that parents have embraced the new technology as a positive influence in their children's lives, but not without some serious reservations. [4] Much of the public discourse concerning children and the Internet has revolved around the possibility of online access leading to exposure to indecent and violent material, predation, and similar harms in cyberspace. [5] However vital these issues may be, the debate over online safety has in many ways diverted public attention from other important developments in this new medium.

Although there are legitimate concerns about children's access to harmful and inappropriate adult content online, paying attention to the content and services being created exclusively for children also is important. …