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To appear in in Miller and Messer "Exploring developmental psychology:from infancy to adolescence "


The uses and significance of electronic media during development


Charles Crook


It is frequently said that children grow up in a world dominated by technologies for communication. Indeed the slang used to characterise children born in the last 50 years persistently refers to electronic media. So my own peer group has been variously identified as the "TV", the "plugged-in", and the "wired" generation. How should the prominence of these technologies be incorporated into theories and studies of psychological development?

I suggest that developmental psychology has paid little serious attention to this question. In most text books of human development, media and technology are treated as marginal issues: they provoke little serious analysis. This neglect can not be due to a simple scarcity of empirical research. There is a substantial volume of such research, albeit scattered across various disciplines. Perhaps it is this multi-disciplinarity that deters developmental psychologists from making a distinctive contribution. Certainly, there is a failure to use frameworks that would allow empirical studies of media and technology to be assimilated into the mainstream of developmental psychology. So, with an unfortunate circularity, empirical research is too rarely guided or inspired by serious developmental theorising...and developmental theorising is too rarely motivated by attention to media research studies.

In this chapter I shall focus on electronic media (particularly television and computers). My motive is not to make inflated claims about how much these technologies matter in psychological development. As it happens, I think they are important, but readers will reach their own views about just how important. A more significant motive here is to use the case of electronic media as a vehicle: as an excuse for emphasising a more general (a "mediational") perspective on development. This is the approach of "cultural psychology". It is an approach that is greatly inspired by the re-discovered writing of the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky (1978). Thus, in what follows I shall not attempt a traditional literature review. Instead, my aim is to introduce a helpful theoretical framework: one that can guide an empirical approach to the issue of children and technology. While what follows will not be a comprehensive review, plenty of research examples will be mentioned and these may furnish a starting point for readers wishing to explore further.

Before introducing cultural psychology and before arguing for its value in addressing the topic of this chapter, I shall identify certain approaches that have not been so helpful. So, in the following section I shall caution against those analyses of electronic media that refer to "effects" on children. My argument will help clarify why a novel theoretical orientation is called for (i.e., a cultural psychological orientation). Accordingly, the second section sets out such an alternative. Then, in the remainder of the chapter, I shall mobilise this cultural perspective and illustrate the research questions it provokes.

Media Effects: A narrow conception

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Up until the early years of the twentieth century, print was the only medium whereby a large audience might easily be addressed. Postman (1982) has argued that the printed word played a significant role in keeping separate the worlds of children and adults. On this view, print has been one mass media that has greatly influenced psychological development. It is argued that when public communication was governed by writing, so the experience of childhood was prolonged. The time it takes to become literate effectively insulates young people from the private and complex world of their elders - as it might be revealed in the written word. Of course the expansion of electronic broadcasting during the twentieth century has ensured that growing up in the current era involves earlier contact with a much richer array of communication media. Such media are more accessible; but they are also more vivid and more explicit in their portrayal of the adult world. For commentators such as Postman (1982) and Meyrowitz (1985) these trends have dramatically influenced psychological development by eroding the separate world of childhood. Whether or not we are persuaded by this particular theorising, it certainly exemplifies a very widespread class of beliefs: namely, that children’s exposure to modern mass media has had powerful effects - and, for many commentators, not very wholesome effects.

Some of the earliest public disquiet over such matters was documented 100 years ago, when the negative influence of popular dime novels was vigorously debated (Barker, 1989). Spigel (1992) traces almost a century of growing public disappointment at how readily children’s curiosity is seduced by media content of low quality - and how willingly media authors have pandered to the various lurid interests of young people. Understandably, social scientists were encouraged to comment on this situation. For example, the emergence of modern cinema precipitated the Payne Fund research studies: the first of a number of large-scale commissioned investigations into the role of mass media in children’s lives. Later, the development of television released a further wave of public concern and, thus, another set of research reviews - notably, the US Surgeon General’s Report (1972) on the impact of television.

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Popular concern and much academic research has been preoccupied with the "effects" on children of exposure to certain literature, film or television. Yet research has never led to generalisations that were very confident or prescriptive. It proved hard to trace the causal links between exposure to media content and particular psychological characteristics of "viewers". Certainly, there emerged from this work co-relations that were worrying or provocative, but this was not enough to demonstrate the causal relations that commentators suspected. In the 1960s this uncertain state of affairs implied to some that what was needed was the application of experimental methods to the problem. This is a view that still enjoys good currency. One distinguished psychologist reflecting recently on the psychological impact of media violence remarks: "The problem with most socially important questions is that they are virtually impossible to solve by good experiments" (Morgan, 1994, p.9). Morgan encourages us to leave them alone until this is possible. Yet, experiments have certainly been conducted on this topic. Moreover, many of them seem to have been "good" experiments. At least, their design has been rigorous and they have been executed with care and professionalism. But, of course, this is not all we will demand of good empirical research. The problems with research have not been about the niceties of methodology, but the logic of extrapolation. The reactions of children viewing media within certain laboratory arrangements have been well enough explained. Yet generalising beyond these narrow scenarios can be precarious.

The seminal work of Bandura and his colleagues in this area deserves mention (e.g., Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1965). A central strategy of their research was to content analyse the free play of children who had just watched a sequence of television drama. Relations were sought between the form of the children’s activity and the themes portrayed in the drama. Their widely-known claim concerns an association between violent media themes and violence expressed in play. This work attracted much attention. In part because it deployed the experimental method to reveal strong causal relationships and in part because Bandura’s theoretical focus on imitation challenged the associative theories of learning that were so influential at that time (imitation was hard to assimilate into a conceptual framework that prioritised reward and punishment). Finally, perhaps these claims simply resonated with everyday experiences and observations. We know powerful dramatic depictions can leave us in empathic psychological states. Furthermore, we may have seen our own children modelling action sequences they have witnessed as media representations.

Possibly for these reasons, the research procedure just described proved seductive to those interested in the psychological significance of mass media. Yet the methodology is problematic. A central difficulty is that an experiment is itself a distinctive situation: it is merely another way of organising events in the world. As such, it invites participants to construct idiosyncratic interpretations of what is happening to them. In short, an experiment does not necessarily "sample" some core psychological process in a transparent way. For example, participants might understand an experimental script and its props to imply that the reproduction of witnessed media aggression is actually condoned or required by the experimenters. Such complications need not render experiments in this area useless, but they are a problem.

One way forward might be to observe young people’s reactions to media content in situations where they are unaware that an experiment has been orchestrated around them. Studies that recruit such innocent particpants have been summariised. Wood, Wong and Chachere (1991) catalogue findings that show how a period of viewing violent media programming can be followed by detectable changes in unconstrained (but discretely observed) behaviour. Alternatively, "natural experiments" may be possible in which a telling but unplanned comparison is made possible. A good example is the case of adjacent communities, one of which has been deprived of television broadcasts (for geographical reasons). What happens when the deprived group has normal access? Research reveals distinct social consequences for children (Murray and Kippax, 1978; Willians and Handford, 1986). A striking finding is that those children spend less time in organised activities in the local (extra-familial) community. Thus, experimental paradigms may still have a part to play in a research strategy directed at media and development - but only if we are vigilant about how the scenarios researchers create are understood by the participants.

The apparently successful application of experimental method may have encouraged adoption of a more bullish discourse about "media effects". Arguably this confidence is misplaced. Many have cautioned against making hasty causal links between media content and social behaviour, or denied the possibility of doing so at all (e.g. Buckingham, 1994; Cumberbatch and Howitt, 1989). Even where experiments are well designed and unobtrusive, they may remain problematic. For one thing, the paradigm is over-concerned with operationalising and quantifying. This means that complex psychological circumstances tend to be portrayed as circumscribed, visible events and only simple, recordable behaviours are considered. This may trivialise rich psychological phenomena. It may also distort research: encouraging an exclusive concern with topics capable of analysis in this reductionist manner. Thus, the effect of media on children’s aggression has become a research preoccupation because both the media manifestation and the putative effects are readily operationalised as (countable) violent acts. Yet counting violent acts is hardly a sophisticated analysis of "aggression" - its representations or its enactments. Moreover, a further consequence may be the neglect of other important psychological themes: for example, the educational significance of TV programming such as Play School, or the prosocial effects of TV programming such as The Waltons (Baran, Chase and Courtwright, 1979).

The pressure on experimentalists to operationalise "stimuli" and "responses" creates a further problem: it frames engagement with media as a passive process. It may be harsh to claim that most researchers regard children as "mere blank slates on which television scrawls its harmful and indelible messages" (Buckingham, 1994, p.81). Yet it does seem fair to claim that the operationalising approach tends to distract researchers from taking seriously the interpretative disposition of the viewer.

Finally, the most problematic consequence of reducing media to sets of "variables" having discrete "effects" is that it encourages us to think of the relationships documented as being neatly self-contained. Suppose that research does lead to a claim about developmental relevance for certain media content - how do we explain the initial potency or appeal to children of this particular content? Why is it broadcast? If we wish to appreciate the significance of some particular media representation, our progress will be very limited if we merely propose a mechanical impact on those exposed to it. Progress arises from recognising that such encounters occupy space within a larger web of causality. What happens to be depicted in mass media is inspired by the full cultural context characterising the way we live at the time. Moreover, what then happens to children, as users of media, depends on all the various ways they interpret those depictions.

The risk of being so sceptical about method and theory is that we simply dismiss large bodies of research because we are disappointed in the standard interpretations. When scepticism becomes radical, we run a more serious risk: namely, supposing that media exposure is simply irrelevant to psychological development. At present, progress requires a more sophisticated theoretical framework. Such a framework should allow us to unpack tidy questions about "effects". Then it should inspire and direct the design of more versatile research strategies.

Arguably media researchers now have moved towards more fertile theoretical approaches. This is apparent in various recent positions that conceptualise media as a resource that is "used". An early expression of the contrast that this entails is Katz’s (1959) invitation to transform the question ‘What do the media do to people?’ into the question ‘What do people do with the media?’ . In practice, the shift seems to have cultivated a more cognitive style of theorising. The early effects literature was guided by behaviourist conceptions - imitation and reinforcement. More recently, theoriests have invoked intervening cognitive states. An emphasis on "use" liberates the theorist to address individual differences that are brought to media encounters: variations in understanding that reflect different personal histories of interpreting the world. Thus the significance of media experiences may now be framed in terms of semantic networks (Berkowitz, 1984) or script theory (Huesmann, 1986). A good illustration of cognitive theorising is the idea that media users evolve distinct cognitive dispositions such as the "Mean World Syndrome" (Gerbner and Cross, 1976). So it is claimed that the particular experience of media violence leads to beliefs about the world being a "mean" place: beliefs arising from distorting media representations that suggest the world is driven by violence and mayhem. What is effected is cognitive, a belief. This may or may not be menifest in violent behaviour - depending on other aspects of the individual and their context.

Yet in these conceptual shifts there is still a lingering sense of "effects": distinct psychological impacts rather tightly associated with media experiences. To be sure, these effects are understood as mediated by a richer set of (cognitive) concepts but the perspective still implies a rather mechanical causal pattern. It also provokes a narrow and familiar research strategy - in which measures of media contact are correlated with psychological measures at the "viewer" at some later time. In my opinion, these theoretical developments represent a degree of progress. Thus, they do encourage thinking of media users as "active" - each making their own sense of media experiences. On the other hand, the focus of theorising is very much on individuals and their private cognitions. "Media use" is thus a rather solitary affair. It may miss much that is psychologically interesting about the process of engaging with media. My reasons for now introducing a cultural perspective is that I believe it can take us beyond these limitations.


Discussion point: List the problems of investigating the direct effects of media on children.


A mediational perspective: cultural psychology

On the current landscape of Psychology there is a group of theoretical perspectives which, while not overlapping, enjoy a certain family resemblance. These are (with notable advocates identified in parenthesis) "situated cognition" (Suchman, 1987), "discursive psychology" (Edwards and Potter, 1992), "socio-cultural psychology" (Wertsch, 1991), and "cultural psychology" (Shweder and Sullivan, 1993). Put simply, these theoretical traditions share a concern with "context". They characterise human action in relation to the settings in which it is located. By contrast, they are suspicious of analyses that conjure up (de-contextualised) psychological processes which are then framed as properties of individuals, free of contextual embedding. So the contextual approach tends not to isolate psychological states or characteristics - the traditional dependent variables of laboratory-style research. It is argued that traditional analyses in psychology reduce human actions to a set of "variables": a set from which researchers may systematically select, control and parametrically manipulate - in order to explore various "effects".

An important part of this alternative position is the concept of "culture". It is useful to recall the biological sense of this key concept. For biologists, a "culture" is the medium in which some life or other is supported. Within biology it makes little sense to characterise an organism without reference to the culture which sustains it. Similarly, any statement about a (psychological) organism must refer to a supporting culture. Human individuals derive their nature from such embedding. In the psychological domain, a culture will embrace the various accumulated artefacts (e.g., weapons), technologies (e.g., printing), symbol systems (e.g. algebra), rituals (e.g., weddings) and designs-for-living (e.g., university campuses) that have evolved within the social group of an individual. The design of the spaces, tools, and technologies around us embody a history of human activity: they invite us, now, to exploit their design for distinctive new forms of action. This roughly captures the agenda for cultural psychology - a modern movement that owes much to the influence of Vygotsky’s writing on psychological development.

At this point, another important concept is needed: namely, that human actions are typically "mediated". Between us and the material or social world are various cultural resources. Everywhere, the intelligent activity of human beings is mediated - through various artefacts (such as electronic media), symbols systems (such as mathematics), rituals (such as story telling), spaces (such as theatres), and so forth. So any psychological analysis should frame the individual as "a person acting with mediational means". The challenge from cultural theorising is to understand how the inclusion of some new such means (e.g. computers) into an activity system makes a difference: how it serves to re-mediate that system. In studying individual lifetimes, this amounts to a concern for the circumstances in which children are exposed to these resources and how they are thereby incorporated into a child’s activities. Unsurprisingly, cultural psychologists are especially interested in development; and also in education - the deliberately managed use of a culture's mediational resources. I believe it is helpful to see electronic media as "mediating" in the sense developed above.

I have sketched an approach to theorising: one that is useful for thinking about children and media. We must now make a link between theory and actual research questions. A simple structuring device for the necessary discussion may help. I shall suggest three principled concerns that recur within cultural psychology. In what follows, each will then serve as an anchor for noting possible research strategies - as well as for outlining some of the claims that have already been made from this research. Together, these concerns reveal the general strategy of putting cultural artefacts at the centre. However, once such a commitment is made, each of these three concerns illustrates a different research focus: individual actions, interpersonal exchanges, and the ecological setting.

First: individual actions. Cultural psychology regards individual human competence as rooted in cultural artefacts (Vygotsky 1930/1994) . While other animals act directly (im-mediately) on their world, our actions are invariably mediated. Our successes depend upon cultural tools (technologies and symbol systems) that lie between us and the material world. Becoming competent thereby translates into the child's appropriation and effective deployment of such resources. Where the actions and achievements of individuals are taken as research focus, then this insight about tools suggests we should consider how those actions are re-mediated by access to new cultural technologies. Electronic media are prime candidates in this process. Below I shall sketch examples from educational contexts in which our individual exploratory activities are potentially re-configured by new media.

Second: interpersonal experience. The cultural perspective highlights social interaction as central to human experience and development. This follows from the significance attached to language as the prime cultural tool for acting on the world. Personal meanings are negotiated, created and enriched within inter-personal exchanges. It follows that we should view new technologies as potentially promient in this: potentially mediating new forms of social interaction and, thereby, new undestandings.

Third: the ecological setting. Individual and social action occurs within environments. Culture has evolved spaces that are specialised to suppport our various styles of living. In this sense there is an ecological dimension to human experience. Thus, we should ask how new technologies create new designs for living - new constraints and opportunities for acting on the world or coordinating with other people.

Related to the third theme, we might acknowledge that all of this is framed at an institutional or societal level. Living in a culture involves engaging with practices and rituals that have evolved to orchestrate social life. Most obviously, there are legal, commercial and educational structures that we experience as institutional forces influencing our experiences and our psychological development. This is an important further dimension to a proper cultural analysis of media in development - but not one that we have space to pursue here.

My three-part list defines recurring concerns of cultural psychology. The second of them (social interaction) is most widely associated with this theoretical approach - most notably through the influence of Vygotsky’s conception of the zone of proximal development). However, while interchange with others is a central aspect of our relation to culture, it clearly is not all there is to study. Thus, tools, spaces, and rituals are also important, and foregrounding their role in human development is as significant to a cultural analysis as any stress on interpersonal processes (Vygotsky, 1930.1994). It might also be noted that this approach refers to the external more than the internal (such as is implied by a more traditional cognitive analysis). Certainly, cultural psychology does dwell on how psychological functioning is distributed across artefacts, set within environments, and governed by societal practices. Yet this is not "externalising" in the sense championied by behaviourism and illustrated by the early media effects literature mentioned above. It is not a framework of reacting to stimuli, but one of understanding how human action is coordinated with a cultural environment. I will now turn to illustrating how the three-way structure of this theoretical frame can guide questions and research about children using electronic media.

Discussion point: How would you characterise the concerns of cultural psychology?

(i) Cultural tools: re-mediating exploratory activity systems.

Let us begin with a simple (if macabre) example discussed by Cole and Griffin (1980). Suppose a traditional society has established tools and rituals for hunting. We may introduce them to the gun. Our new tool extends their capacity as hunters. So more beasts are killed. While we might want to say that their killing capacity is "amplified", Cole and Griffin caution against any account that implies they are now "generally" empowered - changed even when the tool is not "to hand". The point is that some new technology (a weapon) has re-mediated the practice of hunting. This will be witnessed in various details about, perhaps, stalking and capturing as well as details to do with the social organisation of the hunt. In sum, we have an activity system (hunting) and various tools that exist within it - or that may be introduced to reconfigure it. The suggestion here is that the psychological relevance of electronic media to children may, in part, be approached as varieties of such re-mediation.

For children growing up, what are the activity systems parallel to hunting and what is the role of media? The most potent examples will arise from experience at school. For it is here that society formally organises participation in activities that aim to introduce culturally-valued skills. Thus it is important to notice the way in which electronic media (particularly computers and broadcasting) are functioning in these contexts (Crook, 1996). I shall comment on this in the context of two educational activity systems: private study and simulations (see Box 2).

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Private study

Private, reflective study may express society's canonical image of the learner: a young person engrossed by some text or engaged with some apparatus. How do technological artefacts re-configure such autonomous study? How is the activity of independent learning carried out in new ways? We should notice how this new technology affords quite novel forms of interaction - in comparison with books. So the "electronic book" demands that reading - as a learning activity - is conducted differently. This is partly determined by the screen-based nature of the delivery. As Gaver (1996) has illustrated, screens and printed pages afford very different approaches to the searching, annotation and archiving of recorded information. Such new demand on "readers" also arises from innovation in methods for organising the structure of stored information on computers: specifically, as hypertext or hypermedia. Plowman (1996) reviews how new learning media undermine the traditional sequential narrative organisation of texts. Through classroom field studies, she illustrates how the less linear structure of study materials demands novel forms of study practice from pupils. Taylor and Laurillard (1995) provide a complementary perspective: they stress more how electronic media extend the learning resource base itself. Networked hypermedia in particular dramatically extends the pupil's "library" of source material. Children growing up in classrooms with these rich opportunities must adopt a circumspect and reflective approach to discovery learning.

Regretably, we know little about the influence of these technological innovations. We know little of how computer-based private study gets managed by pupils or of how teachers (and parents) co-ordinate and support such study. Early research in this area conforms to the traditional psychological model of evaluation: manipulating access to learning resources and, then, assessing pupil outcomes in formal academic tests. So, for example, Large, Beheshti, Breuleux and Renaud (1994) exploit the fact that some encyclopaedias are available both in traditional book form and as CD-ROMs. When groups of children study these different resources, the researchers find no dramatic influence of presentational medium on test results. This is useful (sobering perhaps) but the design of such studies does side-step questions of how such electronic media are used: how is the activity of pupil research, synthesis, investigation re-mediated. Partly this will demand looking more at the learning as it happens - with the media to hand. Partly it will demand recognising that these experiences are not de-coupled from the larger classroom agenda: teachers will more or less effectively weave them into other tutorial conversations in the learning environment. Perhaps it is this contextualising work that determines much of a new media's cognitive impact.


As well as involving texts, private study may also be more participatory: it may involve experiment with materials or models. In the early period of computer-based learning it was anticipated that technology would transform classrooms into more exploratory and discovery-oriented places. The computer was promoted by many as a machine-to-think-with; a device that might itself become a "pupil" (rather than a tutor), as children used classroom knowledge to "teach" it to do things (Papert, 1980). Now there is some consensus that this vision has not been realised; that the cognitive impact of manipulating so-called computer simulations or "microworlds" is limited (Pea and Kurland, 1987). Although the "exploratory tool" remains an intriguing role for technology in children's learning, the notion is problematic in other ways. This relates to the whole principle of simulation as a resource for learning. Computers offer very seductive opportunities in this respect. Designers can create working models of systems that children need to understand. Pupils then can notice what happens as they manipulate the parameters of these models - thereby using the principled bodies of knowledge we urge them to acquire. The advantages of such experiences have been well rehearsed for undergraduates learning with computers (eg., Turkle, 1994). Yet, in practice, the strategy is controversial: the teachers of such students worry that simulations cultivate understandings of systems that are dangerously divorced from reality (Turkle, 1996): understanding gets rigidly linked to simplistic assumptions derived from the software authors' creation of the system. This may be particularly unfortunate when the systems explored are social (economies or businesses say). Simulation may encourage too mechancial and rigid a model of how such systems function. We know little of the distorting or empowering effect for younger children of allowing computers to re-mediate activity systems of private exploration and experiment.

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(ii) The culture of social interaction: using media to create intersubjectivities

The issue to be considered here is how electronic media coordinate or resource social communication in ways that are developmentally interesting. While children may create meanings through their solitary but mediated explorations with devices such as computers (as illustrated in the previous section), much of their meaning-making originates in social discourse. So, under the present heading we may consider situations where technology takes the role of a conversant, and situations in which it serves to transform existing patterns of person-to-person communication. In either case we are investigating intersubjecitivies: states of mutual awareness upon which the enterprise of building understanding can procede (see Chapter X). First, can this be achieved in communicaton with machines (see Box 3)? And, second, in traditional interaction with real people, can machines mediate our efforts?

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Education again provides a good reference point for evaluating communication with machines. A basic format for educational practice is exposition: people telling you things. Electronic media might take over this expository role for pupils: but through what sort of activity system, and with what impact? The most significant technologies for exposition are educational film, video and broadcasting. Of course these are the very media which, outside of school, generate so much anxiety over influence - but influence that is more harmful than instructional. This makes their fate within educational practice all the more interesting. In effect, what we discover is a mismatch between popular theories of educational television and popular theories of entertainment television. Teachers are not so committed to the positive effects of the former as parents and others are concerned for the negative effects of the latter. If teachers were so persuaded, then broadcast media would surely play a more central part in classroom life than is actually the case. Yet such media do play some part in modern classroom life. In short, the status of educational TV, video and film is precarious. They have not evolved to be a powerful force for learning, but they remain a persistent ingredient of modern curricula.

In the debates that surround educational technology there is often invoked a certain metaphor. These educational resources, it is claimed, are not "magic bullets". They can not behave as certain medicines do: ingeniously seeking out and acting upon vulnerable or under-nourished tissue. Perhaps irrationally, commentators are more comfortable with this caution for educational programming than for recreational programming. It is not expected that exposing a child to hours of, say, Sesme Street sketches on words and letters is going to accelerate dramatically that child’s reading. If it does seem to make a difference we start to notice all the ways in which that influence may be very indirect. Thus, such programming can be argued to make a difference through recurrently reinforcing positive images of schooling - thereby effecting a stronger engagement with reading instruction in class. Or it may make a difference because of the ways in which the images portrayed are drawn by teachers into some broader discourse of classroom instruction - used as reference points in teaching talk going on at times after the TV has been seen (and shared).

In the case of learning from educational broadcasting, it may be of only limited value to study just the moment of viewing - as if this were all the activity system entailed. To be sure, there will be aspects of this that are psychologically interesting (the taking of notes, strategic patterns of attending and so forth). However, suppose the media experience is promptly followed by a directed class discussion? A researcher should surely include such elaborations in any effort to characterise how the media is entering into a pupil’s learning. Unfortunately, the elaborating discourse may occur much later on and, thereby, be more difficult for the researcher to track when describing a process of influence. This example reminds us that teachers are always and everywhere drawing earlier fragments of learning experience into their current discussion. Edwards and Mercer (1987) document a persistent effort at constructing and agreeing such "common knowledge" within a classroom of learners. Such elaboration will be very relevant to understanding the "effects" of experiences that arise from electronic media.

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The discussion in Box 3 concerns the limits in how far technology will play a social role in being a communicative partner. Yet there is a second, more familiar, interpersonal theme to which technology relates. This concerns the role of electronic media in catalysing or mediating more traditional communication - conversation among people. We should ask how media is mobilised as a point of joint reference within the broader flow of social exchange among young people.

We surely recognise that children may recruit media characters and media narratives into their solitary play (hence the successful marketing of Disney or Star Wars paraphernalia). Indeed, it has been argued that incorporations of these toy tie-in characters into playful pretence is unwelcome: they serve only to constrain the creative element of socio-dramatic play (Kline, 1993). While, children’s explorations of media themes may often be private in this sesne, it may also take place with friends or siblings (Davie, Hutt, Vincent and Mason, 1984; Singer and Singer, 1981). It is the occasions with a social dimension that I am more concerned with here, the collaborative interpretation of the world with peers and others. I term this "intersubjective" work in order to link with contemporary interest in the human ability to project psychological states into other people. Doing so enables us to co-ordinate our own mental state with that of others - to achieve a degree of intersubjectivity (see Chapters X and Y). Social life acquires coherence from this ability but this ability is grounded on opportunities to reference common experiences. Thus events and objects that have been shared by people become anchors for efforts to establish and elaborate intersubjectivity among this group of people (e.g., as in discussing a sporting event).

Perhaps media events play a significant role as "anchors" of this kind. Common sense suggests that we do indeed make frequent reference to such shared experiences in our everyday social talk. However, there is rather little research on such habits as developmental phenomena. To what extent and in what manner do media portrayals and activities enter into children’s discursive elaborations of their experience? Buckingham (1993) has carried out interviews with young people in which they are invited to talk freely about their media interests. The records of these encounters indicate, unsurprisingly, an emphasis on television. They demonstrate how media programming gives reference points for the exploration of a number of personal identity issues. They also show how shared media experience is used to provide a context for positionings and counter-positionings on issues of class, gender and race.

These reflections by young people do support the general idea that media experiences make a difference through their role in stimulating intersubjective work in conversation. On the other hand, the primary data are "reflections". Theoretical conclusions from them involve inferences about what will be going on at times when these young people are not being interviewed - when they are actually doing the intersubjective work. What would be useful is ethnographic records of this process. There is some research in this tradition. For example, Walkerdine (1993) documents how characterisations from a video drama serve as a resource for members of one stressed family: allowing them to make a sense of their own predicaments. The example records and illustrates the use of shared media experience as a framework for everyday sense-making. Moreover, it identifies children in this family as actively participating in this enterprise.


(iii) The culture of spaces: media and designs for living

Here I wish to consider how engagement with technology (say televisions or computers) has implications for how we spend time and how we use space. The issues certainly concern recreational and home life but, as above, I shall lead with a consideration of schooling. So: what does it mean to claim that a technology re-configures the designs within which we live (and learn)?

In the contexts of school, there has been a persistent fear that encouraging pupils to learn with computers would create a-social classrooms: dislocated children absorbed in solitary activity. Populating classrooms ("learning spaces") in that sort of way would be one controversial form of re-configuration arising from media use. However, what has actually happened does not match this prediction. A significant fact about the introduction of computers into schools is that the ratio of machines to pupils is not very favourable - while the political pressure to get children using this technology has been great. The solution discovered entailed organising children to work together at this resource and, serendipitously perhaps, teachers noticed a potential in computers for mediating collaborative learning (Crook, 1987, 1994; Light, 1997).

However, joint work can be realised in ways other than through the intimate, small group with its focus on a single problem. Again, electronic media may be implicated in designing learning spaces that afford alternative versions of collaborating. I have in mind those informal or unplanned exchanges that arise from learners being engaged in close but merely parallel activities. Such casual collaborative opportunities are well documented in workplaces (particularly open-plan arrangements) - and computer-based work has been identified as an environmental design feature that facilitates such patterns of work (Bannon, 1986). The creation of networked computer spaces in schools can be expected to have similar impacts. Early observation of such innovation suggests that this configuration for working does vitalise a interesting form of pupil exchange (Kafai and Harel, 1991).

Discussion point: Do you think schools and classrooms will become less necessary as information technology advances?

Enthusiasm for connecting pupils to wide area computer networking may prove a yet more dramatic example of how media is shaping new experiences of learning (e.g., by using the world wide web). In this case, it is too early to anticipate particular outcomes. However, on certain visions of this future, schooling could become a very different class of experience: perhaps the change will be towards learning that is less orchestrated by adults, and teaching that is less didactic (Tiffin and Rajasingham, 1995). On the other hand, such media-induced de-schooling (Illich 1973) could undermine something precious, such as the community feeling from participation in learning that is typical of the traditional classroom (Crook, 1998). The point here is more to recognise the sense in which how we use media re-designs the environments we learn and work in - and how such media intrusions have developmental significance. This dynamic should be an important focus for psychological research.

Such influences have a domestic version: where they may be more quickly recognised. The leisure uses of electronic media impact on both the temporal and the spatial dimensions of children’s experience (Crook, 1992). Activities associated with new media re-distribute the use of time and re-define the use of space. This, in turn, has created changes in children’s social interactions, particularly in relation to family members. Television, in particular, has evolved into what some have analysed as "a thief of time" (Condry, 1993) - estimated for US children as the third most common activity (after sleeping and school). From those rare studies of communities where television has arrived late, we learn that one of TV’s highly significant impacts is to displace participation in other community activities - particFularly sport (Williams and Handford, 1986).

Discussion Point: List the ways that televisioin viewing can distinctively shape the pattern of family interaction

Of course this shift towards "staying indoors" should not simply be seen as undermining social life: it merely creates a new version of it. Spigel (1992) has traced the history of television’s impact on family interactions suggesting that in the early years it was seen as a resource for cementing family bonds. Indeed, fifteen years ago, television was the most commonly shared feature of family life (Timme, Eccles and O’Brien, 1985). The video recorder and the cheap television set are new forms of technology that make this observation less likely to be true today. Children may have sets in their bedrooms: family members may manage their viewing so as not be create simultaneous demands. These are good illustrations of how media use re-designs contexts for social life in the sense considered here. To reinforce further the psychological theme of this section, I shall invoke some concrete examples: they serve to illustrate how media use configures distinct patterns of social interaction.

First, we can consider how media use bears on the absolute amount of social interaction in children’s lives. The bedroom television is a configuration of resources that invites gravitation towards private space. The currently popular hand held video games have similar significance (Provenzo, 1991). Although these games can support multi-user play, typically they are a solitary pursuit. Their "stay indoors" quality is more isolating than television. It is risky to propose the psychological significance of any one game format when the underlying technology changes so rapidly. What little evidence there is suggests that young users of video games are not prone to difficulties in social interaction or social understanding (Sakamoto, 1994). However, this generalisation may not hold up if the present pattern of electronic game use is sustained or extended. On the other hand, the present pattern may shift towards more multi-user, interactive games such as could accompany widespread Internet access. In which case the impact on children’s social development of interacting in virtual environments could be still more dramatic (Turkle, 1996)

In addition to influencing the amount of social interaction, patterns of using electronic media also are also relevant to the quality of such interactions. Here, just two examples will serve to illustrate the possibilities. First, from Buckingham’s (1993) interviews with school children, it is clear that television can be a significant focus for family tension and disputes - particularly in relation to the policing by parents of viewing policy, but also the arguments between siblings over what should be watched. Given claims about the psychological significance of sibling dynamics (Dunn, 1988), media may be one important focal point within which tensions are expressed and negotiations are pursued. A second example relating media to the quality of interactions is the case of "co-viewing". The developmental significance of adults and young children reading books together is well documented (e.g. Ninio and Bruner 1976). Although most children’s television viewing is not accompanied by adults (St. Peters, Fitch, Huston, Wright and Eakins, 1991), researchers have demonstrated how rich co-viewing of adults and children can be in terms of conversational possibilities (Lemish and Rice, 1986).


Concluding comments

I have reinforced a caution that runs through the psychological literature on media and development. That caution concerns how we implicate media experiences in accounts of children’s behaviour or explanations of their developmental trajectories. It is argued that we should be wary of invoking "effects" of media on children: wary of claiming a cause for this or that behaviour (usually problematic behaviour). These are important cautions. However, the resistance to talk of "media effects" might lead to a misconception that children’s media exposure was of no significance: that it was simply not relevant to their development. This, in turn, might lead researchers to neglect the field of inquiry. My own view is that electronic media must be a central interest for students of psychological development: the fact that it is not reminds us of the need to establish strong theoretical frameworks in which a suitable research agenda can evolve. I have proposed cultural psychology as one such framework. The cultural psychology of development orients towards artefacts as central to understanding our relationships with the world. This cultural context of development embraces tools, symbol systems, technologies, institutional spaces and various genre’s of communication. Psychological development entails appropriating these resources and adapting to these settings as we encounter them through socialisation. In this way each of us becomes equipped with mediational means and with scripted knowledge for acting creatively on the material and social world.

A culturally-influenced analysis need not be in tension with other theoretical frameworks addressing these problems. Thus, our tendency to learn by imitation is well enough accepted in a cultural analysis (e.g., Tomasello, Kruger and Ratner, 1993) - it simply is regarded as a low level form of learning that is of limited significance outside of its elaborations within richer social contexts. Similarly, cultural psychology acknowledges that meanings can be constructed within private reflections - some of which may be resourced by media encounters. Thus, Cole is able to embrace the rather cognitive notion of "script" into a cultural agenda (1996). So the themes stressed in the present chapter are not exhaustive perhaps. However, I suggest they are significant. Moreover we must look to this new framework given the modest progress made by the previously dominant theoretical approaches to media and development - approaches promoting either imitation/reinforcement or purely cognitive intermediaries.

Possibly my best hope for summarising some of the themes raised above is to resort to a hypothetical example: one that might rehearse at least some of the significant claims. I shall conclude in this spirit.

A six-year old child known to me keenly watches the television series "Power Rangers". His politically proper thinking parents are aware of the need to be cautious about invoking "media effects". So they tolerate the child’s enthusiasm but choose not to share it. Yet it is painful for them to sustain a liberal attitude towards this programming and its psychological significance. Immediately after each viewing, the child will be found vigorously shouting and kicking in the style of the Power Ranger characters. Confronted with such vivid spectacles it is hard to suppress an appeal to the "effects" of this programme. Moreover, the child is anxious to own the toy tie-ins and will recruit friends into elaborate games centred upon them. Everywhere adults must be witnesses to such correlations of viewing and acting and, so, it is unsurprising that the psychological impact of media remains a matter of public interest.

Psychologists, however, have been unimaginative in their empirical approaches to these matters. They have been preoccupied with the watch-act correlation (as in "watch Power Rangers" > "kick/shout/etc."). The reductionist/analytic orientation of mainstream psychology has encouraged studies of such short term behavioural expressions of media programming. Otherwise, much research has simply articulated these correlations over longer intervals - using survey and observational methods rather than laboratory simulations. Yet the case sketched above surely does invite a wider range of research approaches.

For example, the very existence and appeal of a programme like Power Rangers has to be analysed - before we hold it comprehensively responsible for certain observed behavioural correlates. This requires noticing the wider cultural context in which, for instance, Cyborgs have emerged as a phenomenon that resonates for us. The particular television programme is tapping into something more extensive in the prevailing culture. Thus it is unwise to isolate that programme in our determination to find root causes for certain species of unimaginative or unwholesome child behaviour.

We should also consider the social context of this viewing: the participation (or de-coupling) of parents and others potentially involved in sharing or interpreting the programme. This involves asking how the event is used as an organising element within family life: how its influence is thereby filtered or modified by such a status. The social context is also relevant beyond the occasion of viewing. Here we would dwell upon the way in which the props and narratives of the programme are used by the child to resource play with peers at other times. Furthermore, how does that format of play serve to locate and distinguish a group of children in relation to their peer group? How does it reinforce a teacher's categorising of pupils? It is clear that even whole genres of media programming demand consideration in just such a full cultural context. Rather than attempting to isolate them as unqualified sources of anti-social or prosocial development, we must locate them in a broader web of causality. This demands more sophisticated research designs and less easy generalisations about developmental influences. It means harder work for us but at least the work becomes more intellectually honest and, probably, more rewarding.

Seminar Questions

Might a child equipped with a multimedia PC and a modem dispense with the need for going to school? What research would help us understand such possibilities?

Should media education be a National Curriculum subject in schools?

Characterise the possible significance of the telephone in cultural psychological terms

Take a home (or classroom) to which you have access and make some field notes about how electronic media are used there. How does media shape the format of daily events. Interpret your observations in psychological terms.




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Suggested further reading

For further reading I have selected four books each of which provides a distinctive form of background for thinking about this difficult topic. Only the first approximates a more detailed review of the research literature

Meyrowitz, J. (1985) No sense of place. New York: Oxford University Press.

This is a big book but it is agreeably controversial and written with style and pace. Moreover, the substantial research literature (at least up until the mid-80s) is well reviewed in the course of developing a distinctive and intriguing thesis about the psychological importance of media

Spigel, L. (1992) Make room for TV. Television and the family ideal in postwar America. Chicago: Chicago University Press

The story of television and its significance for American family life told in a most engaging way. This leaves the reader with a rich example of the socially re-mediating effect of modern electronic technologies

Cole, M. (1996) Cultural Psychology. Cambnridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press

This book gives a rich and scholarly treatement to the theoretical tradition that I have used in the present chapter - although it says little about electronic media as a particular case for research.

Winston, B. (1986) Misunderstanding media. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

An historical perspective is very valuable in this arena. Winston traces the history of most modern communications technology across the last 100 years. The book is not explicitly psychological - it is more about the societal appropriation of technology. However, recognising recurring patterns in technological change provides a sobering orientation to the more psychological questions addressed here.