Children in the Digital Age

Digital Cap from Cover
Illustration by J. T. Morrow

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.

The New Media and Learning

With this issue we inaugurate a series of articles on the new media and learning, drawn from a conference sponsored by The American Prospect on June 4th at the MIT Media Laboratory.

The aim of the conference and the series is to explore whether the new technologies offer genuine promise for improvements in learning or are merely a diversion from the real problems of education, and to ask what approaches to policy and the new technologies hold the most promise. In addition to the authors of articles in this issue, the conference featured:

  • Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts on why the Federal Communications Commission should adopt an "e-rate" under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that would make a basic level of internet access free to schools;
  • Mitchell Kapor, who served on the President's National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council before resigning in protest, on what went wrong with the NII initiative;
  • Seymour Papert on the use of computers for fundamental change in education;
  • Sherry Turkle on how learning about computers may affect our thinking about other things; and
  • Howard Gardner and Shirley Veenema on multimedia and new ideas about cognition and learning.

Audiotapes of the conference are available by calling 1-800-872-0162.

Support for both the conference and publication of these articles comes from the Spencer Foundation of Chicago.

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 Telecommunications Act. 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 Telecommunica tions Act is designed to encourage competition by deregulating the telecommunications market. Public interest advocates, though pitifully underfinanced, were able to win only a few positive provisions for consumers. The interests of children were not central to the legislative debate, and the little attention paid to children was misdirected at indecent content on the Internet. As a result, the law ignores or inadequately addresses critical issues that will have a significant long-term effect. In the wake of the legislation, we need a new strategic understanding of what needs to be done to make the best of the new media—and to avoid the worst.


While traditional media are sometimes viewed as unnecessary diversions, digital media will soon become an integral part of daily life. Those without access to the communications system are likely to fall behind in education and be unable to compete in a highly selective job market. Yet just as access is becoming imperative, the number of children living in poverty, with little or no access to technology, is growing at an alarming rate. According to a 1994 survey, 11 percent of families with incomes of less than $20,000 have a computer, compared to 56 percent of families with incomes above $50,000. One out of ten children under the age of six lives in a home without a telephone.

To its credit, the Clinton administration has raised the issue of disparities between the information rich and information poor. In its 1993 Agenda for Action, the White House called for all schools, libraries, and hospitals to be connected to the national information infrastructure by the year 2000. The idas tovide equitable access through these institutions, even if it couldn't be assured for all homes. At present, there are a handful of government programs intended to encourage innovation and pay for pilot projects, but the administration has mostly relied on private, voluntary efforts to meet this goal.

Some promising projects have emerged, such as California's NetDay, a one-day effort in March 1996, spearheaded by Sun Microsystems, in which volunteers across the state strung miles of wire to connect elementary and secondary schools to the Internet. Relying heavily on such voluntary efforts, however, will likely leave many communities and schools unconnected. The vast majority of public schools, particularly for minority and low-income children, lack the basic technology and training to provide students access to computer networks.

E ven if more children are able to use the new media through schools and libraries, they will still be at a disadvantage relative to children with access at home. An hour or two of computer laboratory time in school is not enough to acquire the technological competence that colleges and many jobs will require. Some argue that the costs of the equipment will go down dramatically in the next few years, making computer communications as affordable as televisions and VCRs. But monthly service charges are another barrier, and communications services that are now free or very inexpensive may become unaffordable. While some form of over-the-air television is likely to remain free, most other video services will require payment. For families in poverty, either the upfront cost of equipment or service charges may be insurmountable barriers.

The Telecommunications Act could have created comprehensive policies for ensuring equitable access to the national information infrastructure. But because of the conservative political climate, the federal deficit, and unprecedented lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions by the telecommunications industries, the legislation dealt very narrowly with the issue. The education and library communities were able to win a provision that requires telecommunications companies to offer less expensive connection and service charges to schools and libraries than to homes and businesses. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must define what "affordable" means. In consultation with the states, the FCC is now supposed to develop a universal service policy for the new digital era that includes the provisions for schools and libraries.

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Illustration by J. T. Morrow


Access isn't the only challenge; the quality of the new media culture for children also raises concern. Unlike TV, online media are dynamic and two-way. This participatory quality makes them particularly compelling to children. Such technological breakthroughs as real-time audio, real-time video, and virtual reality modeling language (which allows programmers to turn Web sites into three-dimensional environments) are transforming online media. Eventually, this interactive online world could supplant traditional television as the most powerful and influential medium in children's lives.

Many online services are now available that seek to challenge children by exposing them to places, people, and ideas far outside their everyday experiences. For example, Plugged In, a Web site created by a community computing center in Palo Alto, California, allows poor children to explore the Internet, produce their own art, and display it to other children around the world. [See "Computer Clubhouses in the Inner City," by Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk.] Another Web site, CyberKids, enables children to write and share their own stories in an online magazine. Special networks have been established to foster online communities for children. With help from a federal grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, the National Youth Center Network is addressing such problems as violent crime and unemployment by electronically linking youth centers in low-income neighborhoods.

T hese educational and civic services, however, are in danger of being overshadowed by a powerful interactive commercial culture with an unprecedented ability to capture children's attention. Marketing to children has become a multibillion-dollar business. The direct spending power of children, almost all of it discretionary, has risen rapidly in recent years. In 1995, according to Interactive Marketing News and Youth Markets Alert, children under 12 spent $14 billion, teenagers another $67 billion, and together they influenced $160 billion of their parents' annual spending. As an executive for Turner Home Entertainment recently explained: "Probably for the first time in the consumer business, kids are now being recognized as a truly gigantic part of the consumer purchasing block." In the last decade, these trends triggered a proliferation of new TV networks aimed at capturing a segment of the hot children's market, including the controversial classroom news service Channel One, the highly profitable Nickelodeon cable channel, CNN's Cartoon Channel, and the Fox Children's Network.

With the FCC's deregulation of children's television in the mid-1980s, toy manufacturers began the wholesale creation of "kidvid" series that served as half-hour commercials for a line of licensed products—from He-Man to the Care Bears to the Transformers. Character licensing has become the driving force not only in children's television, but also in much of the rest of children's culture. Cross-promotion of licensed products through TV, movies, magazines, discount stores, and fast food restaurants has produced a proliferation of licensed characters that permeate every facet of a child's life.

The new online services for children are being developed in the context of this highly commercialized children's media culture. Children are a disproportionately important market for the new interactive media because they are early adopters of high-tech products. Marketers who view children as the "lucrative cyber-tot category" see the emerging media as a fertile new frontier for targeting children. As an executive from Saatchi and Saatchi, a leader in the online kids' marketing field, recently proclaimed, "There is nothing else that exists like it for advertisers to build relationships with kids."

Advertisers are already aggressively moving into cyberspace. A new Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment (CASIE), led jointly by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, is spearheading lobbying efforts to ensure that advertising becomes the dominant mode for funding online content and to ward off government restrictions. The coalition claims that advertiser support for online services is the only way to make information services affordable to all.

But the consequences of making advertising the key to universal access for children are troubling. Advertisers are not just supporting online content; they are shaping much of the virtual landscape for children. At Saatchi and Saatchi, psychologists and cultural anthropologists have perfected a variety of techniques—including play groups, art, and games—to probe children's feelings and behavior when they go online. They are also studying the nature of "kids' culture" as a separate set of experiences and values from that of adults. Knowing that children often use computers alone, marketers are carefully cultivating this separateness in the design of online services that circumvent parental authority. One online children's service recently published results from a survey that asked children whom they trusted more—their parents or their computers. The majority of respondents said they put more trust in their computers.

According to advertising researchers, going online quickly puts children into a "flow state," that "highly pleasurable experience of total absorption in a challenging activity." This is an optimal condition for advertisers to reach children. Traditional commercials will not work online. "Anything that is perceived as an interruption of the flow state," explained a Saatchi and Saatchi executive, "whether it's artwork being downloaded or an ad that is obtrusively splattered on a screen, is going to get a negative reaction." So the solution is the seamless integration of content and advertising in "branded environments." The goal of these environments is to "get kids involved with brands"—including "brand characters, brand logos, brand jingles, and brand video."

Major children's advertisers have Web sites where children are encouraged to come and play for extended periods of time with such product "spokescharacters" as Ronald McDonald, Kellogg's Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and Chester Cheetah. The aim is to encourage children to develop ongoing relationships with the characters—and the products. Within days of visiting the Kellogg's Web site recently, for example, one child received unsolicited e-mail from Snap, Crackle, and Pop, urging her to return for more fun.

The new interactive media are being designed to compile personal profiles on each child to help in developing individually tailored advertising known as "microtargeting" or "one-to-one marketing." The sites get children to volunteer such personal data as e-mail address, street address, the identity of other family members, and purchasing behavior and preferences. Sophisticated computer software can track every move a child makes online and give marketers "clickstream data" or, in the vernacular of the business, "mouse droppings."

Federal regulations limit TV advertising to children, but no such rules exist in cyberspace. Marketers can pursue children with few restraints. Nothing prevents them from collecting personal information from children and selling it to third parties. The lines among advertising, entertainment, and information—already dangerously blurred in television and other media—are likely to disappear entirely in the new online environment. "What is really happening [on the Web]," explains one industry expert, "is what will ultimately happen on interactive television: the infomercialization of all programming." Adds another: "The blending of entertainment with advertising will work if packaged correctly: just look at how the toy industry has taken over production of Saturday morning cartoons."

Even traditionally noncommercial services are likely to be shaped by the norms of this new unregulated media environment. While PBS is prohibited from most forms of advertising on television, there are no restrictions on its use of advertising online. Children's Television Workshop, producer of such highly acclaimed noncommercial programs as Sesame Street and Ghostwriter, has recently begun developing advertiser-supported cable and online services for children.


Although the 1996 Telecommunications Act established a broad framework for federal policy, there are still opportunities to influence the shape of the new electronic media. Three key goals should guide public and private voluntary efforts.

Ensuring universal access. Every child, regardless of income, should have access to the advanced communications technologies and services necessary for their education and full participation in society. Providing access to telecommunications can in no way be a technological quick fix for more complex social and political problems. But those problems will only intensify unless we adopt policies—and invest significant resources—to ensure access for all segments of society.

Political participation needs to be expanded beyond those groups that have traditionally been involved in telecommunications policy. Child advocacy, parent, health, and other constituencies need to understand what may seem to be a highly technical subject. Targeted strategic interventions at the state level could have a positive influence on local communications services. In such states as Ohio, coalitions of education, consumer, and low-income advocates have succeeded in obtaining substantial resources for community computing centers, educational technology, and training. Public interest groups need to monitor the plans of telecommunications companies to prevent "electronic redlining"—omitting low-income neighborhood from new initiatives. Public hearings can help raise the level of the debate and create a forum for articulating a public vision for how the new telecommunications can serve children. Such organizing efforts could lay the groundwork for a national movement on behalf of children's interests in the national information infrastructure.

Developing safeguards. Preventing the commercialization of online media for children may be impossible, but there is an important opportunity to influence the design of new interactive services. A report issued in late March by the Center for Media Education, the organization of which I am president, documented the emerging patterns of online advertising and marketing to children. In response, a few companies have stopped some of the most egregious practices, and industry trade associations have promised to adopt guidelines to regulate their own conduct. As past experience has shown, however, self-regulation is likely to have little impact unless there is effective government oversight and enforcement. New screening software programs, such as Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol, and SafeSurf, may enable parents to screen out certain content areas or restrict the information that children can give out, but these tools are unlikely to be sufficient. Because children are a particularly vulnerable audience, effective legal safeguards will be necessary to prevent manipulation by advertisers and to protect children and their families from invasions of privacy.

The Center for Media Education and Consumer Federation of America have jointly urged the Federal Trade Commission to develop guidelines for advertising to children in cyberspace. These rules would restrict the collection of personally identifiable information from children and require disclosures of data collection practices on all Web sites and online content areas directed at children. In addition, we are calling on the FTC to require clear separation between content and advertising in online services targeted at children. These rules should also apply to the interactive television services under development. Although the U.S. district court decision on June 12 restricts government regulation of indecent content on the Internet, it does not prohibit either regulation of commercial speech or government safeguards to protect online privacy.

The global nature of the Internet also calls for international efforts to develop standards for new media programs and services targeted at children. Since many countries already have stricter policies for protecting children than we do, international guidelines could raise the standards for children's interactive media in the United States.

Creating a noncommercial children's civic sector. The emerging media environment should serve children not only as consumers, but also as citizens. While a number of exciting services for children are available on the Internet, they may disappear or be overshadowed by an all-pervasive commercial culture that will capture and dominate children's attention. If, as current trends suggest, the dominant method of financing the new media is likely to be advertising, we need to assure the availability of noncommercial educational and informational services for children. Just as we have public spaces, playgrounds, and parks in our natural environment, so we should have public spaces in the electronic environment, where children will be able to play and learn without being subject to advertising, manipulation, or exploitation.

New models for producing and distributing noncommercial services need to be explored. For example, an alliance of nonprofits, artists, film makers, and educators might create a new children's service that combined the traditions of public television with the innovative potential of the Internet. Public and private funds might help launch a children's version of C-SPAN—"Kidspan." A consortium of government and private program suppliers from various countries might create an international children's programming service.

To ensure long-term survival, noncommercial programs and services need a dependable source of funds. One untapped revenue source could be the sale of broadcast spectrum, valued at as much as $70 billion. Other possibilities include the creation of a trust fund exclusively for children's services, using a combination of public and private money.

There is also a need for more civic-minded research to think through these issues. The telecommunications industries have enormous resources for sophisticated economic analysis, but the public interest community has been ill-equipped to compete. New models for financing universal access and achieving other reform objectives need to be explored.

This is the ideal time for efforts to insure this new media system serves the needs of children. Once the new media institutions are firmly entrenched, it will be almost impossible to change them. The system is still fluid enough for those who care about the character of our culture and our children to create a rich electronic legacy for future generations.

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