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
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
    should adopt an
    "e-rate" under the
    Act of 1996 that
    would make a
    basic level of
    internet access
    free to schools;
  • Mitchell Kapor,
    who served on the
    Advisory Council
    before resigning in
    protest, on what
    went wrong with
    the NII initiative;
  • Seymour Papert
    on the use of
    computers for
    change in
  • 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

Audiotapes of the
conference are available
by calling

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

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

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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

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


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

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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