We have become a culture of screens. Most of us in this room are using at least four different devices with screens each day. We may not realize it, but we are exposed to even more screens on street corners, in restaurants and giant billboards as we traverse our day.
We use screens for communication, information, entertainment and documenting our lives. We can be passive receptors and interactive communicators in text, audio and video. We can be creators of content, gamers or researchers. Screens are essential to our lives now and were not all-present in our lives when we were of school age.
Common Sense Media, an organization with which I have been long affiliated, issued a census this year on media use among teens and tweens. American teenagers spend on average nine hours a day experiencing media and tweens spend six. Clearly, screens have a huge impact on the lives of our students. The power of the screen comes from the way visual images, especially video, reach deeply into the pre-language parts of our brain—our inner lizard, where our pre-human ancestors survived not through the use of language but rather from visual and aural quickness. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Before we explore what screens mean for our kids’ present and future in the twenty-first century, it will be instructive to go back and look at the response to the first generations of screens and devices and what that meant for children, schools and society.
The first screen was the motion picture, which came of age during the First World War. Its two main uses were entertainment and information, and it was soon discovered to be an excellent medium for propaganda. Screens were generally found in theaters that had previously housed vaudeville and other stage shows. Admission was cheap, usually five cents, which, mind you, was the subway fare at the time. It was much less than the cost of a live show, and the film could be presented multiple times a day.
The golden age of motion pictures began when peace returned to Europe in the 1920's. The world had already gone through a huge and horrible political change because of the war, but the social change of the next decade was just as profound. There were other inventions that were changing the world. The airplane and mass production of all sorts of goods made what had been luxury goods suddenly accessible to the masses. But the movie screen and the radio did something much more profound; they changed the size of the world. Motion pictures brought scenes of the world directly to you, and, as a result, the knowable world was no longer limited to your immediate surroundings. Theaters were called movie palaces because you could see things that were previously available only to royalty. Add the advent of the radio, which brought live news to every house with electricity, and in a very short time, the social network of the average citizen became global.
The newly broadened global network helped political change gain momentum. The independence of India could not have happened if the British electorate hadn’t seen with their own eyes what was occurring there through news reels and radio reports. Movies also introduced American culture to the world, as Hollywood quickly became the dominant provider in the industry. Stars like Rudolf Valentino and Clara Bow became cultural icons and set not only fashions but also changed social mores. The synthesis of radio and the newsreel produced national heroes like Charles Lindbergh and, more broadly, began to convince Americans that they shared a common culture.
Radio programming of the era brought families together across generations as everyone gathered to listen to their favorite shows and timely news reports. In a similar way, small town movie theaters showed the same movie to all the residents, creating a shared experience in a broader community. The effect was a homogenizing among families, towns, nations and races, which had never happened before.
Not everyone thought this was a positive development. The content available on radios and screens was not all high culture, and was easily accessible to adolescents. A 1928 report to the League of Nations from the Child Welfare Committee entitled "The Cinema and Child Criminality" referred to the “baneful” nature of most films and citing the following statistics: “In 250 films analyzed there were 97 murders, 51 adulteries 19 seductions 22 abductions and 45 suicides. The chief heroes and heroines of the films were 176 thieves, 25 prostitutes and 35 drunkards. To describe robbery and crime so frequently is to suggest them to the mind and from the idea to the actual deed is a very small step.”
The report went on to cite evidence that in city after city young men were turning to crime and you women to a libertine existence all because of exposure to films where young people could sit anonymously and have their characters molded by a force outside of the control of family and community. Various European countries set up censorship boards as a means of mitigating the menace flowing across the Atlantic.
The development of 16mm film by the late 1920's meant that schools were able to use films to teach. Study after study showed that visual media vastly increased student retention of the material, and this was especially true of lower-achieving and lower-income students. Western countries were all in the first era of compulsory education, so they were also trying to figure out issues of scalability. Film seemed a perfect answer. Thomas Edison even proposed building a national curriculum that would completely replace teachers with films.
Film and radio contributed to the rise of mass movements because of their homogenizing effect. Hitler built his movement using radio and film. Mussolini and Stalin were not far behind. FDR used radio as a powerful tool, and his domestic opponents feared he would use it to subvert democracy.
Then, in the flash of a nuclear bomb at the end of another ruinous conflict, this era came to an end.
The end of World War II brought about another huge social shift, as well as further connecting the globe. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued. The British and French empires were dissolved. American culture became more visible and more dominant
Then the next screen arrived – television. TV grew incredibly quickly. In 1948 there were 100,000 televisions in the US; by1959 there were 50 million. Why was Jackie Robinson so much more significant and agent of change than Jesse Owens? TV. And along with the social phenomenon TV produced, came the hopes and fears for this new media that radio and movies had engendered earlier.
It could be the greatest educator ever as well as the destroyer of all good in society. Arthur Schlesinger called for the government to establish media standards to stop “a downward spiral of competitive debasement” being created by TV. Arguments that more children than ever would be led to a life of ruin by TV popped up everywhere; Senator Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee democrat, led a Congressional Committee on juvenile delinquency that held hearings and chronicled the depravity of television along with comics and radio. TV was dubbed the “boob tube” or the “goggle box.” It was also noted that low-income and low-achieving children spent more time in front of the screen than high-income and high-achieving students.
What happened when a generation born into TV came of age? The 1960's, a decade that changed the world. TV brought Martin Luther King, Jr. into living rooms and it stoked the women’s and antiwar movements; it played a role in making the summer of love and drug culture a mass phenomenon; it fueled a cultural disconnect between children of TV and their parents, and there was no question that society changed.
TVs grew less expensive, families bought multiple sets and viewership became segmented and less of a family activity. Advertisers looked for different audiences and people in the same household began to go their own way.
The scheduling of TV made it too rigid for schools to tune in; 16mm film remained the primary visual medium through the mid 1980's, until the introduction of the VCR. Schools sought to educate parents about controlling access to TV at home. The material of the day shows that parents agreed. The one exception was Sesame Street, which changed American education by expanding literacy to poor communities where pre-school access was non-existent.
Screens had become huge agents of social change. They fostered a global cultural assimilation and cultural appropriation. Literacy by any measure improved. More Americans were college educated than at any time in history. Democracy was at its apex with both the fall of the Soviet Union and the ending of Apartheid.
But just when you thought you knew what was up, a new technology came into being that changed everything again—personal computing. Schools quickly saw that computing and high quality graphics were powerful learning tools and could be used on the school's schedule.
It took about a decade to learn what worked and what did not. I spent two summers writing educational programs for St. David’s School to be used on TRS-80s. That word processor changed how we teach writing and for the most part improved the way students write.
Just as with any of the previous new screens, there was also a negative turn – gaming. It started with consoles but moved quickly to GameBoys and other hand-held devices. Games became the gangster films of the new century. Boys especially became addicted. Games were then, and still are, racially and sexually charged. Our inner lizard was easily hooked by all of the subliminal signals. Later,social media did for girls what gaming did for boys, and the home computer attached to the Internet replaced the phone as the prime social networking device.
Then, just nine years ago came the Smartphone. The personal screen with Internet access combines all of the elements of music, gaming and Internet connected video. It both connects and isolates the user.
Back to the Common Sense Media report: The first surprise was that the most common media in the lives of teens and tweens was TV programming, though usually not on a TV. The second most media consumed was music, which, given the ubiquity of ear buds, should be no surprise.
The next finding is that kids are multitaskers and often consume multiple forms of media at the same time. They are using social media while reading their homework on a tablet and listening to music. 94% of them use some form of media every day. Personal devices are as normal to their lives as the automobile or central heating. It is a part of the daily currency of teen life.
Given history, there is no question that this will help usher in social and political change that we do not yet know. Arab Spring was a Twitter enabled movement, but it was short-lived. We know that the 24/7 free access to pornography has changed the way this generation treats sex and sexuality. The sexually explicit selfie has become a common form of introduction among young people and has even spread to prepubescent tweens. We see powerfully addictive elements interrupting normal life of students. I believe that the growth of anxiety disorders can be tied to the demand for massive social connection that social media brings. Girls spend three times more of their day on social media than boys. The addictive power of gaming has led to students flunking out of school. Boys spend eight times more of their day gaming compared to girls.
The other surprise was how little time was spent on content creation vs. content consumption – just three percent. The Common Sense Media report gives us an idea of where kids are today so that we can guide them to use screens as agents of good in their lives. Students have to learn how to use screens as the creative tools they can be, and avoid the destructive force they could be.
Schools have to engage with the devices. Parents need to regulate their use. We need to give as much time to learning digital citizenshipas anything else we teach them about computing both at home and at school. It starts at an early age. If the tablet is the device that allows us to keep a child quiet when we want to do something else, then we are sending a powerful early message. We will create a person who uses screen to entertain, self-sooth and isolate. We need to use the same logic we follow with automobiles. We do not say, “OK you are 16, here are the keys.” We spend time helping them use this powerful tool safely. We have to be intentional with how we teach students from the very first day about what are appropriate uses and what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on screens, and we must model the same.
If there is one thing that worries me, it is the way screens isolate people into their own cultural silos. We do not live in small villages with crushing social mores, but in the online world you can end up living in a small digital village with crushing social mores. For teens and tweens learning to exist as social beings, we need to make sure to provide access to the broadest view of the world possible.
The screens of this era will likely bring social change for both good and ill. The key is that the more we give young people the tools to be creative, thoughtful and broad-minded, the more good it will bring.