As one generation gap closes, another opens

Media may be making kids get older younger. It is almost certainly making adults stay younger for longer. If they meet in the middle, isn’t this a good thing?

As a doting and anxious parent, I am not always a big fan of the toy industry. Behaviours and attitudes formed early in life shape people’s long-term outlook, no doubt, and some of the materialism and sexualization of children’s play that is inherent in some toy lines really grates with me.

Not in my house

BUT this week I saw Mattel say something brave that had the unmistakeable ring of truth – that the widely accepted phenomenon of ‘KGOY’ (Kids Getting Older Younger) may be drastically over-stated. Kids may be dressing a bit more like us, but for the most part, kids are still kids, and their emotional and psychological development actually proceeds much as it ever did.

This is part of a much broader myth which which we are all familiar – the ‘Myth of Decline.’ This takes many forms – the belief that society is getting more violent, less compassionate, more dangerous, totally apathetic, more materialistic – and is almost never borne out by rigorous statistical analysis. Nonetheless it is a power instinct, and one in which many media outlets and businesses have a vested interested. So it is fair to say it won’t be going away (and it will probably get worse. Bah.)

The scriptwriters for the Myth of Decline. Everything is getting worse. Apart from the Royal Family.

At the same time, I have been witnessing multiple examples of technology entering the world of kids. My daughter is regularly receiving ’emails’ from family and friends on her mini toy computer. My nephew recently participated in a live treasure hunt in a park in which he was enabled and tracked through GPS. And pretty much everyone I know who has young kids regularly witnesses them trying to control the TV through touchscreen…because the iPad just seems so normal to them.

Media convergence is stopping at sensible, grown-up things. It is sweeping through the world of kids. My instinctive, Myth of Decline driven reaction is to think this is a bad thing. Why? Maybe it is a good thing?

I think there is little doubt that changes in media, in particular ‘social’ media, and bringing kids into ever closer contact with the adult world. But is separation from the adult world such a good thing? And does it ever really exist in practice anyway? The most popular TV show with kids in the UK right from its very inception has been Coronation Street. All of life is there. And as introductions to the world of adults go, maybe it’s not such a bad one.

And at the same time, adults are more and more happy acting like kids. This manifests itself in obvious ways – increasingly, and gadgets, and spend time in gaming like kids do. Could you imagine adults spending so much time on Facebook in a more ‘adult’ age? And in fact childish behaviours are increasingly seen as important elements in the serious business of learning to make the world a better place – as explored by the Lifelong Kindergarten at the MIT Media Lab.

I fact you can probably conclude that for the next generation, childlike ‘Play’ will probably to have the same kind of impact on technological progress as the much more adult ‘War’ did in the last century. And the fact that we are sharing these media and play spaces with children significantly increases the likelihood of benign outcomes.

The other thing that is interesting here is that we are viewing ‘media’ as the dangerous catalyst that is throwing adults and children together – whereas in fact, from the village to the multi-family urban homes, shared adult/child lives have been the norm throughout most of history. It is really only in the ‘golden age’ of mass media that we are just leaving now that the whole concept of a separate ‘youth culture’ has been commonplace.

It has been a fertile counter-cultural melting pot at times – from Teddy Boys, to Punks, to Ravers and beyond. Alienated youth have been able to use media technology to alienate adults from their secrets, from the distortion of electric guitar, to the intensity of 200 BPM, to pirate radio.

But just as often we have seen some fairly mean exploitation of youth culture and youth media, from the Beatles to Bieber. Where some saw in the proliferation of media a chance for the young to question authority, it is fair to say more often the mass media has been used by adults to subjugate the young – and that ultimately in the war against the mass-media counter-culture, the suits won.

Maybe, through social platforms and location-aware services, through converged gaming platforms, kids and adults are increasingly going to start living in the same world. There have been many teething problems, and there are bound to be more. But maybe, just maybe, it will be a good thing.

So we may be at the point of finding some good answers to the problem of the last generation. Great. We are thus far not much closer to solving the problems of our own age – of reconciling with an older generation that is often alienated by technology, but whose size and needs are growing all the time. A problem for another time.


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