Children's Journeys Through the Information Age

Sandra L. Calvert

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The McGraw-Hill Series in Developmental Psychology

Note from Editor Ross Thompson


Last week I ordered a software game for my younger son that builds math skills in the context of interplanetary exploration. He lacks confidence in math, so I thought that he might benefit from the opportunity for some nonstressful practice of problem-solving skills in the midst of an enjoyable game. (I also ordered a computer game for myself to occupy my “spare” moments.) Later, I watched the NCAA Finals in basketball with both sons, who had been following the March Madness basketball tournament as avidly as I. We also watched an episode of “Star Trek” together, which is a regular weekly activity that we share. I listened patiently as Brian announced that he “really, really” wanted to see a movie that was previewed in a commercial, and which was clearly inappropriate for a ten-year-old. Yesterday I helped his older brother, Scott, search the Internet for information on a class project. My wife also videotaped a special program on Public Broadcasting about Thomas Jefferson to watch together with the boys at a more convenient time.

It is as difficult to imagine family life without information technology as it would have been for my parents to imagine family life without electricity or refrigeration. Yet unlike electricity or refrigeration, the nature and scope of information technology-and its effects on us-are continuing to evolve. Cable television offers, for those who purchase it, unprecedented variety in entertainment and educational programs that will continue to broaden in the future. The World Wide Web enables access to expanding networks of knowledge and information, along with advertising, extremist rhetoric, and pornography. Computer software allows people to edit photographic and video images, compose music, create beautiful drawings, manage personal finances, communicate (through e-mail) with others worldwide, and engage in a growing range of personal and professional pursuits. And the advent of virtual reality technologies permits its users the full range of human experience upon request. Each of these technologies, and others under development, are changing our lives moment-by-moment, and trying to understand their impact on children, as well as adults, is like trying to hit a moving target.

In Children’s Journeys Through the Information Age, Sandra Calvert tackles this challenge with thoughtfulness and insight. As a prolific contributor to research concerning the media’s impact on children, Dr. Calvert describes the current and emerging information technologies that influence children’s lives, summarizes what is known about their effects, and discusses its meaning for parents, teachers, and policymakers. She does so with the excitement of one who has watched sophisticated technologies become increasingly accessible to children in their homes and schools, and the concern of a developmental scholar who is committed to children’s well-being. Because the newer technologies have emerged so recently on the landscape of family life, research on the effects of cd-roms, virtual reality interfaces, and even computer games on children is ground-breaking work. In light of this, Dr. Calvert focuses much of her discussion on the impact of television, which is been studied for many years, and enlists this research in a thoughtful exploration of its implications not only for the effects of TV but also other technologies on children. Because research findings inform us of the consequences of televised violence for children, for example, they also offer valuable perspective on the potential consequences of video games with violent themes. Because studies of educational TV provide insight about how technology can assist children’s learning, they have implications for our appreciation of computer games with educational goals. In this manner, Dr. Calvert provides an analysis of information technologies that is not only informative and up-to-date, but anticipates future issues concerning the impact on children of newer and rapidly-developing technological innovations.

In doing so, the author identifies the major messages conveyed by television, computer games, cd-roms, and other information technologies to the children who use them. We learn about the gender roles and ethic and racial stereotypes that are carried implicitly in how programs (on TV or diskette) are designed for their intended audiences. We discover the power of the media to educate, and to heighten either aggressive or prosocial tendencies in young viewers. We learn about the media as well as the messages it conveys. We find, for example, that television and other media convey implicit lessons in their use of symbols, in how action is represented (through visual perspective, special effects, and background music), and in the strategies that enlist the viewer’s participation in its content. We also learn about the media industry, especially the commercial interests that shape the content and form of television, the Internet, and other technologies. Dr. Calvert insightfully discusses the children who use information technologies. We discover that children of different ages are influenced differently by the television they watch or the computer games they play because of their developing capacities to remember, interpret, critically appraise, and respond to what they view. In learning about children as viewers, we also discover how the media can sensitize or desensitize children to violence, displace other activities (like reading), reinforce cultural stereotypes and schemas, offer positive (or negative) role models, manipulate in advertising ploys, and motivate new learning and understanding. Finally, we also learn about the responsibilities of parents, government, and the media itself for regulating children’s exposure to the media and the content of what they view. Current issues concerning V-Chip technology, First Amendment rights, and the Children’s Television Act are thoughtfully considered.

Throughout this fascinating journey down the highway of information technology, Dr. Calvert cautions her readers against simplistic conclusions about the media’s influence on children. Contrary to those who either idolize or demonize the information technologies, her assessment is a more balanced recognition of its multifaceted potential for improving or blunting children’s understanding, based on how it is used. Yes, the media (primarily TV) contributes to sexist and racist stereotyping and its content is overwhelmingly violent (even when it is intended for children), but the media also has the potential for challenging those stereotypes and fostering children’s awareness of nonviolent forms of dispute resolution and the human costs of violence. Yes, the media has considerable potential to educate and inform, but as the lessons of the Internet are now being learned, information must be managed for children to find it beneficial. In offering a more judicious assessment of children’s journey down the information highway, Dr. Calvert enables readers to draw more thoughtful and informed conclusions about the uses of the media and the responsibilities of the parents, educators, and policymakers who care for children.

The McGraw-Hill Series in Developmental Psychology, of which this volume is a part, has been designed to enrich and expand our common knowledge of human development by providing a forum for theorists, researchers, and practitioners to present their insights to a broad audience. As a rapidly expanding scientific field, developmental psychology has important applications to parents, educators, students, clinicians, policymakers, and others who are concerned with promoting human welfare throughout the life course. Although the fruits of scholarly research into human development can be found on the pages of research journals, and students can become acquainted with this exciting field in introductory textbooks, this series of specialized, topical books is intended to provide insightful, in-depth examinations of selected issues in the field from which undergraduates, graduate students, and academic colleagues can each benefit. As forums for highlighting important new ideas, research insights, theoretical syntheses, and applications of knowledge to practical problems, I hope that these volumes will find many uses: as books that supplement standard general textbooks in undergraduate or graduate courses, as one of several specialized texts for advanced coursework, as tutorials for scholars interested in learning about current knowledge on a topic of interest, and as sourcebooks for practitioners who wish to traverse the gap between knowledge and application. The authors who contribute to this series are committed to providing a state-of-the-art, accurate, and readable interpretation of current knowledge that will be interesting and accessible to a broad audience with many different goals and interests. We hope, too, that these volumes will inspire the efforts to improve the lives of children, adolescents, and adults through research and practice that are much needed in our world.

We can be certain that the information highway down which children travel (along with adults) will change and grow in the years to come. Fortunately, Children’s Journeys Through the Information Age equips us all to be better travelers along the way.

Ross A. Thompson
Series Editor

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