Kirsten Drotner and Sonia Livingstone.
London: Sage, 2008.
Children’s media culture has been assuming a central position in public debates regarding cultural values, social norms and future expectations, but often these debates are media-oriented and ignore what has been researched on children’s cultures. This handbook, edited by two of the most prominent European researchers on Audience Studies, fills this void as it aims ‘ to map out the diversities and the commonalities in children’s media culture around the world as they are positioned in relation to particular sites, at particular times and within particular social relations’, as the authors say (4).
Although based on the work of mostly European authors, this International Handbook travels the world, collecting contributions from research conducted in Africa, Latin and North America, the Middle East, India and Asia-Pacific countries, pointing to the importance of global and comparative perspectives on children and media.
Another aim of the editors is to bring together contributions from different fields, ‘in order to scope the interdisciplinary domain of research on children, media and culture, and to demonstrate its collective strengths as well as highlighting the current gaps in knowledge’ (4). As such, this book invites its readers to explore many and very distinct points of view, and the interconnections and cross-fertilization between studies of media and of childhood.
Taking the historical, geographical and social dynamics of children’s media culture into account, the book is organized in four parts. Part 1, Continuities and Change, discusses children’s media culture from a historical perspective. Archaeological approaches are used to analyze and explore sets of social arrangements such as children’s relations with material and symbolic technologies, or children’s relations with toys (as objects) and media (as symbolic resources). These archeological approaches adjust the rather common determinist and linear ideas about childhood and media, while producing interesting insights that trace commonalities among different ages and generations. All the authors in this part of the book (Alan Prout and Patricia Holland (UK), Dan Fleming (New Zealand) and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh (Canada)) underline the role that media play in shaping children’s lives, not only today but also in the past. Throughout different levels of analysis and theoretical frameworks, the chapters of Part 1 contribute to a better understanding of modern (and westernized) definitions of children and childhood. For instance, Prout presents an interesting meta-discursive analysis of the construction of childhood within the ideological frameworks of modernity, based on dichotomies such as nature vs. culture (e.g. Darwinism or the nation-state thinking). From within the paradigm of the new sociology of childhood but also based on developmental psychology, Prout deconstructs the modern concept of childhood, and stresses how technological devices are an important factor in rethinking the idea of a world divided into mutually exclusive entities. In conclusion, Prout sustains that the study of childhood should involve an inclusive vision, a ‘reconceptualisation of childhood’s ontology’, moving towards seeing children as a multiplicity of ‘nature-cultures’, ‘a variety of complex hybrids constituted from heterogeneous materials (biological, social, individual, historical, technological, special, material, discursive, etc.) and emergent through time’ (33).
Conceiving of childhood as a social, cultural and political concept, Holland analyses ‘the popular imagery and the public imagery designed for indiscriminate public consumption and widely circulated within the media and public spaces’ (37, authors’ italics removed), and uses a interdisciplinary framework involving the sociology of childhood, visual culture studies and semiotics. In order to understand the public imagery of childhood that includes particular representations of children (such as consumers, students or ‘other’ children), the author presents visual moments associated with the ‘birth of childhood’ in different times and within different socio-cultural Western contexts. An imagery of children as ‘playful innocents,’ which emerged from paintings in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, was adopted by corporations as support for their ‘marketing of sentiment’. This imagery is still present (in postcards or in traditional brands, for instance) and is the counterpart of other imageries: the evil boy, the sexy girl or even the hybridization between adults and children, in the ‘transgenerational address’ (50) of consumerism that requires childish qualities.
Other contributions explore old and recent toys as tools that promote modern definitions of childhood (Fleming), and how media interactivity has been explored since the moveable books of the early eighteenth century to contemporary videogames (Reid-Walsh). Both articles stress also commonalities that span time, in spite of societal changes.
The challenge for this historical perspective is how to avoid the ‘bias of sources’ since the children’s own accounts tend to be sparse in the historical studies of children’s media culture, a question which also involves the present and the future. As the editors say (19-20): ‘for while children around the world produce an abundance of mediatized communication today, just how many text messages or chat strings are stored and by which criteria? How will we know about the significance young people pay for being offline or online, if studying their social uses is decoupled from their textual practices?’
Part 2, Problematics, is organized around the persistent and ongoing concerns over children and the media. Common to the eight contributions in this part is the consideration that ‘public concerns over children and media are not chiefly about media, but about socio-cultural relations of authority and negotiation of cultural and social boundaries’ (87). These socio-cultural relations involve changes in relation to concepts such as free-time and leisure, public and private spaces, dependency and autonomy, to name but a few.
Again coming from developed industrial countries, such as the UK (Chas Critcher, Leslie Haddon and Máire Messenger Davies), Denmark (Anne Jersley), Israel (Dafna Lemish), the USA (Stewart Hoover, Lyn Schofield Clark, Rich Ling and James Paul Gee) and Australia (Jane Kenway and Elisabeth Bullen), the authors tend to reflect on appropriations and re-appropriations of frames of experience in [Western] societies, where ‘authority negotiations have moved away from the area of work and into the spheres of school and leisure’ (88).
Changes in relation to the role of time in the children’s everyday lives are analyzed by both Lemish and Jerslev, from the toddlers’ appropriation of TV timetables to the adolescents’ choices when watching video. Spatial experiences are particularly complex in the era of mobile media, with the mobile phone illustrating contradictions and negotiations between autonomy and parental control (Haddon and Ling) or with commercial video games blurring borders between learning and entertainment (Gee). Moreover, children’s voices and experiences (Messenger Davies) tend to be excluded. Critcher notes how reoccurring waves of moral panics about children and media (film, radio, comics, TV, video games, computer, …) have been associated with ‘class-based cultural preferences and mythical images of childhood’ (103). The contrast between this search for moral regulation and the ever-present negotiations that surround consumption (pictured by Kenway and Bullen) and media uses in the households (in the ethnographic research of Hoover and Clark), points to ‘the need for more detailed studies, attuned to the often imperceptible, but significant, ambivalence involved in family negotiations over media’, as the editors comment (89). Drotner and Livingstone also question the socio-cultural (Westernized) backgrounds of these analyses, asking if the ‘contradictory taxonomies of childhood are particular to Western, industrialized societies or to frames of understanding embedded in Christian religious traditions’, or whether ‘they reflect more deep-seated adult ambiguities concerning power and control over offspring on whom adults will ultimately be dependent’ (90).
Part 3, Cultures and Contexts, is the most ‘cosmopolitan’ section of this International Handbook, with ten contributions from research conducted in several countries from all continents: South Africa (Larry Strelitz and Priscilla Boshoff), China (Bu Wei), India (Usha S. Nayar and Amita Bhide), Brazil (Norbert Wildermuth), Greenland (Jette Rygaard), Hungary (Maria Heller) and the UK (David Buckingham). This section also includes analyses from the Asia-Pacific region (Stephanie H. Donald), the Arab countries (Marwan Kraidy and Joe F. Khalil) and a cross-continental research on the ways children consider television culture (Caronia and Caron).
A cultural studies approach to the analysis of children and media is presented by Buckingham, reviewing its academic narration and noting that in the Birmingham centre, children were almost entirely absent from the research agenda. ‘Social class, gender and “race” were key concerns: but age, as an equally significant dimension of social power, was strangely neglected’ (220). At the same time, cultural studies has contributed to the study of children and media by placing ‘the attention on the ways in which meanings are established, negotiated and circulated’ (221, author’s italics removed). Besides Buckingham, who has conducted research on three levels (media production, texts and audiences), other contributions in this book also use cultural studies approaches, for instance in relation to youth subcultures (Jersley or Ling and Haddon).
A focus on reception and on the uses of media formats and contents by young people is present in the research conducted in different cultural contexts such as today’s South Africa, Brazil or Greenland, and the former socialist country Hungary (Heller). Streklitz and Boshoof integrate a culturalist with a political economy perspective to question concepts such as national identity in a contemporary African context. Exploring ‘the hybrid intersection of global and local’ (243), visible in youth practices, Streklitz and Boshoof take aim at a ‘textual determinism’ and subscribe to Ang’s call for ‘radical contextualism’ in media studies (249). A similar approach is used by Rygaard, focusing on ‘cultural aspects of globalization as seen through the eyes of young people in Greenland’ (255). In the deprived Recife, Wildermuth follows practices and voices of disadvantaged Brazilian adolescents and underlines how far they are removed from the choice-making possibilities that characterizes the Western and North media-centered lifestyles.
The fourth part, Perspectives, invites the readers to reflect on and to reconfigure the concept of children’s media culture. It draws upon a diversity of themes and subjects, both from a political economy and cultural studies approach: media mixing and participatory contexts (Ito), the de-Westernization of research stressing the contrast between concepts of public and private spaces in Japanese and Western cultures (Takahashi), media literacy and its challenges and distinct meanings (Hobbs), the media in the changing family (Pasquier), the pressures of commodification (Wasko), the demands of media regulation (Oswell), the potential of interactive media to revitalize civic and political participation (Dahlgren and Olofsson) and the potential for including communication rights within the children’s rights movement (Hamelink).
In conclusion, the intersection of insights from two academic fields, the sociology of childhood and media and communication studies, has produced a rich understanding of the specificities of children’s life contexts grounded in a more general perspective on media, culture and society. This is a stimulating reading for researchers from different backgrounds, as well as for students, regulators and those interested in social and cultural issues that emerge in contemporary societies.
 References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).
Cristina Ponte, PhD, lectures at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and has done research on children and media for years. She led an interdisciplinary project, Children and Young People in the news (2005-2007), which included children and young people’s perspectives. She is a member of the EU Kids Online network (www.eukidsonline.net), coordinating the Portuguese team. Her work focuses on TV programs for children, media literacy, and decision-making processes involving young people, but also on journalism and social issues.