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The Arts and Play as Educational Media in the Digital Age

by Robert Albrecht (Author) Carmine Tabone (Author)
Textbook XIV, 168 Pages

Table Of Content


cover

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

About the author

Robert Albrecht received his doctorate in media ecology from New York University where he studied under Neil Postman. His book Mediating the Muse (Dorothy Lee Award) and his song cycle Song of the Poet (John Culkin Award) were both honored by the Media Ecology Association. Besides his lifelong work with children, Albrecht has taught media arts at New Jersey City University for over 20 years.

Carmine Tabone holds an Ed.S. from Seton Hall University and a M.A. from New York University and has been leading theater and education projects for young people and teachers since 1970. Tabone is the founder and the director of the Educational Arts Team. He has written three handbooks, co-written numerous articles and co-authored a book on the uses of drama for interpersonal and academic growth.

About the book

The digital revolution we are now entering as educators is an unchartered sea pregnant with wondrous possibilities but laden with a minefield of unforeseen consequences. A pedagogy that overlooks or downplays the disruptive and often dangerous influence of digital media on childhood development is necessarily a very shortsighted one.

More than just highlighting our misgivings about digital media, however, this book has a purpose far more ambitious and infinitely more useful. Based upon 45 years of work with young people in Jersey City classrooms, day camps, housing projects, libraries, church basements and community centers, the authors propose a pedagogical strategy that uses hands-on experiences in the arts as a strategy to offset and counterbalance the dominance of digital media in the lives of children.

Rather than call for the elimination of digital media—clearly an impossibility even if it were desirable—the authors maintain that children need to be exposed to non-digital, non-electronic experiences that cultivate alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. In sum, the book does not call for an end to the digital, but outlines ways in which the arts and creative forms of play help to establish a balance in the education and socialization of children as we enter more deeply into the Digital Age.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.

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Prologue

This book marks the meeting of two different worlds. One world lives in the academy and conducts scholarship, publishes articles and presents papers at conferences. Its ranks include luminaries such as Elizabeth Eisenstein, Walter Ong, Lewis Mumford, Eric Havelock, Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan. The other world lives in the primary school classroom and uses the arts and play as a way of transforming the educational environment of children. This world is populated with anonymous teachers who go to work each morning and attempt to guide young people in the difficult processes of learning. One world represents a field of inquiry that demands we ask the big questions; the other is a method of teaching that uses the arts to inspire children to write well and read closely. One of these worlds is called “media ecology”; the other is called “the educational arts.” Both are deeply concerned with the dramatic consequences of the electronic media revolution. They need to talk to each other. That’s what this book is about.

For those unfamiliar with the term, media ecology is an approach to the study of human communication that aims to make us more aware and more critical of the technologies that form our environment and socialize our patterns of thought, feeling and interaction. These techniques and technologies—the human tool kit—mediate not only our relationships with the natural world that surrounds us but also transform how we think, feel, perceive and interact with others. A person growing up in the days of the horse and buggy would necessarily experience and ←ix | x→conceptualize home, work, distance, time, family, community, nature and leisure much differently than someone growing up in the days of the automobile and jet air travel. As the technological environment that envelopes our lives changes, everything we assume, experience and think is also transformed. The point stressed by media ecology is that technologies are never neutral: they are active and transforming experiences.

In this book, we will be combining the insights uncovered by media ecology with an approach to teaching known as the “educational arts.” For those unacquainted with the term, the educational arts build upon a child’s natural tendency to sing, dance, draw, paint, imagine and play. From a pedagogical perspective, these modalities of expression can be transformed into opportunities for social, emotional and academic learning. At a time when children are increasingly exposed to electronic forms of media, changes in the technological environment have had profound consequences on the ways in which children are socialized and educated. As educators, we need to ask how this has impacted our pedagogical mission and how we should respond in a way that affirms our humanity and that of our pupils.

Prominent media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman were well aware of this problem and urged the creation of spaces—psychological as well as physical and social—they called “counterenvironments.” Counterenvironments would include exposure to the arts, literature and the processes of critical questioning. Through the cultivation of counterenvironments, people are able to stand outside the dominant environment and, from this vantage point, examine more critically the nature of electronic technology, its biases and its societal consequences. It is our contention that tactile activities in the arts and play generate interpersonal experiences, forming counterenvironments that can help to balance and recalibrate the overwhelming influence of digital media in the lives of children.

The digital revolution we are now entering is an unchartered terrain pregnant with wondrous prospects but laden with a minefield of unforeseen consequences and dangers. A pedagogy that overlooks the disruptive and often negative influence of digital media on childhood development is necessarily a very shortsighted one. It is not fully responding in critical and creative ways to the new and powerful reality that is rapidly restructuring childhood socialization and education. It sees the possibilities but not the pitfalls. We also hold that a media ecology confined only to academic discourse does not fully serve its purpose or its promise. It has, in effect, reached a dead end. By combining the educational arts with media ecology, we hope to show that an exciting counterenvironment in the classroom is both effective and desirable. Media ecology and the educational arts are, in effect, different sides of the same coin.

***

←x |
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Although our intent in writing this book is serious and scholarly, we wish to address the general reader more so than the academic. Parents, civic leaders, and citizens of all shapes and stripes need to articulate, debate and rationally analyze the emerging technological environment that surrounds and socializes us and our children. “Great events,” observed the historian Samuel Hand (1984), “are great events because they deeply influence the lives of countless persons” (p. 53). This is certainly true of the digital revolution into which we have all been swept. The discussion needs to be wider than an academic dispute and deeper than a schoolboard squabble. We all have a stake in the outcome and we all need to be a part of the conversation.

Most especially, however, this book is directed to teachers and teachers-to-be. These are the ones who will spend a substantial part of their lives engaged with children and who must struggle on a daily basis with the fallout that we are all experiencing as a result of digital disruption. Rather than speak to teachers through the tired metaphors of war that are commonly invoked—“in the trenches,” “on the frontline,” “above and beyond the call of duty”—we wish to address them as artists and creative innovators. Being a teacher is like no other job. It is a calling, an inclination, a vocation. In countless situations, filled with frustrating setbacks, moments of self-doubt, and flashes of grand elation, teachers are routinely called on to reach down into their souls in search of ingenious means to open the hearts and minds of children. In the end, more than anything else, teaching is a creative activity.

We do not come to this assessment of childhood education lightly but only after 40 years of work with young people in classrooms, day camps, housing projects, libraries, church basements and community centers. Our work is also informed by years of study, both in education and in the field of media ecology. Carmine Tabone, who holds advanced degrees in education from New York University and Seton Hall, first discovered the pedagogical power of the arts in his early work with inner city children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He reasoned if children are instinctively drawn to the arts, why not develop a pedagogy that builds upon this attraction rather than ignore or downplay it? Seizing an opportunity for innovation, Tabone founded the Educational Arts Team in Jersey City in 1974 as a vehicle to teach various subjects through the arts. From the very outset, Carmine conceptualized his work with children as a team effort, that is, as a collaboration of artists and educators working together that would experiment, reflect and make adjustments based on their successes and failures.

Robert Albrecht became a part of the organization in 1982 while he was still working on his doctoral degree in the Media Ecology program at NYU under the tutelage of Neil Postman. In his research and in his publications, Albrecht has ←xi | xii→consistently focused on the relationship of the arts and play to everyday life and the ways in which technologies have altered the nature of that relationship. As a musician, Albrecht became acutely aware of how active participation in music through singing, movement and dance changed the moods, attitudes and social interactions of children. A song is not merely a sonic object or a collection of notes and lyrics but an environment that in all cultures and in all historical periods is, at once, profoundly social, psychological and physiological. Commenting upon his fieldwork among the Venda people in South Africa, the eminent ethnomusicologist John Blacking (1973) quite accurately describes music as “an intricate part of the development of mind, body, and harmonious social relationships” (pp. xi–xii). In short, music, quite literally, moves people.

The ideas and experiences of both authors are intertwined throughout this book just as they have been in their four decades of work together with children in Jersey City. The resulting collaboration should be understood as part of a much wider group effort that includes contributions by current and past team members: Roxanne Arrojo, Danny Bacher, Josh Bacher, Dina Bruno Ciborowski, Dominick Buccafusco, Alex Cassaro, Charlie Edmundson, Mary Graham Aiken, Sobha Kavanakudiyil, Dani Kopoulos, Peter LaBrusciano, Samantha Llanes, Teresa Lyon, Abbey Weathers, Lorenzo Veguilla and many others too numerous to mention. Each person brings something unique to the environment of learning; each one is part of a collaboration that transforms what a child experiences. Bob would also like to acknowledge his colleagues and students at New Jersey City University whose comments and criticisms have helped develop and fine tune the argument outlined in these pages.

This educational arts-media ecology approach has been stitched together from a variety of influences. From the world of educational drama, we would like to acknowledge the work of Gavin Bolton, Cecily O’Neill, Brian Edmiston, Gus Weltsek, Lowell and Nancy Swortzell, and Nellie McCaslin. In particular, we wish to thank Dorothy Heathcote, the founder of educational drama, whose pioneering work with children in England is of particular importance in our work with children.

From the world of media ecology, we are grateful to teachers such as Christine Nystrom, Terence Moran and Henry Perkinson whose ideas, generosity and clarity helped to form a whole generation of scholars now known as the New York School of Media Ecology. Most especially, we must acknowledge the inspirational role played by Neil Postman whose influence can be felt throughout this book. In fact, much of what we have to say can best be understood as an extension of his ideas into the digital age. Postman was that unusual scholar who was “bilingual,” that is, fluent in both the language of education and the language of media criticism. He ←xii | xiii→spoke with an eloquence, lucidity and a sense of conviction that is far too often absent in academic writing. Our special thanks as well to Lance Strate, a longtime colleague and the editor of this series, who has taken up the torch of media ecology after the untimely death of Neil in 2003.

Finally, we wish to acknowledge the contributions of our wives Patricia Charnay and Laura Blauvelt. Living with an accomplished artist for nearly half a century has helped Bob to understand the world in aesthetic terms and experience ways of being that are “outside the box,” that is, within a counterenvironment that continually questions, evaluates and responds critically to cultural change. Laura, with advanced degrees in public administration and social work, has helped Carmine sharpen his insights into social development and group dynamics. Without a heightened appreciation of aesthetics and the never-ending challenge of group dynamics, our work with children would have suffered enormously and this book would not have been possible.

References

Blacking, J. (1973). How musical is man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hand, S. (1984). Some words on oral histories. In D. Dunaway & W. Baum (Eds.), Oral history: An interdisciplinary anthology (pp. 51–63). Nashville: American Association for State and Local History.

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Introduction

When Change Changed

Change isn’t new; what is new is the degree of change …

Change changed.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner1

STOP! GO NO FURTHER!

If you are at home, look around the room where you are sitting. How far are you from your cellphone, your laptop, your desktop, your television? How long will it be before this moment is interrupted by one of these digital technologies? Can you make it through a week, or a day, or even the next minute, without using a digital device?

Oops … Someone is text messaging you now.

If you are not at home but in a public space, put the book down. Once again, look around. To your left, there is a couple walking by, staring intently at screens that they hold in their hands. To your right, someone is pushing a stroller and talking on a cellphone. Sitting on the bench next to yours, a small boy is playing a video game while his sister is listening to music through her ear pods. Mom is scrolling through posts on her Facebook page, the baby in the carriage is playing with a digital screen it grasps clumsily in its hands. Across the way, a young man is gesturing animatedly and appears to be talking to himself. Who is he yelling at?

Oops … Someone is calling you now.

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This is not a dream, nor a fantasy, nor a lost episode of the Twilight Zone. It is real, you are here, and we are all very much a part of it. In fact, no one can leave. We have just crossed over into a new dimension. With a speed that astounds, digital media have taken center stage in our lives. Never in human history have we experienced anything of this same reach, magnitude or proportion. Speech took millennia to evolve, writing centuries, print decades, but the digital revolution—the most powerful and fullest extension of electronic media—is growing by leaps and bounds that can be measured in hours and minutes. Wherever we look, it is there staring us in the face. Wherever we go, it is there waiting for us. The future is here and it is changing us on a daily basis. Who in their right mind can keep up with this pace? Who in their right mind would want to?

The results of these changes are most disturbingly evident in the lives of children. Having had little time or opportunity to absorb the complexities of oral and literate forms of communication, children are easily fascinated and even mesmerized by the hyperkinetic speed, convenience and amusements of the digital novelties which have surrounded them since birth. There is little in their daily lives that balances the relentless intrusion of the digital into their processes of socialization. No doubt, there are multiple benefits to be had from the digital deluge but it is also difficult to deny that such a powerful and transformative force doesn’t call out for more attention, reflection and debate. It is the point of view of this book that we should be taking these environmental transformations more seriously than we have. Not to do so is to vacate our obligations as teachers, parents and responsible adults.

More than just highlight our misgivings about digital media, however, this book has a purpose far more ambitious and infinitely more useful. In the pages that follow, we will be proposing a pedagogical strategy that seeks to offset and counterbalance the dominance of digital media in the lives of children. Rather than call for the elimination of such media—clearly an impossibility even if it were desirable—we will be maintaining that children need to be exposed to non-digital, non-electronic experiences that cultivate alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. In the pages that follow, we ask the reader to keep an open mind. We are not calling for an end to the digital, but we are only asking readers to consider the urgent need to establish a balance.

An Overview of the Book

The Arts and Play as Educational Media in the Digital Age is divided into two parts. Part One outlines the theoretical and intellectual underpinnings of a pedagogical strategy that is arts focused and biased towards social forms of interaction. ←2 | 3→In Chapter One, “A Descent into the Maelström: The Digital Environment of Childhood,” we will survey the influence of digital technologies in the lives of children. In Chapter Two, “The Faustian Dilemma: The Unintended Consequences of Digital Media,” we review some of the alarming effects that digital technologies are having upon the socialization and education of children. In Chapter Three, “Building Noah’s Arks: Media Environments and Counterenvironments,” we explore the often ignored significance of what Marshall McLuhan described as “counterenvironments” or “anti-environments.” In Chapter Four, “The Man Who Had No Story: Why the Arts in Education Matter,” we explain why hands-on experiences in the arts are essential to the academic, social and psychological development of children.

In Part Two, we turn to more practical considerations and describe some of the activities and programs we have cultivated over the years in our work with children in low performing schools in Jersey City. In Chapter Five, “The Oral Curriculum: A Prelude to Literacy and Learning,” we make the case for the inclusion of pedagogical practices that value and actively promote interpersonal experiences as the basic foundation for the education and socialization of children. In Chapter Six, “Drama in Education as a Pedagogical Method,” we outline in detail how drama can be used in the classroom as a highly effective way of teaching literacy. In Chapter Seven, “The Seesaw Principle: Summer Camp as Counterenvironment,” we reflect on the changing role of play within the lives of children and advocate for the establishment of spaces—counterenvironments—during the summer months where children can run, garden, play games, spontaneously associate with others, and have ample exposure to the full range of recreation and the arts.

Conclusion

We must acknowledge that we have crossed into a new age of awesome potential and unprecedented dangers. The challenges before us are larger than any one teacher can possibly solve, greater than any one parent can conceivably handle. It will be the thesis of this book that the educational arts, combined with the insights and understandings uncovered by media ecology, provides a powerful tool that can help to reshape and rebalance the communication environment in which children are socialized, educated and brought to maturity. In the pages and chapters that follow, we will attempt to demonstrate why this is so and describe some of the strategies we have developed in our own work with children.

A digital future is perhaps inevitable, but our response to it is not. Human beings do not need to be helpless captives of the tools they create. We can, in the words of Danilo Dolci (1968), “inventare il futuro,” that is, “invent the future.” ←3 | 4→The “change changed” warning pronounced by Postman and Weingartner some 50 years ago demands a contemporary and efficacious response. The next few years will require clear thinking and imaginative responses from the best minds and hearts in our society. Hopefully, this book will be a small part of that conversation.

***

Sit down. Turn off your cellphone. We need to talk.

Note

1. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1969), Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 10–11. New York: Delta.

Reference

Dolci, D. (1968). Inventare il futuro. Bari, Italy: Laterza.

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CHAPTER ONE

A Descent into the Maelström

The Digital Environment of Childhood

Suddenly—very suddenly—this assumed a distinct

and definite existence,

in a circle more than a mile in diameter.

Edgar Allan Poe1

In Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “A Descent into the Maelström,” a weary old fisherman recounts the terrifying day that he and his brothers were trapped in an enormous whirlpool. “It was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water … speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.” While the wailing maelström sent forth its “appalling voice,” the fisherman’s schooner and both his brothers were swallowed by the swirling sea. The fisherman who survived to tell the tale was only able to do so by carefully observing the movement of other objects—“fragments of vessels, large masses of building-timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles”—similarly pinned to the centrifugal walls of the watery abyss.

In this monstrous maelström imagined by Edgar Allan Poe, Marshall McLuhan (1951) found a metaphor for the technological environment in which we currently find ourselves. Like the old fisherman in the story, we are trapped in ←7 | 8→a perilous situation that spins at an “amazing velocity.” And yet, McLuhan suggests, we may devise an escape if we carefully observe the movement of the objects and events that swirl around us. Strate (2014) draws out the analogy noted by McLuhan:

In confronting the whirlpool, we find ourselves facing an overwhelming force of nature, and this is how our media and technology appear to us at first glance, as an irresistible force that is beyond our control, that leaves us helpless to do anything except surrender to its imperatives. But McLuhan argued that there is a way out, and that begins with objective observation of the phenomenon and pattern recognition, with the application of a media ecology approach to develop strategies for survival. (p. 136)

Neil Postman was also acutely aware of the enormous pull of the electronic revolution that was rapidly growing in size and strength. Without more attention, our culture and all its institutions may well be amusing itself to death, distracted by an endless stream of entertainments. Postman (1985) compares our present situation to Las Vegas “as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment” (p. 3).

Lance Strate (2014), a scholar of McLuhan and a student of Postman, proposes yet another metaphor that parallels the alarm of his predecessors:

I want to suggest that the tempest serves as apt metaphor for our present situation. Insofar as tempest denotes a violent windstorm or rainstorm, it seems especially appropriate for the 21st century, as it relates to some of the most noticeable effects of the climate change brought on by our technology. More generally, being synonymous with disturbance, commotion, uproar, and tumult, tempest represents the turbulent nature of the electronic media environment as it has evolved via digital technologies, the Internet, the web, social media, and mobile devices. Wave after wave of changes to our modes of communication and interaction, our tools for thought and social action, have altered and continue to alter our societies and our cultures, as well as our psyches and our selves. As human beings, we are certainly well equipped to survive a passing storm, but it is far from clear whether we can build a sustainable way of life in the midst of permanent upheaval, be it natural or cultural. How are we to survive while keeping our humanity intact? That is the fundamental question raised by Postman, and by the field of inquiry he called media ecology. (p. 136)

In this chapter, we will begin by sketching out the magnitude of the digital maelström in which we find ourselves. It is important to know something of the dimensions of this revolution in order to better appreciate its transformative presence. ←8 | 9→As our interest in this book is the education and socialization of children, we will give particular attention in describing the ways in which electronic media have entered and modified the environment of childhood. We will then proceed to contrast three pedagogical proposals that attempt to respond to the digital revolution which include those who embrace it (technophiles), those who see digital media as generally empowering but in need of critical reflection and intervention (media literacy), and those who advocate an approach that runs counter to the biases of digital media and seeks to balance its dominance through the cultivation of other forms of communication (media ecology/educational arts). Each one of these approaches is very much aware of the power and place of digital media in the lives of children. They sharply disagree, however, as to how to incorporate them into the curriculum and into the lives of children.

Measuring the Maelström

We live in a most peculiar time. In a matter of a few decades, the digital revolution has seized control of virtually every institution of modern life, fundamentally altering the ways in which we work, play, study, eat, shop, exercise and even sleep. Media ecologists from Mumford to McLuhan to Postman saw something like this coming, but one has to wonder, if even these visionaries would not have been shocked at the radical transformation we see all around us.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is the accelerating rate of change that has become commonplace. In an interview quoted by Sanderson and Macdonald (1989), Marshall McLuhan stated, “Today each of us lives several hundred years in a decade. How can people like us have something in common with their institutions?” (p. 138). Eric McLuhan (1998) later updated his father’s concern by adding “innovations of incredible transforming power appear not every generation but every three or four years” (p. 186). How are we as a species to adjust to such continual disruptions in our patterns of thought, feeling and interaction and still remain sane?

Neil Postman, as well, repeatedly cautioned that the ascendancy of electronic media is currently overwhelming and displacing older forms of communication. Before we integrate digital technologies irreversibly into the education of young people and throughout the play world of childhood, Postman advised we should first examine the nature of these powerful media and weigh their consequences on society. If ever there was a time when we should “look before we leap,” it is now.

A recent report published by the research group Nielsen (2019) reveals that American adults spend “10-and-a-half hours per day” with various forms of ←9 | 10→electronic media and that “increases in Internet connected devices and app/web smartphone usage that are gradually replacing time spent on other sources.” This is a staggering statistic. The Nielsen findings suggest that our interactions with media now exceed the time most of us spend at work, play, with family, or even in sleep. This is really quite amazing. At the very least, we must come to understand that digital media are not just gadgets we’ve added to our pastime routines but events that have fundamentally transformed our lives.

The Nielsen findings are not alone. In a report prepared for the Pew Research Center, Andrew Perrin (2015) writes that “Nearly two-thirds of American adults (65%) use social networking sites, up from 7% when Pew Research Center began systematically tracking social media usage in 2005” (p. 2). Once again, we should note the speed and the size of this increase which represents an almost tenfold jump within a short span of just ten years.

These figures pale, however, in comparison to those of youth who are even more connected to social media. “Today,” Perrin (2015) continues, “90% of young adults [18–29 years old] use social media, compared with 12% in 2005, a 78-percentage point increase” (p. 4). From a global perspective, Zephoria (2019), a digital marketing firm, published that “Worldwide, there are over 2.38 billion monthly active uses of Facebook,” representing an eight percent increase in just one year from 2018. The proliferation of media quite clearly effects not only the United States but just as rapidly has become ubiquitous throughout the social milieu of the entire planet.

But social media are just a part of the online media experience. Statista (2019), a marketing firm, reports that “In 2018, the United States had close to 275 million internet users” and that “this figure is projected to grow to 310.1 million internet users in 2022.” In other words, in a nation of 327 million, over 80% are connected via the internet. As was the case with social media, this rise in online use isn’t limited to the United States. The United Nations (2018) recently announced that “for the first time, more than half of the world’s population of nearly 8 billion will be using the internet by the end of 2018.” Ofcom (2018), a British marketing research organization, adds that “Nearly nine in ten (88%) UK adults are online, and this is almost universal among those under 55 … Adult internet users spend a day a week online” (p. 5). While the consequences of this shift in the communication environment are far from clear, it is certain that the “global village,” first imagined and announced by Marshall McLuhan more than a half century ago, is now up and running via the electronic web.

Children, sitting in the front seat on this digital roller coaster ride, are in a particularly vulnerable position. They are new to the world and have not yet developed literate habits of mind nor have they fully absorbed the interpersonal ←10 | 11→skills that might compete with or oppose the powerful pull of electronic amusements. Their world, since the day they were born, has largely been an electronic one. Today, the 800-pound gorilla sitting in a child’s playpen may well be a handheld digital device placed there by a parent or a babysitter. Lapierre, Piotrowski, and Linebarger (2012) found that children under two are exposed to television for approximately 5.5 hours a day while Linebarger (2013) points out that “babies’ exposure to screen media has intensified considerably since 1997” (p. 175). Earlier research by Rideout and Hamel (2006) pointed out that media corporations were actively targeting children under two who watch media specifically put on for them for about an hour and a half a day. As younger children are increasingly exposed to screen time through the use of parental cellphones, researchers are beginning to evaluate the impact of this on the preschooler. One such report cited by the American College of Pediatricians (2016) noted that in a study of “2200 mothers from 10 developed nations, including the United States and Canada, who had children between two and five years of age … more of these preschool children could use technology than could demonstrate ‘life skills’ such as tying their shoes, riding a bike, or swimming. For example, 58 percent of the preschool children knew how to play a computer game versus only 9 percent who could tie their shoes” (p. 2).

More recently, Vega (2017) noted that Facebook has introduced an app specifically designed for children under six called “Messenger Kids” that “will allow children to exchange messages and photos with friends and family, as well as engage in video chats” (p. 7).

As children grow, their contact with media increases radically. In their study of media use among children in the United States, Roberts and Foehr (2004) noted that “over a quarter of 2- through 4-year olds have televisions” and that among 5- through 7-year olds, close to 40% have TV sets in their rooms (p. 192). “Media exposure,” the authors continue, “begins quite early—average daily media exposure among 2- through 4-years old is well over 4 hours—and increases rapidly from the preschool years onward” (p. 193). As might be expected, these already high numbers have been escalating dramatically. In a 2013 study conducted by Common Sense Media, it was determined that “Seventy-two percent of children age 8 and under have used a mobile device for some type of media activity such as playing games, watching videos, or using apps … In fact, today, 38 percent of children under two have used a mobile device for media” (p. 9). It would seem safe to assume that these percentages will only increase in the years to come as marketers and engineers devise more digital toys for tots and as parents and teachers become more deeply socialized and accommodating to the rhythms and patterns of the digital environment.

←11 | 12→

By the time children enter school, they have already become habitual users of digital technologies. Rideout, Foehr and Roberts (2010), in their survey of media use by young people from eight to 18, found that children were much more attached to electronic media in 2009 than they were just a decade earlier. In 1999, TV/video viewing measured 3:47 hours per day; in 2009, it registered 4:29 hours per day. Music listening went from 1:48 hours per day in 1999 to 2:31 hours per day in 2009. Computer use more than tripled from 27 minutes a day in 1999 to 1:48 hours per day in 2009. The use of video games more than quadrupled, multitasking nearly doubled and overall media use increased from 6:19 hours per day in 1999 to 7:38 hours per day in 2009. They also noted that text messaging, which was not counted in their study as media, registered an hour and a half per day. As a result, the total time that children are engaged in some form of electronic media is nearly nine hours per day, that is, more time than is spent in any other activity including sleep. Moreover, since many young people now sleep with their phones tucked under their pillows and their laptops on all night, even sleep is subject to frequent digital interruptions.

In a recent update “based on a national sample of more than 2,600 young people” (p. 5), Common Sense Media (2015) found that “American teenagers (13-to 18-year olds) now average about nine hours (8:56) of entertainment use, excluding time spent at school or for homework. Tweens (8-to 12-years old) use an average of about six hours’ (5:55) worth of entertainment media daily” (p. 13). It would seem reasonable to assume that this increase in media use will continue into the foreseeable future not only here in the United States but elsewhere around the globe. Moreover, we can also safely assume that media will continue to grow in sophistication, availability, and variety of use.

Three Pedagogical Perspectives Responding to the Digital Revolution

Given the enormous exposure of young people to a rapidly changing media environment, it would seem prudent for us all to pause and consider how digital technologies are altering the socialization and education of children. At the moment, broadly speaking, there are three general positions that have evolved commenting upon the consequences of digital media in the education and socialization of children. The first position, the one that currently dominates the debate, argues that the benefits of digital media far outweigh the deficits. Because of their passionate advocacy for digital media, we shall call this group the “technophiles.” From this point of view, digital technologies are creating new opportunities for learning that ←12 | 13→need to be explored, cultivated and expanded. Will there be setbacks and problems? Of course. But the potential gains of digitalia far exceed some inevitable losses.

A second position has evolved that is much more cautious in its approach to digital media use. While acknowledging both the pros and cons of media usage, they argue that children need to be taught how to use media much more critically and creatively. This group has come to be known as “media literacy” and it urges that children, teachers, parents, and citizens in general learn how to become less passive and more “proactive” in their use of media.

Yet a third position, the one that we will be advocating in this book, parallels much of the point of view of media literacy but takes a step further by proposing the construction of something it calls “counterenvironments.” These counterenvironments consist of psychological, physical and/or social spaces outside the purview of digital media from which children and their teachers are more able to question and contest their dominance and reach. The perspective that we will be proposing, “media ecology/educational arts,” represents a hybrid of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman with pedagogical practices that cultivate the arts as educational tools rather than as content areas.

Technophiles. For those who are enamored of digital technologies and captivated by their amazing possibilities, the response is as easy as it is obvious. Go with it. Their argument is based on three assertions: (1) digital instruction is superior to traditional and outdated ways of learning which are bland, boring and ineffective by comparison; (2) since students are already accustomed and comfortable with digital media, the curriculum should seek to accommodate and cultivate their preferred mode of communicating; and (3) the job market demands digital competency and it is the responsibility of schools to prepare children for gainful employment in the future.

Books promoting variations of this point of view currently line the shelves of our libraries and dominate the discussion on school boards all across America. In reviewing the literature, one is immediately struck by the repeated use of the word “integration” in the titles of their books (Cennamo, Ross, & Ertmer, 2010; Mouza & Lavigne, 2013; Roblyer & Doering, 2013; Shelly, Cashman, Gunter, & Gunter, 2006) and the common desire for “full technology integration in the future” (Lavigne & Mouza, 2013, p. 285). For them, it’s a foregone conclusion. If students prefer digital media and electronic screens to books, pens, and paper, then that’s the way they should be taught. Roblyer and Doering (2013) write that their book Integrating Technology into Teaching, “offers a total technology integration package across all content areas that gives students practice with technology tools as they learn how to incorporate technology into the curriculum to support and ←13 | 14→shape learning” (p. xviii). Shelly et al. (2006) agree and urge teachers to discover ways of “integrating technology and digital media in your instructional strategies, lessons, student-based projects, and student assessments … throughout the curriculum” (p. 2). Mouza and Lavigne (2013) add that “rapid advances in technology have revolutionized the way in which children learn, play, communicate, and socialize … [Educators] can create effective learning environments that support student agency and serve as a bridge between learning in school and out-of-school settings” (pp. 1–2).

Technophiles also argue that with the use of digital technologies, teachers are able to meet students “where they live,” that is, with technologies and modes of interaction with which they are comfortably acquainted. Cennamo et al. (2010), for example, direct their appeal to undergraduate students preparing to teach:

Imagine yourself teaching a lesson to a classroom of students … Would you use technology? … If you are like many college students, computers, cellphones, and other digital tools are interfaces to your life. You communicate there. You think there. You create there. You take care of the day-to-day events of your life there. You are entertained, informed, stimulated, and soothed … How will you integrate technology into your teaching practice? (p. 3)

Technophiles commonly argue that instruction in the multiple uses of digital technology will insure that students develop the competencies today that will be required in tomorrow’s job market. Apparently, most parents agree with this assessment. A study by Lenhart, Rainie, and Lewis (2001) of 754 teenagers and their parents found that “most parents believe mastery of the Internet is important for their children’s success and 55 percent say that the Internet has been a good thing for their children, especially when it comes to schoolwork. A scant six percent say it is a bad thing” (p. 3). Shelly et al. (2006) caution teachers that “traditional twentieth-century educational practices will no longer provide you with the necessary skills you need to teach your students effectively how to become productive citizens in today’s high-tech, global workplace” (p. 2). Bitter and Legacy (2008) warn that educational institutions need to get onboard with the program or be left behind at the station:

Many U.S. corporations have undergone a transformation to respond to the changes in the world marketplace and have installed state-of-the-art technology to make the workplace more efficient, economical and safe … The enormous retraining costs cannot be incurred indefinitely solely by industry. Education must share the responsibility of developing technologically literate people, not only to help people maintain a standard of living but also to help people create a balanced life style. (p. 4)

What we find most disturbing about the position of the technophiles is its unreflective assurance. Technophiles are not just suggesting that digital media be used ←14 | 15→in the classroom but that it be integrated throughout the curriculum and beyond. There is a singularity of focus here that ignores problems, concerns, and even dangers, with an over-reliance on digital technology in the education and socialization of children. In our rush to adapt and adjust to the digital revolution, we may find that we are losing much more in the process than we realize or want to acknowledge. There are already multiple indications of behaviors that suggest we take a bit more caution before we proceed any further. We know, for example, that digital technology frequently becomes addictive, that it stimulates constant distraction, inhibits the ability to concentrate, and promotes a perpetual desire for immediate and easily attained gratification. We know as well that the digital often reduces the time spent in robust physical activity, erodes the reflective and focused state of mind necessary for the cultivation of literacy, and restructures and redefines the nature of social relationships. Even our very concept of self is being radically transformed.

Media Literacy. A more measured response to the rapid proliferation of electronic media is advocated by a second group loosely described as “media literacy.” Media literacy maintains that it is the responsibility of teachers and thinking adults to work with and adapt to electronic media but in a way fosters a greater social awareness. Hobbs (2013) comments on the dual mission of media literacy:

Empowerment and protection have long been identified as the two overarching themes in the media literacy education community, reflecting a dynamic and generally productive tension between those who see media literacy education as a means to address the complexities and challenges of growing up in a media- and technology-saturated cultural environment and those who see media literacy as a tool for personal, social, cultural and political empowerment. (p. 417)

Media literacy, then, seeks to empower parents, teachers and children by advocating a greater awareness of some of the pitfalls of electronic media while finding uses that are safe, creative and beneficial. Scholars and educators such as Buckingham (2007), Burn and Duran (2007), Hobbs (2006), Jenkins (2009), Lemish, Liebes, and Seidmann (2001), Livingstone, Kjartan, Helsper, Lupianez-Villanueva, and Folkvord (2017), Livingstone and Bovill (1999), and many others argue that rather than condemn new technologies, we should carefully explore methods to use new media in positive ways. While acknowledging that internet use among young people presents substantial risks that “do warrant serious attention and intervention by government, educators, industry and parents,” Livingstone and Bober (2005) conclude that “the risks do not merit a moral panic, and nor do they warrant seriously restricting children’s internet use because this would be to deny them the many benefits of the internet” (p. 4). Kirkorian, Wartella, and Anderson (2008) agree, adding that although “electronic media, particularly television, have long been ←15 | 16→criticized for their potential impact on children,” there are effective ways “for maximizing the positive effects of media and minimizing the negative effects” (p. 39).

Those sympathetic to media literacy emphasize that along with problems associated with electronic media, there are also many advantages. Lemish (2007) notes that although “there is a body of research that points out the possibility that there is a negative relationship between the amount of viewing television, combined with specific kind of television genres, and performance in schools, including literacy skills,” there is also sufficient evidence to suggest that educational TV does have a positive effect (pp. 155, 179). Studies by Bogatz and Ball (1972) and by Rice, Huston, Truglio, and Wright (1990), for example, have demonstrated that regular exposure to the popular children’s show Sesame Street “is associated with impressive gains in preschoolers’ vocabularies and prereading skills as well” (Shaffer, 2000, p. 412). Educational gains have also been attributed to other educational TV programs such as The Electric Company (Ball & Bogatz, 1973), as well as Science Court and Popular Mechanics for Kids (Farhl, 1998).

Far from inhibiting creativity, they argue, electronic media may even be nourishing it. Paralleling findings of several other researchers (Anderson, Huston, Schmidt, Linebarger, & Wright, 2001; Calvert, Strong, Jacobs, & Conger, 2007; Valkenburg, 1999; Valkenburg & van der Voort, 1994; van der Voort & Valkenburg, 1994), Getz, Lemish, Aidman, and Moon (2005) argue that the make-believe worlds that children encounter in the media inspire the imagination. “In some instances a media setting serves as a springboard for a child’s fantasy-world, providing space for his or her own drama to evolve” (p. 199). Drawing on the work of Lenhart and Madden (2007), Peppler (2013) points out that “longitudinal trends indicate that production practices are steadily on the rise” and that “39 percent of online teens electronically share original artist creations (such as artwork, photos, stories or videos) up from 33 percent in 2004, and one in four teens also report remixing content they found online into their own creations, up from 19 percent in 2004” (p. 193).

Even online gaming, the digital form that critics love to assail, may be having significant beneficial advantages. Griffiths (2010) notes that “in over two decades of examining both the possible dangers and the potential benefits of video game playing, evidence suggests that in the right context playing video games can have positive health and educational benefits for a large range of different sub-groups, such as those with autism and impulsive disorders” (p. 38). Like other advocates of media literacy, Griffiths advocates for more parental involvement and monitoring.

Those generally critical also point to some of the advantages of the new forms of media. A recent policy statement published by The American College of Pediatricians (2016) noted that:

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While the limited use of high-quality and developmentally appropriate media may have a positive influence, excessive or developmentally inappropriate use carries grave health risks for children and their families. Excessive exposure to screens (television, tablets, smartphones, computers, and video game consoles), especially at early ages, has been associated with lower academic performance, increased sleep problems, obesity, behavior problems, increased aggression, lower self-esteem. depression, and increased high risk behaviors, including sexual activity at an earlier age. The American College of Pediatricians encourages parents to become media literate and limit all screen time for their children.(p. 1)

In sum, according to media literacy, while we should be attentive to some of the negative consequences of electronic forms of media, we should not be afraid to work with these technologies and make use of their multiple benefits.

Media literacy represents an important perspective in the digital age for it advocates a more cautious and critical use of media. But it is not sufficient for it underestimates the tremendous transformative powers of electronic media. Children not only need to learn how to use media but, more importantly, they need to learn how not to use them. By this we mean, children need to learn to be comfortable and conversant with forms of media that do not depend upon digital media and the kinds of experiences, behaviors and habits they cultivate. It’s not only the abuses of electronic media that need to be addressed but the myriad of ways in which these technologies restructure society and redefine who we are.

Media Ecology/Educational Arts. In this book, we wish to address the “what do we do about it” question in yet a third way that combines media ecology with the educational arts. We agree with the technophile that digital media are amazingly useful and inevitable but we do not share their same unrestrained euphoria. Love is blind and the technophile’s fascination with things digital leads him to see the beauty of his bride but not her blemishes. The dominant culture assumes, and expects us to assume, that the shift to digital technology is all for the best or, at least, inevitable. Any “glitches” in the dominant system will soon be addressed and offset by new technological advances. But there is a real problem here. If the dominant perspective is the only one we ever experience, it becomes extremely difficult to imagine other possibilities or to see the problem in a new light. How can we ever learn to think outside the box when all we’ve ever experienced was inside the box?

Media literacy is much more alert to the serious dangers we face but their response, like an umbrella in a hurricane, isn’t sufficient. More needs to be done. We agree that digital media can empower young people and that children should learn to use them creatively, appropriately and competently. But a child who has not been sufficiently exposed to orality or to literacy is too easily overcome by the speed and the sparkle of the digital. It is dauntingly difficult to slow down and read ←17 | 18→effectively or interact with others in an attentive way when a child’s primary form of socialization has been a hyperkinetic and an impersonal one.

In the maelström that engulfs us, a media ecology/educational arts approach proposes something very different. This perspective advocates the cultivation of counterenvironments not to eliminate electronic media but to provide alternative experiences that balance and moderate their influence. Given an environment dominated by digital interactions and experiences, media ecology/educational arts features interpersonal interactions and tactile experiences. This is not a radical proposal but common sense. Whereas digital media accelerate the movement of information, the media ecology/educational arts approach slows it down where it can be more carefully articulated, processed and discussed. Whereas digital media are screen biased experiences, media ecology/educational arts are characteristically conducted face-to-face. Whereas digital media are useful in finding answers, media ecology/educational arts are useful in generating questions. Whereas digital media work with screens, keyboards and apps, media ecology/educational arts work with pen and paper, paint brushes and crayons, drama and role play. It is our contention that by joining a media ecological approach with the educational arts, we can begin to create the necessary counterenvironments that embody and reinforce non-electronic ways of being. Barring these counterenvironments, we abandon our children to an unstable environment dominated by digital technologies.

In the second part of the book, we will elaborate in much more detail how these counterenvironments are organized in the classroom and in play spaces. By having the opportunity to stand outside of the digital mainstream and experience life on a regular basis through a different lens and mediated by a different set of relationships, children are exposed to alternative experiences that add a much needed equilibrium to their lives.

Conclusion

We live in a truly revolutionary time. Pick a metaphor—maelström, vaudeville show, tempest or something else—but the changes we are currently experiencing are perhaps as transformative and unsettling as was the invention of the alphabet, printing press, or even speech itself. The pivotal question for pedagogues becomes, “what do we do about it?” How do we respond? The technophile embraces it and casts caution to the wind. Media literacy suggests we learn to question and use media more creatively and intelligently. Media ecology/educational arts fashions a new pedagogy that seeks to balance the prodigious power of the digital with the use of the arts as a method of teaching.

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Note

1. Edgar Allan Poe (1951), A Descent into the Maelstrom, p. 279. New York: Pocket Library.

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CHAPTER TWO

The Faustian Dilemma

The Unintended Consequences of Digital Media

About the time that Columbus was first stepping foot in the Americas, people in Germany were telling a strange tale about a disgruntled scholar who had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for bodily pleasures and boundless knowledge. As part of the oral culture of the time, there were multiple versions of the Faust story. In some accounts, the repentant scholar was able to redeem his soul and save himself from eternal damnation. In others, he could not and is promptly dragged into hell at the end of the time agreed to (usually twenty-four years) in the ill-fated bargain.

Within a few decades of the invention of the printing press, several chapbook versions were circulated on the streets of Frankfurt and in other German towns. Soon Christopher Marlowe (c. 1604) and then Goethe (1808) reimagined the story as theater, Berlioz (1846) made into an opera, Wagner (1840s) an overture, Perrot (1848) a ballet, Liszt (1857) a symphony, Murnau (1926) a movie, Benet (1937) a short story, Mann (1947) a novel, and Chespirito (1994) a television comedy. In the 1960s, Rod Serling often presented Faust-like characters in his Twilight Zone series and, in 2004, David Mamet put Faust back on stage. We are even told that there are multiple online video games based on some version of the Faust character.

Media critic and educator Neil Postman employed the story as a metaphor to question the power and presence of electronic media—most especially ←23 | 24→television—in modern life. “All technological change,” Postman (1995) wrote, “is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage” (p. 192). This may seem to be a rather obvious point but, if followed through to its logical conclusion, the observation leads to some provocative discoveries. Technology, Postman constantly reminded his readers, not only giveth; it also taketh. Certainly electronic media have bestowed enormous gifts upon humankind, but we must also ask “at what price?”

Digital media, the most recent extension of the electronic revolution, has greatly expanded the reach of television and other technologies while filling our lives with new wonders never dreamed of just a few years before. Postman prods us to ask, therefore, what parts of our humanity and our culture are we exchanging for the advantages of digital technology? Postman pushes us to examine not only “what does a technology do?” but more importantly, “what will it undo?” All technologies come to us as double-edged swords. “The greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences. You need only think of the automobile, which for all its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape” (Postman, 1992, p. 8).

It is difficult for many us to fathom or see clearly the scope of this dramatic change. McLuhan (1967) maintained that we view the present through a “rear-view mirror,” that is, we continue to see the present as if it were still the past. “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future” (pp. 74–75).

Adults, sometimes referred to as “digital immigrants,” grew up within a mixed media environment where electronic media were meshed in with powerful oral and literate institutions and forms of communication. Electronic media were not the core of their reality, only a component of it. Young people, however, are different. They are “digital natives” currently maturing within a world where digital media dominates their lives and both oral and literate forms of communication are on the wane. Because of the digital environment that has surrounded them since birth, children have had less of an opportunity to engage in spontaneous face-to-face interactions, continuous physical movement and the negotiation of rules and procedures that are not organized, supervised or regulated by adult intervention. More and more, the interactions of childhood have become disembodied, stationary and mediated by screens. To be sure, a video game is still a form of play and Facebook chat is still a form of social interaction, but these experiences are of an entirely different order and character than were traditional oral forms of socializing.

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In this chapter, we will be pushing the pause button for just a moment and making an effort to outline some of the problems engendered by this sudden leap to the digital. It would seem prudent at this time to stop, think and ponder before racing blindly into a future where the digital environment has become the single most powerful influence in the education and socialization of our children. Unquestionably, there are enormous benefits to the digital but, in the end, like the mythical Dr. Faust that Postman cautioned us about, we may be giving up more than what we thought we bargained for.

Although we are still in the incunabula of the digital age, a whole host of problems are already quite apparent:

(1) Digital Addiction. Clinicians, scholars, and the layperson have arrived at a general consensus that dependence upon digital media is a serious concern. But is it accurate to describe this dependence as an “addiction” or is it only a question of technology overuse? Certainly the word “addiction” is commonly used when lay people are asked about the issue. A recent survey sponsored by Common Sense Media (2018) found that nearly half of the parents polled believe their children were “addicted” to their mobile devices. In her ethnography of teenage girls and their use of social media, Nancy Sales (2016) writes that “the words ‘addicted’ and ‘addiction,’ and ‘obsessed’ and ‘obsessing,’ came up again and again in my interviews with more than 200 teenage girls as they talked about their use of their smartphones and consuming media and using social media” (p. 10).

But are digital media actually addictive or are we speaking in metaphors and hyperbole that exaggerate their dangers? “Among researchers,” Sales (2016) continues, “the jury’s still out on whether social media addiction is truly an addiction in the way of dependence on drugs and other substances, although it’s becoming increasingly well established that social media use lights up the reward centers in our brains, causing our hormones to dance” (p. 10). Nevertheless, The World Health Organization (2018) recently classified gaming disorder “as a pattern of gaming behavior (‘digital-gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

While scientists in the United States have been cautious in labeling digital dependence as an actual addiction, Ladika (2019) notes “concerns about tech addiction are a global phenomenon … At least seven countries—Australia, China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—consider addiction to technology a disorder” (p. 92). Thai researchers Boonvisudhi and Kuladee (2017) describe “Internet addiction as a loss of control over Internet use that impacts daily life ←25 | 26→functions, relationship and emotional stability, [which] is an emerging issue with growing interest nowadays” (p. 2). “Behavioural addiction,” add Tao et al. (2010) “affects a vast number of individuals and occurs when people find themselves unable to control the frequency or amount of a previously harmless behavior such as love, sex, gambling, work, internet and chatroom usage, shopping or exercise” (p. 556).

Addiction or behavioral dependency takes on many forms: online gaming, constant checking of emails, visits to porn sites, chatrooms, texting, Facebook, and so on. Since this form of compulsive behavior is unprecedented, little is known about its exact nature, the extent of the dependency or its treatment. “The age of behavioral addiction is still young,” writes Adam Alter (2017), “but early signs point to a crisis” (p. 10). Children (and increasingly adults) seem to be developing an irresistible compulsion to stare at screens no matter where they are or what the context is. This should not be taken lightly for, in all probability, it will only get worse.

Online gaming is an area receiving quite a bit of attention both by researchers interested in studying addiction and by marketers interested in exploiting the financial advantages of such practices. The growing sophistication of online gaming has made it extremely attractive to millions and increasingly difficult to resist. According to Report Linker (2017), “the gaming industry has achieved immense success world-wide, evolving from board and video games to games that incorporate the most advanced technologies including 3D simulations, virtual reality, and augmented reality.” PC Gaming Alliance (2014), a non-profit organization of hardware manufacturers, game developers, game publishers and others, reported a market of over $23.5 billion in software sales in 2013, while Newzoo (2017), a marketing research company, estimated that “2.2 billion gamers across the globe are expected to generate $108.9 billion in game revenues. This represents an increase of $7.8 billion, or 7.8 percent, from the year before” with mobile technology being “the most lucrative segment.”

Boys and young men, traditionally the target group, seem especially attracted to internet gaming. Entering vicarious worlds for hours on end in the role of avatars, players confront “life and death” situations where they combat dragons, orcs and demons and their superpowers. At the same time that online games are entertaining, they have been deliberately designed to be seductive environments that will hold a gamer’s attention not only for several hours every day, but for several years. Like slot machines or any other arcade game, online games use bells, whistles, music, images and prizes to stimulate the senses and lure the user into repeated use. “Product designers,” writes Alter (2017), “are smarter than ever. They know how to push our buttons and how to encourage us to use their product not just once but over and over” (p. 67).

←26 | 27→

While not everyone agrees that digital gaming constitutes an actual addiction, the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 noted that Internet Gaming Addiction (IGA) was a condition that warranted more scholarship. A study by Kim, Hughes, Park, Quinn, and Kong (2016) concluded “that excessive Internet gaming was related to alterations in autonomic functions and distressed personality traits in male adolescents” (p. 667). So enticing in fact are these online games that several leading technophiles, such as Steve Jobs (founder of Apple), Chris Anderson (a former editor of a popular technophile magazine Wired) and Evan Williams (a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium) did not allow their children to play them (Bilton, 2014). Edwards (2018) reports that “former Google employee Tristan Harris and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee have accused the tech giants of deliberately creating addictive products, without regard for human or social health” (p. 33).

The obsession with the digital, of course, doesn’t begin or end with online gaming. Ramsey Brown, a co-founder of a tech company called Boundless Mind, states that “your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off the phone … Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone” (Edwards, 2018, p. 33). The portability and omnipresence of smartphones make them a convenient contributor to addictive behavior. Robert Lustig (2017), professor of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco, likens the cellphone to a slot machine. “With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, is in store for the user—the ultimate dopamine rush” (p. 192).

“In 2015,” Sales (2016) reports, “Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and online pinboards such as Pinterest were the most popular sites for girls. Girls in 2015 were exchanging anywhere from 30 to more than 100 texts per day” (p. 10). This obsession with social media, moreover, is not limited to adolescent girls any more than online gaming is strictly a purview of adolescent boys. Old and young alike stare at their handheld devices as they walk through the streets and instinctively grab them every time they sit down regardless where they are or who they are with. It was amazing to us, for example, during last year’s (2017) World Series of baseball, how many fans sitting in prime seats spent a good portion of their time romancing their cellphones. This compulsion to be online even in the most inappropriate situations was driven home during a performance by Broadway legend Patti LuPone. The actress was forced to step out of character and off stage to snatch the cellphone of a young woman who had been texting throughout the entire first act of the play. “She was oblivious to everybody,” exclaimed LuPone in an interview with Cecilia Vega (2015) on ABC’s Good Morning America, “except for herself and her phone.”

“Addictions are damaging,” Alter writes, “because they crowd out other essential pursuits, from work and play to basic hygiene and social interaction” (p. 10). ←27 | 28→Werner Herzog in his documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016) notes that gamers in South Korea sometimes wear diapers so as not to interrupt online gaming marathons. Sean Elder (2014) reports a case of an infant dying from neglect while her parents were involved in compulsive online gaming.

Whether such behavior surrounding digital media—online gaming, Facebook, tweeting, texting and so on—is actually addictive or “merely” a behavioral obsession, it is certainly something we need to take into account before we advocate for an expanded use of computers in the education and socialization of children.

(2) The Young and the Restless. Television was a game changer. From the habit of reading a daily newspaper or following the audio narrative of a radio drama, the public was enamored by a device that brought sound, moving images and a cavalcade of celebrities, right there in every living room in America. We loved Lucy but we loved television even more. As the medium developed, the programming choices expanded, the movement of the images accelerated, and the places we watched TV steadily grew. In many homes, the TV was on all day, sometimes in multiple rooms. It became the background, and often the foreground, to dinner, to conversation, to parties, housework, homework, and whatever. The introduction of the remote and cable TV meant even more acceleration, more channel hopping, more disjointed viewing. TV is no longer just in our homes, cars, diners and schools: it is in us as well.

Media ecologists often talk of technologies as having an inherent “bias,” that is, a tendency to be used in particular ways and not in others. Television, for example, has the bias of presenting information in the form of entertaining images to audiences that are typically indoors, sedentary, and passively involved. Television could conceivably be used for other purposes such as it is in airports where it lists the arrival and departures of flights, but this isn’t the favored use of television technology. We expect television to be stimulating with entertaining moving images, not a static presentation of words and numbers.

At the same time, television teaches us to accept continuous commercial interruptions as normal. Besides the obsessive focusing of our attention on material goods, this unending parade of advertisements creates a pattern of discourse that is constantly redirecting the attention of the viewer to unconnected events. We learn by doing and by doing TV we learn distraction. One may be watching a serious drama or documentary which is fragmented by a string of soap, soup and shampoo commercials before returning to the movie. Television teaches us to jump from thing to thing, to seek constant stimulation, and to space out for hours on end.

But what of digital technologies? What kinds of biases do they seem to cultivate? Taken as a group, digital media clearly have a bias towards multitasking, that is, doing many things simultaneously. The computer, by its nature, is a multitasking ←28 | 29→technology which, when combined with the internet, allows us to send and receive emails, watch TV, stream movies, take photographs, send and receive text messages, tweet, word process, call an Uber, order a pizza, use maps, skype, check out a YouTube video, post to Facebook, surf the Web for a series of disconnected tidbits, and so on. One could narrow his or her focus to just one of these functions, but the tendency is to use more, sometimes several, at the same time. It is the rare person who does but one thing at a time when online. Most typically, it is a multi-mediated experience punctuated with various forms of multitasking.

Foehr (2006) writes that “the computer is the most multitasked medium because it offers many opportunities for media multitasking, both within itself as well as across other platforms” (p. 25). An extensive survey conducted by Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts (2010) found that more than half (58%) of 7th-12th graders say “they multitask ‘most’ of the time when using media” and that “nearly one in three (31 percent) 8- to 18-years old say that ‘most’ of the time they are doing homework, they are also using one medium or another—watching TV, texting, listening to music, and so on” (pp. 33, 34).

How might this pattern of behavior effect the intellectual development of a child? One consequence that several scholars have found is called the “bottle neck effect.” This hypothesis suggests that when there is an information overload it tends to clog the ability to think clearly and reasonably. Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009), for example, conducted a series of experiments with college students demonstrating that heavy multitaskers performed poorly on the execution of tests measuring cognitive control. Results of a study by Junco and Cotton (2011) revealed that college students in general exhibit high rates of multitasking and that “over half report that instant messaging has had a detrimental effect on their schoolwork” (p. 370). Bickham, Schmidt, and Huston (2012) add that “Studies examining efforts to use media and simultaneously perform a cognitively demanding task (e.g., a reading comprehension task) have found support for a limit capacity model; when the media and the task compete for similar cognitive resources, the completion of the task is more difficult” (p. 120). Citing work by Hembrooke and Gay (2003), Bergen, Grimes, and Potter (2005), Foerde, Knowlton, and Poldrack (2006), Rockwell and Singleton (2007), and Trafton and Monk (2008), Carr (2011) concludes that “the division of attention demanded by multimedia further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding” (p. 129).

Mark Bauerlein (2009) quotes one of his students as complaining, “I can’t concentrate on my homework without the TV on. The silence drives me crazy” (p. 80). What is remarkable about this comment is how unremarkable it is. Young people are being socialized in a 3-ring media circus in which the ability to focus on one ←29 | 30→thing and one thing only is becoming more and more difficult. This generation, the young and the restless, is always craving more stimulus, more distraction. This is not to blame them but only to highlight the all-consuming media environment that surrounds and devours them.

In sum, although the computer is quite obviously a powerful tool for learning, it is also one that encourages the formation of habits for a generation that is increasingly “young and restless,” that is, unable to concentrate for extended periods of time on a single task. To suggest, as technophiles often do, that a computer-centric education will enhance learning while ignoring its bias towards distraction is misguided. We have all been in this environment and we know very well how seductive it is to multitask and be continually diverted by the screen before us. At issue here is the loss of the ability to focus on one thing and one thing only for an extended period of time.

(3) The Atrophy of Literacy. Writing on the eve of the computer age when television was still the dominant medium, Neil Postman foresaw that advances in new electronic technologies were competing for prominence and replacing an earlier one: literacy. One of the casualties of this competition was the ability to concentrate. Postman (1985) argued that literacy had trained the mind to increase its attention span in a way that is unimaginable in the present day. The bias of television, because it communicates through rapidly moving images, undermines and overpowers the habits of mind and body cultivated by literacy:

We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic image. The classroom is, at the moment, still tied to the printed word, although that connection is rapidly weakening. Meanwhile, television forges ahead, making no concessions to its great technological predecessor, creating new conceptions of knowledge and how it is acquired … (T)elevision has by its power to control the time, attention and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education. (p. 145)

Postman, who died in 2003, never had the opportunity to say much about the digital revolution. One of his former students, however, became the driving force in the formation of the Media Ecology Association and has shepherded Postman’s ideas into the digital age. Lance Strate’s book, Amazing Ourselves to Death (2014), is an excellent summary of Postman’s ideas that extends his former mentor’s work into the contemporary media environment. Like his professor at NYU, Strate states that our uncritical fascination with “media and technology … are the cause of considerable concern” (xii). In extending Postman, Strate urges:

(L)iteracy desperately needs to be encouraged. Reading rewires the brain, and the wiring is not a permanent fixture, but needs to be continually renewed. And as tempting ←30 | 31→as ebooks and ereaders may be, resist the temptation to use them, because more and more they include digital distractions that break the concentration of reading, not to mention the fact that you lose the sensual quality of holding a book in your hand. Reading out loud as a form of entertainment also needs to be encouraged, especially reading to children, but also in adult settings. Handwriting is becoming a lost art, but there is value in putting pen to paper, in the art of calligraphy, and in the simple act of copying passages out by hand. And by whatever means necessary, write a letter to a loved one or friend, a real letter to be sent by the postal service. (p. 139)

The dangers of digital reading often alarm the most literate among us. Our minds tend to wander, our eyes scan text not read, our attention becomes shallow and moves in spurts. Like Lance Strate, Nicholas Carr (2011) is alarmed that we no longer read with the same degree of concentration as before:

Over the last few years I’ve had the uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory … I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading … Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do … The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. (pp. 5–6)

The observations of Strate and Carr reflect what many of us have also experienced: our reading is becoming rushed and superficial; we scan a text rather than engage it slowly and in depth. We are, in Carr’s words, entering “the shallows.” Carr, who graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in literature, goes on to quote a conversation with a faculty member from the University of Michigan Medical School who observed that his reading had taken on a “staccato” rhythm. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web … I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it” (Carr, 2011, p. 7).

Along with this lament recorded by Carr, it’s fair to say that many of us do not read quite as well or as extensively as we used to. Personal emails are not attended to with the same focus as we once did handwritten “snail” mail. Facebook encourages scanning disparate communiques and, if it is much longer than a meme, there is less likelihood that it will be read at all. Cliff Notes, once a popular rescue for the less than ambitious student in the Age of Television, provided summaries of texts that were assigned reading. Cliff Notes, which ran in the neighborhood of a hundred pages or more, have been replaced in the digital age by SparkNotes consisting of just a few pages. “I never read a book, I’ll be honest,” boasts a student interviewed by Rachel Dretzin (2010), “I can’t remember the last time I read a book. Nowadays, people are so busy that they need to get summaries of it like SparkNotes. ←31 | 32→You can read the whole book in a matter of pages. So I read all online. I actually never read Romeo and Juliet until I read it yesterday in five minutes.”

In many instances reading has become such a tortuous experience for young people that professors, even at elite universities, are being forced to adapt how they teach. Carr quotes an English professor from Duke University who confessed that she “can’t get students to read whole books anymore” (Carr, 2011, p. 9). While there are students who enjoy reading, the trend appears to be just as she describes it. Media ecologist Ray Guzzi of Ithaca College confided to colleagues at a conference that he could no longer lecture for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. “Their eyes gloss over and they just shut down.”

Using a term first introduced by historian Daniel Boorstin (1984) when he was the Librarian of Congress, Mark Bauerlein (2009) describes the growing decline of both literacy and habitual reading among young people as “a-literacy.” In making his argument, the former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts quotes study after study (National Survey of Statistical Engagement, American Freshman Survey, National Freshman Attitudes Report, High Survey of Student Engagement, Changing Times of American Youth: 1981–2003, National Assessment of Educational Progress, American Time Use Survey, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America) to demonstrate a growing decline in literacy and a loss of interest in the practice of reading among youthful populations. After reviewing the importance of literature in the intellectual and social development of Frederick Douglass, John Stuart Mill, Walt Whitman, and W.E.B. DuBois, Bauerlein (2009) concludes that “books afford young readers a place to slow down and reflect, to find role models, to observe their own turbulent feelings well expressed, or to discover moral convictions missing from their real situations” (p. 58).

Bauerlein is reminding us that not only is the ability to read and write in decline, but much more profoundly, so is the cultivation of habits of mind and body peculiar to the medium of literacy. The mind formed by literacy, for example, is much more capable of extended periods of attention than the mind socialized in an environment dominated by electronic media. Illustrating this phenomenon, Neil Postman (1985) recalls the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1859 in which the two statesmen tangled for as long as four, five and even seven hours before patient and engaged audiences. “What kind of audience was this?” Postman (1985) asks. “Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate seven hours of oratory?” (p. 44). Certainly not us. At this point in American history, when debates are reduced to soundbites and insulting one liners, citizens have no patience for extended discussions with well elaborated arguments. Compare the seriousness of the Lincoln-Douglas debates about the future of slavery in the ←32 | 33→United States to the skimpy “debates” and unchallenged assertions that were presented to the public before the military invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Sadam Hussein. A review of those televised discussions in the weeks leading up to war will reveal all the biases of television: attractive on-air personalities, exciting music, stimulating images, short unsubstantiated statements and, of course, a line of argument punctuated by continuous commercial interruptions. What is missing are coherent and well-defined arguments and rebuttals.

And today as we write, an a-literate president of the United States communicates to the citizenry through 280 characters on his twitter account. We can only wonder what Lincoln (and Postman) would have thought. #Sad.

(4) Instant Gratification. As electronic forms of communication evolved over the course of the twentieth century, they increasingly became instruments of instant gratification. Hollywood, the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” led the way with a body of work that successfully cultivated their audiences with a steady stream of glamour, gossip and easy to digest content. Radio, once it discovered that it was a mass medium that could be commercialized, did exactly the same with audio. Television brought Hollywood into the living room and transformed radio into a visual medium. The marketing strategy of this new American media triumvirate of movies, radio and television was as simple as it was effective: give the audience what it wants.

In the emerging digital environment that we are now experiencing in its infancy, the instant gratification of earlier forms of electronic media seems almost quaint in contrast. The demand for instant gratification now is not only common, it is constant and uninterrupted by context or circumstance no matter how serious or solemn. The advance of “smart” phones assures that there is never a moment of the day—not at work, dinner, school, or sleep—that cannot be disturbed to gratify a whim. We expect to be gratified every moment of our waking lives, 24/7, and one wonders how long it will be before even our sleep becomes another space to be colonized and conquered by media that aim to instantly gratify.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of this emergent set of circumstances has been the porn industry. Following Cooper (1998) and Hald, Kuyper, Adam, and DeWit (2013), Klaasen and Peter (2015) point out that “as Internet pornography is easily accessible, affordable and anonymous, the Internet has become the main source of pornography consumption” (p. 721). Fall and Howard (2015), after describing online pornography as being a “Triple A-engine” of “accessibility, affordability and anonymity,” note that Internet pornography is a 13 billion dollar industry and the United States is its leading producer and fourth largest consumer (p. 273). Belinda Luscombe (2016) adds that “One of the world’s largest adult sites, Pornhub, an explicit-video-sharing site … gets 2.4 million visitors per hour ←33 | 34→and that in 2015 alone, people around the globe watched 4,392,486,580 hours of its content.” Webroot (ND), an internet security company, states that every second over “$3,075 is being spent on pornography on the internet.” Amazingly, Webroot continues, “25 percent of all search engine queries are related to pornography, or about 68 million queries a day.” Obviously, there’s quite a bit of instant gratifying going on here.

A prominent bias of internet technology, then, is to gratify the user. The problem with using this technology in the classroom is that those who have become accustomed to continuous gratification will expect more of the same in its educational uses. Teachers everywhere are finding it difficult to hold the attention of students who have been socialized with the expectation that everything must be instantly gratifying. Attention spans are shorter and teachers feel compelled to add more bells and whistles to their lessons in order to get even a simple point across. There is little patience for sustained thought that may require some solitude, study and prolonged discussion. Teachers who try to engage the class in reflection often find themselves stymied by students rushing through complicated issues. With instant gratification driving the rhythms of thought, how does one teach philosophy, literature, or history? Because of the need for instant gratification, what remains is a very shallow version of education.

(5) The Atrophy of Physical Activity. It is important to keep in mind that the time doing digital media often translates as the undoing of the time allotted to traditional forms of physical activity. Electronic technology is biased toward stationary postures in front of screens, particularly indoors, while traditional children’s games are biased towards movement, particularly outdoors. Bodies that are sedentary for long periods of time before screens or with electronic devices cradled in their hands are physically less active beings. It is not at all incidental, then, that the rise of electronic technology is frequently associated with the tremendous growth of childhood obesity (P.M. Anderson & Butcher, 2006). Studies by R.E. Anderson, Crespo, Bartlett, Cheskin, and Pratt (1998), Faith et al. (2001), Jason, Danielewicz, and Mesina (2005) and van den Bulck (2000) also found similar correlations between elevated levels of time spent on computers and watching TV with the lack of physical activity, poor diets, and childhood obesity.

Details

Pages
XIV, 168
ISBN (PDF)
9781433154270
ISBN (ePUB)
9781433154287
ISBN (MOBI)
9781433154294
ISBN (Book)
9781433154256
Language
English
Publication date
2020 (June)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XIV, 168 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Robert Albrecht (Author) Carmine Tabone (Author)

Robert Albrecht received his doctorate in media ecology from New York University where he studied under Neil Postman. His book Mediating the Muse (Dorothy Lee Award) and his song cycle Song of the Poet (John Culkin Award) were both honored by the Media Ecology Association. Besides his lifelong work with children, Albrecht has taught media arts at New Jersey City University for over 20 years. <B> Carmine Tabone</B> holds an Ed.S. from Seton Hall University and a M.A. from New York University and has been leading theater and education projects for young people and teachers since 1970. Tabone is the founder and the director of the Educational Arts Team. He has written three handbooks, co-written numerous articles and co-authored a book on the uses of drama for interpersonal and academic growth.

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Title: The Arts and Play as Educational Media in the Digital Age