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//Popular screen culture and childhood// Dafna Lemish

Popular screen culture and childhood Dafna Lemish

Living with a global popular screen culture is one of the characteristics of childhood in the beginning of the third millennium: screens of television, cinema, computers, mobile devices, hand-held electronic games are part of everyday life. Children around the world are growing up today in very different family structures, speak different languages, have different levels of literacy, live in diverse material conditions. They face a variety of challenges, belong to different faiths and dream a wide range of dreams for their futures. But a vast portion of them find themselves spending significant time routinely in front of one screen or another.

Sixty years of research of the most central screen in children’s lives – television, lead to far reaching conclusions on the role of this medium in their lives: long term implications for behavior (e.g., violence, eating disorders, sexual experiences, consumer practices, pro-social behavior); its contribution to the cultivation of world view and values (e.g., perception of gender, political attitudes, stereotypes of minorities); its potential for learning (e.g., language, school-related curricula, cognitive skills); implications for family and social life (e.g., structuring everyday routine, providing conversation topics, creating youth culture) and many more areas (Lemish, 2008). But while television continues to be the dominant family medium, it changes in front of our eyes: the device is now manufactured in every size and shape; the audio-visual quality improves constantly and continues to perfect the illusion of mirroring a reality; and perhaps what is even more important – the contents it offers adapt themselves to the changing media worlds of converging and mobile multiple screens.

Multiple realities

Screen culture is characterized by its omnipresence in every aspect of young people’s lives: At home, in school, in the work place, in places of leisure, on the roads. The distinction between existence in the concrete reality and the mediated one is being blurred. They are always moving between the two states of being smoothly and fluently.

It is possible to a large degree to argue that the separation between the two kinds of reality is artificial and meaningless – both “flow” one into the other and are reciprocal. According to post-modern approaches, the world in which we live floods us via screens with representations of reality that to a large degree are more attractive than the concrete ones. The question of what is “real” and “authentic” in this culture changes its meaning: Romantic love in the soap opera may be more exciting than the one being experienced by the growing up teenager and offers a high bar for longing and aspirations. In the internet, would argue a teenager, “I can really be myself”, since the partners to the chat are not influenced by external appearances, and strangers can play with their identities while they crystalize their very own internal core, the “real me”. According to Baudrillard we live in a kind of a “hyper-reality”, replacing the reality with its representations.  In this reality the borders between accepted and common social divisions are blurred, such as the division between the private and the public spheres. For example, in her private bedroom the student searches the net for information for a school project, and during class she sends an intimate text message on her mobile phone. A love declaration appears on a huge billboard beside the road in a major urban area, and scenes of war or natural disasters broadcast in CNN worldwide were captured earlier by a personal phone-camera. Reality shows on television allow us the illusion of peeking into people’s private lives. Uploading personal You Tube videos and writing personal blogs, or even “sexting” – the sending of personal sexual messages and images via texting moves our private lives into the public sphere. Each one of the various screens can serve a variety of needs ranging from the private to the public and each one can do so in spaces that are defined as private or public.

Technological convergence

The convergence of diverse communication functions into one screen is one of the dominant aspects of screen culture that facilitates these processes. The computer screen is now a “library” through an internet connection, a video store, a television/DVD screen, a radio and music player, a photo album, a phone, a personal calendar, a camera, a game console, and so forth. All these roles and functions are now available in that one screen. Similarly, the screen of the mobile phone serves all of the above and an endless source of applications for every interest and need.

Related are other forms of blurring of categories that were perceived until recently as quite distinct: between information, entertainment and advertising; formal and non-formal learning; study and play. The distinction between media that supposedly encourage passivity and those which allow reciprocity and interactivity is becoming unclear too. One can choose to be passive or active on various levels with each one of the screens, pending on interest, context, personality, circumstances: The computer and internet allow interactivity, but it is also possible to consume them only for escape from reality and momentary gratifications. Television may allow relaxation and relief, but can also allow tailoring a personal viewing schedule and encourage reactivity: selection of a preferred idol, signing a petition, submitting home-videos for competition, and even choosing a particular ending for a favorite series.

Children move between one screen and another according to their personal interest, accessibility and the type of experience that each one of them allow. They watch their favorite “celeb-singer” on television, save his/her photo on their desktop, surf the net to find the “behind the scene” clips about their performance, write facebook messages expressing their views, download a favorite song to their MP or a ringtone to their mobile phone. The traditional assumption according to which a specific medium has a preference for a specific kind of content or role (e.g., that books are more suitable for conveying complicated messages for the acquisition of formal knowledge while television is more suitable for passive and non-demanding entertainment; or that mobile phones are for making phone calls) are not relevant anymore. Each screen has the potential to become a very different entity than what it was designed for originally. Each screen can serve a full range of needs and roles.

Consumer culture

One central area of interest focuses on the complex inter-relationships between popular culture and consumer culture, characterized by privatization, individualism and commercialization. Young people are important consumers on their own, but they also influence the purchases of the adults in their lives. Public debates around children’s place in the commercialized world fluctuate between an anxiety over their possible role as victims of manipulative marketing to a celebration of their consumer competency and sophistication (Buckingham, 2011).

Children, so the argument goes, are treated by commercial forces not as developing citizens who cultivate qualities and skills vital for functioning in a democratic society, but as consumers who should be developing their leisure culture based on endless consumerism. And indeed, the civic discourse of empowerment is recruited for commercial purposes: Children are being treated as autonomous people with the autonomy to choose a particular consumerist life style and the right to express one’s own individual “voice” in matters of cultures of taste: in music, fashion, food, entertainment.

Economic interests lay behind the construction of newly invented sub-periods of childhood: For example, the new “tween” period of pre-adolescence is constructed as a distinct period of childhood with its own popular culture taste; as well as the construction of babies and toddlers as a consumer market requiring its own technological developments (e.g., keyboards for babies, special DVDs, satellite channels devoted to them, and even internet sites for babies and toddlers seated on adults’ laps). There is also clear consumer segregation between girlhood and boyhood in the worlds of toys, fashion, music, TV programs, advertising etc (Lemish, 2010).

The consequences of screen culture as consumer culture go well beyond the question of product purchases. Scholars raise questions regarding the promotion of hedonistic culture; encouragement of inability (or need) to postpone gratifications; cultivation of self-image dependent upon appearance and ownership rather than qualities and achievements; internalization of a world view according to which products can offer  a cure to every human problem – psychological or social; the flocking after a world of glamour and celebrities and construction of future aspirations as located within the screen culture itself (e.g., the desire to be a famous “celeb”, a fashion model, a news anchor).


Children all over the world are watching similar television programs and movies, play similar computer games, surf similar popular websites and download similar popular music, much of it originates in North America, with its world views, values and interests. Many other texts traveling around the world that originate elsewhere (e.g., Japanese anima, Korean computer games, African music, Latin telenovelas) go through an adaptation process in which the US serves as a “megaphone” that legitimizes and intensifies their distribution. As a result, popular culture has the effect of cultural-mainstreaming and homogenization: Children around the world sing similar pop songs, wear similar cloths, drink similar soft drinks and adore the same mega-celebrities.

Is it possible then to argue that children live today in a global village as imagined by Marshal McLuhn? Do they perceive the world similarly as a result? Is their local identity eroded? Do they dream the same scripts for their own futures? The academic debate over the processes of cultural globalization is wide and interdisciplinary and is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice is to say that it seems that for children and youth growing up today the tension between globalization and localization does not seem to present a problematic contradiction. On the contrary, it seems that globalization is being integrated into “glocalization” processes, according to which audiences grounded in specific local cultural contexts adopt global texts through processes of local interpretations and adaptations. One of the significant processes in this regard is the creation of a hybrid culture in which children creatively integrate contents and local identities from their own specific culture (characterized by a history, language, tradition, religion, ethnicity, etc), with contents and identities of other cultures. This is made possible in an era of technological advances including satellites, the internet and mobile communication through processes of intercultural and transnational exchanges. It seems that for children and youth, the two processes exist side by side in integration and dialectic co-existence and not as a choice between two competing options.

Literacy and education

One of the important implications of this form of popular culture is the need to re-define a multi-modal literacy, which requires a variety of skills in the areas of interpretation, comprehension, critical thinking, application and creativity in many languages: The literate person needs to master not only verbal language – oral, reading and writing (and preferably in more than one language), but also in the audio-visual languages, computing skills, searching and evaluating on-line information, and an ability to integrate all of these simultaneously. This reality challenges traditional formal schooling and normative ways of teaching, and dictates a new agenda for educational systems that wish to adapt to the evolving media saturated world. Principles of uni-directional and hierarchical teaching, questions related to the teacher’s authority as a source of knowledge, the requirement for unity of place and time for classroom teaching – all these and others are challenged by the new reality and require creative and bold adaptation strategies (Livinsgtone, 2009).

Positive and/or negative potential


The prevalent debate over the positive and negative potential of popular screen culture in children’s lives is characterized by a school of thought that focuses on technological determinism, according to which technology dictates social structures and processes. Alternatively, we can examine this culture as central to current life, with a potential for a wide range of complicated influences, most of which cannot be dichotomized as good or bad. Indeed, our accumulated knowledge about the role of media in children’s lives suggests that they can have both positive as well as negative effects on children, depending on the content we fill them with; the context in which they are enjoyed; the use we make of them; and the individual characteristics of the children using them. Media have the potential, positive and negative, to make a difference in children’s lives in all areas of their development: behaviourally (e.g., imitating sharing or imitating aggression), socially (e.g., making new friends and strengthening existing relationships through social media or bullying their classmates on the internet); cognitively (e.g., learning school preparedness skills or developing short attention spans); creatively (e.g., creating computer graphics, writing blogs, and uploading their own videos or reproducing cliché commercial formulas and stereotypical messages); or even physically (e.g., learning balanced nutrition or developing bad eating habits). Clearly, popular cultural influences are not simply either good or bad. They are complicated and interlinked with many grey areas open to multiple interpretations, depending upon different cultural value systems and world views. For example, is corresponding with strangers on the internet dangerous or does it widen horizons? Is sex education for adolescents in the media life-saving or morally inappropriate? Does watching an American TV series expand cultural experiences or damage other cultural identities? Does addressing topics like trauma or death help children cope with difficult experiences or traumatize them and make them even more fearful and distrustful of adults? (Kolucki & Lemish, 2011).


Children’s voices

It is interesting to note that when the dust settles on all of these academic and public debates, there is actually little that we know about what children and young people themselves think about all of these issues. Gradually more researchers are incorporating more participatory methodologies into their research projects that allow children to speak in their own voice and express their views and perceptions regarding their culture. Related is an evolving phenomenon that has received little attention to date, of children producing, consuming and distributing content created by themselves (Fisherkeller, 2011). With the availability of multi-functional mobile devices and internet accessibility the outlets for self-expression and creativity break down the traditional consumer/producer dichotomy and facilitate a wide range of creative possibilities. All these suggest that the dynamics of the construction of the concept of “childhood” requires also the recognition of each child as a creative and autonomous person who has the right to express herself/ himself regardless of the stage of development in which s/he is grounded. Educational institutions and parents are expected not only to cultivate new forms of literacy, but also to encourage a process of self-empowerment which has been made possible with the new technologies, and to supply young people with tools and skills that will allow them to become active creators and not only consumers of screen culture.




Additional references:


Buckingham, D. (2011). The material child: Growing up in consumer culture. Malden,. MA: Polity.

Fisherkeller, J. (Ed.) (2011). International Perspectives on Youth Media: Cultures of Production and Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Kolucki, B. & Lemish, D. (2011). Communicating with Children: Principles and Practices to Nurture, Inspire, Excite, Educate and Heal. NY: UNICEF.  http://www.unicef.org/cwc/

Lemish, D.  (2006). Rethinking childhood. Panim, 37, 14-21. (In Hebrew)


Lemish, D. (2008). Dzieci i telewizja: Perspektywa globalna. Krakow, Poland: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego.


Lemish, D. (2010) Screening gender in children's TV: The views of producers around the world. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.

Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the internet. Malden, MA: Polity.


Dafna Lemish is Professor of Communication, Chair of the Department of Radio-TV at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and founding editor of the Journal of Children and Media. Previously she was a Professor of Communication and Chair of the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University in Israel. She is author of numerous books on children, media and gender representations including most recently: Communicating with children: Principles and practices to nurture, inspire, excite, educate and heal http://www.unicef.org/cwc/ (with Kolucki; UNICEF); Screening Gender on Children’s Television: The Views of Producers Around the World (Routledge, 2010); Children and Television: A Global Perspective (Blackwell, 2007); Children and Media at times of Conflict and War (co-edited with Götz, Hampton Press, 2007); Media and the Make-Believe Worlds of Children: When Harry Potter Meets Pokémon in Disneyland (with Götz, Aidman, and Moon; Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005). In addition she has published over 120 academic articles and book chapters in these areas in several languages. She is a Fellow of the International Communication Association (ICA) and was the first recipient of the Teresa Award for the Advancement of Feminist Scholarship of ICA.