Karen Sternheimer is an author of numerous books surrounding youth and particularly fears surrounding the effects of media on children. Sternheimer is an acclaimed associate professor in sociology at the University of Southern California.
In her book, Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media is Not the Answer, I focused my attention on chapter two as the basis for this review which is, Is Popular Culture Really Ruining Childhood? This chapter focuses on the idea of pop culture and the impact it has on childhood. I chose this particular chapter as it aligns with my final paper on how social media is affecting social behaviour of adolescents as it pertains to cyberbullying.
Sternheimer argues that pop culture is not changing childhood as much as society might think. She bases her theories on three main questions. Firstly, Sternheimer examines the meaning of childhood. Secondly, who decides what children should know or not know about sex, violence, alcohol and drugs? Is this knowledge at an early age dangerous? Lastly, if children’s experiences of childhood have changed, is popular culture the main cause?
Sternheimer also explains the fear associated with media because media is considered the primary trigger to spoiling childhood innocence. This is in part because “media are the most visible representation of the many changes that have altered the experiences of childhood. Changes in popular culture are much easier to spot than shifts in social structure.” (p. 23)
The meaning of childhood is difficult to define for people in general all have their own opinion of childhood. The term childhood is quite benign for everyone has their own interpretation and children are a demographic easily stereotyped and misrepresented. “Childhood is rooted in social, economic, and political realities and is not a universal experience shared by all people of a certain age from the beginning of time.” (p. 25)
Sternheimer adopts theories from David Buckingham, a professor at the University of London, who argues “we need to work toward preparing children to face the realities of the world around them” (p. 26). This theory counters the typical way of parenting from protecting their children to preparing children, so they can make their own sound decisions and judgement when faced with the realities of the world. Sternheimers’ approaches this topic delicately and explains, “Knowledge is central to maintaining both the myth of innocence and power over children, which is at the heart of media fears. Media destabilize the myth of innocence and challenge adult’s ability to withhold knowledge from children.” (p. 27) Childhood is shifting based on the needs of society, as it did when we were children and generations before us.
What Really Changed Childhood? In this section of the book, Sternheimer breaks down the way society’s psyche has interpreted childhood over the centuries. Her approach is unique in the collection of historical data she manages to reference and analyze. Sternheimer argues that media has changed from radio, TV, and social media and these generational differences did not alter social behavior of our childhood experiences. Childhood experiences have changed and the notion has too. Historical data drawn from Phillipe Aries, dating back to the seventeenth century, the conceptualized idea of childhood was very different as the separation of childhood and adults was blurred and was not distinct as it is today. Findings from Karin Calvert early Colonialists depicted childhood as a risky part of life an associated it to illness and death. Not until the Victorian Era childhood became an idealized time of life. Sternheimer cites, Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist, whose research dates back to early colonialized America, when child labour was viewed as a baseline to a successful adult life. It was in the early nineteenth century, when compulsory education came to pass, making the need for children to gain a higher level of education with more technical and sophisticated machinery. Post war economic boom of the 1940s found people with plenty of goods and services available. As children began having more time on their hands, the emergence of the term “teenager” and markets saw a viable demographic eager to tap in to. In today’s social climate, “innocence is seen as a birthright destroyed by popular culture or ineffective parents.” (p. 37)
If children’s experiences of childhood have changed, is popular culture the main cause?
Sternheimer, reviews a number of statistics reflecting children’s behavior and comparing them to years past is more positive than people thought. She identifies improvements of youth violence, juvenile arrested for homicide, teen birthrate (to name a few) all continue to fall. Sternheimer, raises interesting point regarding children who have more access to technology like, video games and cell phones. She indicates the children who do not have these technologies or who can’t afford them are the ones we need to worry about. She closes her argument with “childhood is constantly shifting and mutating with the fluctuation in society. The perceived crisis in childhood is derived from the gap between the fantasy of childhood and the reality.” (p. 40)
In closing, throughout time, cultures’ interpretation of childhood have changed, however it is important to note, that Sternheimer takes into account only a small portion of societies interpretation. It is nearly impossible to understand humanities depiction of childhood from different levels of societies, unfortunately her research highlights views mostly from Western Societies perspective. Her research still leaves the reader with questions, however it encapsulates how childhood experiences are continuing to shift due to society and children operate in the same social environment as adults where information is constantly being transmitted and received. Adults tend to idealize childhood with the notion of hopes and expectations as well as our fears and concerns.
Karen Sternheimer (Feb 19, 2013). Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media is Not the Answer. Westview Press, New York, ISBN: 9780813347240