(Q) Cooper: “Do you think your childhood experience would have been improved with more accessible media? Would you rather have grown up in our generation?”
(A) Graya: “As I look back on it now, I wouldn’t take anything from the way I grew up. At the time I would’ve loved it, but as old as I am now, I think it was good growing up that way. I think
you used your mind more to invent things to play with and do. Build houses made of sticks under a tree. Cut paper from a catalog for crafts. Things kids nowadays really don’t do.”
In today’s digital age, the influence of media on our lives, particularly on the younger generation, cannot be denied. While offering numerous benefits, such as readily available
information and connectivity, the excessive use of media of any kind poses a threat to a child’s cognitive development. The digital world, with its constant stream of notifications and
distractions, hinder a person’s ability to think critically, concentrate, and sometimes makes it hard to interact with others day to day. Dean Cliatt, my grandmother who is lovingly known by
my family as Graya, spoke candidly to me about her experiences and challenges with media, and how she believes growing up without it helped shape her into a more self-reliant and motivated
individual. She recounted stories of a time where face-to-face interactions, handwritten letters, and community were the norm. Her insights into a media-free upbringing not only offered a
historical perspective, but also served as a reminder of the potential consequences a child may face when immersed so deeply in media. In this essay I aim to shed light on the dangers of social media on the cognitive development of a child, compared to a time when none of it existed, and examining which time period equipped the younger generation with a more robust set of skills and knowledge necessary for navigating the complexities of life.
(Q) Cooper: “How did you spend your leisure time growing up?”
(A) Graya: “We played with whatever we could find to play with whenever we weren’t working in the fields.”
Graya was born in 1942, and grew up 12 miles outside of the small town Albertville, Alabama. The media landscape at the time was a stark contrast to the digital age we live in now. Access to information and entertainment was primarily provided by radio broadcasts, newspapers, and magazines. During our discussion, I learned that Graya had little access to any sort of media growing up. Owning only a “rinky-dink radio”, her family didn’t read the newspaper or any magazines because they weren’t printed in her area. She did recall a radio show she and her father would listen to, called Amos and Andy, two black comedians who would create sketches on the evening programming. However, living out in the country, she mostly grew up working on her father’s farm growing cotton and corn, and had little time to indulge in media. This was the situation for many families in the 1940’s. “For the most part, people just didn’t have time for radio or television, they would spend it all working. It was a hard life, there was always work to be done.” -Graya. With limited access to media, her formative years were spent away from the relentless noise of information. Instead, like many children at the time, she was engaged in the demanding work of her father’s farm. This hands-on experience provided an opportunity for her to increase her intellectual and physical growth, that would help prepare her for life ahead. Without the constant lure of electronic devices, Graya spent her free time reading books and engaging in creative activities, which enhanced her critical thinking and honed her reading skills. Written media encouraged her young mind to explore literature and think creatively. Her experiences show how the limitations of media access during her childhood is a contributing factor to her well-developed cognitive abilities now as an adult.
(Q) Cooper: “When electronic media became available to you, did it make life easier for you?”
(A) Graya: “Yes, it made life more informative, I knew all about what was going on, but it was also a big distraction from the work that needed done.”
The media landscape changed drastically in the late 1990s to early 2000s with the invention of the smartphone and increased availability of the internet. This marked a pivotal shift
in the way children engaged with information and entertainment. The digital revolution brought forth a new type of entertainment: personal, customizable, and extremely addictive forms of
media. News in particular became more accessible and targeted, with platforms delivering information specifically tailored to a person’s age, location, and past interactions. While this has
its benefits, it also comes with potentially harmful implications. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, said this about a child’s developing mind in her book: “Children have an
absorbent mind. They absorb knowledge from the environment without fatigue…The child has a different relation to his environment from ours, the child absorbs it. The things he sees are not
just remembered; they form part of his soul” (The Absorbent Mind).
I would like to focus on the last part of this quote, where a child will subconsciously absorb information and make it a part of their soul along with their memory. The profound impact of early childhood experiences contributes greatly to a person’s character, identity, and worldview. Images, videos, and content that the media pushes can shape a child’s mind and influence their decision making and attitude throughout their life. The rise of digital media introduced a culture of instant gratification; likes, comments, and notifications are all intended to keep someone constantly engaged. These attention-seeking apps are intended to be captivating, but they encourage shallow interactions and slow a person’s attention span. A child still discovering who they are, can be crushed by the overwhelming amount of influence and opinions they will find on the internet and through media. When I asked Graya about how the absence of media affected her growing up, she said: “We used to go home with different people on Sundays after church, strangers we didn’t know. Nowadays people don’t do that, just drop by someone’s house for dinner.”
Oftentimes in the 21st century, children grow up creating relationships over their phones, or playing video games. This can be valuable in relation to connectivity across the globe, however, I would argue that face-to-face interactions are 10x more important for cognitive development. Learning how to interact with someone right in front of you will help in job interviews, in the workplace, in founding relationships, and much more. Unlimited access to media and electronics changes the way a child views society, and it is crucial for parents, teachers, and guardians to be aware of the dangers and prepared to combat it by leading their children on a path of positive cognitive growth.
(Q) Cooper: “Do you think that growing up with books and print media was more helpful for your intellectual development than electronics?”
(A) Graya: “Yes”
(Q) Cooper: “Do you think your academic performance was enhanced without the distractions of electronic media?”
(A) Graya: “Yes”
In the 1940s, family values and hard work ethic were moral standards for everyone. Now, I can’t go out to eat without seeing a family dinner where the children are playing on their Ipads. My grandmother recollected her family all sitting around the radio and listening to the programs, eating a homemade meal at the dining room table. In contrast, media now is an isolating experience. David Marshall, a business owner and consultant, wrote an interesting article about the dying art of “water-cooler talk”, and had this to say: “I believe we have lost that
sense of community and camaraderie that comes from a group of people sharing the same space, day after day, working toward a common goal.” In the workplace back in the day, conversations
and experiences were shared over a communal water cooler, face-to-face with one another. These conversations were instrumental in building a sense of community and friendship, where
like-minded people could laugh and talk about a shared enjoyment. In the 21st century, media is specifically tailored to a person’s preferences, and therefore the common ground of water-cooler
talk is out the window. With the wide variety of media available, it is now challenging for everyone to be tuned into the same references and experiences. This leads me to my next point:
how do we discern that the information the media provides is even true? While increased accessibility to information is valuable, people often trust the media blindly without using their
critical thinking to challenge the information given. The rise of fake news, AI generated content, and misinformation are of growing concern, and can be incredibly dangerous to a child exploring this landscape for the first time.
Graya talked to me about her experiences with books and print media growing up, as seen in the quotes above. Books were seen as reliable sources of information, and research was conducted vigorously back then, to make sure anything said was true. When writing a paper for class, she would use books and newspaper articles for information and quotes. Academic performance was enhanced in the 1940’s, without the distractions and misinformation of digital media. Children now struggle in school and work with short attention spans and lack of motivation. I would argue that these struggles stem down to the over-usage of distracting media, and under-usage of thought provoking material. Children nowadays need to be taught media literacy, how to consume information responsibly, and to know when enough is enough. The digital age is destroying kid’s understanding of the world around them, and teaching them when they ought to be taught by adults who love and care for them in the real world.
(Q) Cooper: “How has your perspective on media and its impact on society changed over the years?”
(A) Graya: “Well, the world is always changing. I appreciate being able to hear the news as soon as it happens, but it’s all so depressing it almost makes me want to turn it off. I would say the impact is about 50/50, positive and negative.”
In conclusion, the media’s influence on children’s development has both positive and negative connotations. With the proper guidance and regulation, media can be a resourceful tool for research and world understanding. However, most children grow up without that guidance, and therefore fall into the addictive slump of overwhelming media. In my interview with Graya,
I learned about the importance of family and hard work, giving lots of thought to the duality of our lives when writing this paper. My experiences are way different than hers, and it makes me
wonder what the experience will be for my children, and grandchildren. As the years go on, it will be crucial for my generation to teach our children how to correctly interact with media,
because the temptations of electronics are only growing stronger.
Aim. “Why Your Child’s Brain Is Like a Sponge.” Why Your Child’s Brain Is like a Sponge, 2023, aimmontessoriteachertraining.org/why-your-childs-brain-is-like-a-sponge/#:~:text=From%
Marshall, David. “We’re Missing the Water Cooler Conversations.” David A. Marshall, 4 Nov. 2022, damarshall.consulting/2022/08/03/were-missing-the-water-cooler-conversations/.
“Children and the Media.” Paediatrics & Child Health, vol. 4, no. 5, 1999, pp. 350–62, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2827729/, https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/4.5.350.