Thu, Sep 06, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Growing up digital: now and then

A look at parental concerns about technology back to the age of radio and dime novels


Kathy and Steve Dennis display their 1980s-era Apple II Plus computer bought for their then young sons in Bellevue, Washington. Three decades ago they never heard the phrase “screen time,” nor did they worry much about limiting the time the kids spent with technology, considering the computer an investment in their future. Things have changed with their grandkids and their phones.

photo: AP

When Stephen Dennis was raising his two sons in the 1980s, he never heard the phrase “screen time,” nor did he worry much about the hours his kids spent with technology. When he bought an Apple II Plus computer, he considered it an investment in their future and encouraged them to use it as much as possible.

Boy, have things changed with his grandkids and their phones and their Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.

“It almost seems like an addiction,” said Dennis, a retired homebuilder who lives in Bellevue, Washington. “In the old days you had a computer and you had a TV and you had a phone but none of them were linked to the outside world but the phone. You didn’t have this omnipresence of technology.”

Today’s grandparents may have fond memories of the “good old days,” but history tells us that adults have worried about their kids’ fascination with new-fangled entertainment and technology since the days of dime novels, radio, the first comic books and rock ‘n’ roll.

“This whole idea that we even worry about what kids are doing is pretty much a 20th century thing,” said Katie Foss, a media studies professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

However, when it comes to screen time, she added: “all we are doing is reinventing the same concern we were having back in the ‘50s.”

True, the anxieties these days seem particularly acute — as, of course, they always have. Smartphones have a highly customized, 24/7 presence in our lives that feeds parental fears of antisocial behavior and stranger danger.

What hasn’t changed, though, is a general parental dread of what kids are doing out of sight. In previous generations, this often meant kids wandering around on their own or sneaking out at night to drink. These days, it might mean hiding in their bedroom, chatting with strangers online.


Less than a century ago, the radio sparked similar fears.

“The radio seems to find parents more helpless than did the funnies, the automobile, the movies and other earlier invaders of the home, because it can not be locked out or the children locked in,” Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg, director of the Child Study Association of America, told the Washington Post in 1931.

She added that the biggest worry radio gave parents was how it interfered with other interests — conversation, music practice, group games and reading.

In the early 1930s a group of mothers from Scarsdale, New York, pushed radio broadcasters to change programs they thought were too “overstimulating, frightening and emotionally overwhelming” for kids, said Margaret Cassidy, a media historian at Adelphi University in New York who authored a chronicle of American kids and media.

Called the Scarsdale Moms, their activism led the National Association of Broadcasters to come up with a code of ethics around children’s programming in which they pledged not to portray criminals as heroes and to refrain from glorifying greed, selfishness and disrespect for authority.

Then television burst into the public consciousness with unrivaled speed. By 1955, more than half of all US homes had a black and white set, according to Mitchell Stephens, a media historian at New York University.

The hand-wringing started almost as quickly. A 1961 Stanford University study on 6,000 children, 2,000 parents and 100 teachers found that more than half of the kids studied watched “adult” programs such as Westerns, crime shows and shows that featured “emotional problems.” Researchers were aghast at the TV violence present even in children’s programming.

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