Childhood has changed: children and teenagers are growing up in a reality that is barely understood by adults. Parents are often poorly informed about how their children are growing up. The family and school, as institutions, have been eroded: new forms of families have emerged, and school has alternatives, such as homeschooling, external studies, etc. Gaps not filled by parents and school are being filled by the internet and youth subcultures.
A three-year project on children’s studies, headed by Katerina Polivanova, Professor at the HSE Institute of Education, will explore the contemporary trajectories of growing up, family and school practices, and communication between children. Together with her co-authors Elena Sazonova, a postgraduate student at the Russian Academy of Education Institute of Psychology, and Marta Shakarova, a researcher at the Beagle Recruitment Agency, Polivanova has published the article ‘What Modern Children’s Reading Habits and Games Can Tell Us’ in the new HSE Journal of Educational Studies (Voprosy Obrazovania), in which the three revealed their thoughts on the topic of ‘modern culture as teacher and educator’.
Russian researchers don’t have many facts about the state of modern childhood. Most of the opinions are judgments that state, for example, that in the mid-1970s childhood was ‘as it should be’, and now it is ‘being destroyed’, since traditional games ‘are dying’ and communication with parents is decreasing. ‘But are we questioning ourselves about this new historical reality, about the cultural differences in which maturation is occurring?’ the authors ask rhetorically. We need a multidimensional study of the phenomenon of modern childhood.
At the same time, we have to take into account that the system governing the socialization of children has drastically changed. If, in the past, adult and child were considered ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘ignorant’, respectively, today the two represent two different cultures and each possesses knowledge that is unknown to the other. ‘The experience of today’s children and the environment of their childhoodis very different from the early experiences of their parents’, the researchers emphasize – ‘So, the question is, what can parents give to children, if their experience is invalid for their children?’
As a result, the way children are developing is changing. In the past, a growing child faced a limited set of developmental goals and a limited list of places where he/she could reach them. Today, each child is confronted with a hodgepodge of various opportunities. Children haphazardly surf social and cultural spaces, and random internet surfing has become the image of a modern childhood, the way they discover the world.
So, maybe the main question is: Exactly what types of modern mass culture and its forms are children encountering? The article’s authors study this problem by examining children’s games and teenagers’ reading habits.
According to studies of games played by 60 children, aged 4 to 7, contemporary culture continues to give children material for meaningful developmental games. The games were based on the plots of cartoons from the series Smeshariki (Russia) and Tom and Jerry (USA).
These two series propagate totally different images of the world. Smeshariki are focused on the relationships between the characters, and Tom and Jerry stories are pure action.
The world of Smeshariki is much more complicated and multidimensional: there are now negative characters and an ‘image of the enemy’; all characters are equally important, and there exist many points of view, which are subject to change during the course of communications.
Tom and Jerry’s characters are unable to develop; they have a stereotypical set of functions, and the structure of the plot is often repeated. The world in the series is clearly divided into ‘friend’ and ‘foe’.
The conclusions of this part of the study are as follows: the series that focuses on relationships between characters (Smeshariki) provokes role play in children more often than the series in which the relationships are stereotypical (Tom and Jerry). And more important, in their games, children are able to understand and recreate a range of rather ambiguous and complicated relationships, ‘when there exist no simple answers, no obvious villains and no one who is absolutely right’, the researchers stated.
J. K. Rowling’s novels about Harry Potter are among those few books that are willingly read by contemporary teenagers. The researchers tried to find the secret of the books’ success by surveying members of online discussion boards dedicated to Harry Potter books (1,052 participants), as well as by conducting face-to-face interviews (53 participants).
The researchers have the following explanation for the huge resonance caused by Rowling’s books: ‘The ‘wizarding’ world offers the opportunity to act, while teenagers perceive the real world as being inactive, boring, and lacking purpose’. A love for Potter books reflects teenagers’ striving for self-realization and freedom, as well as their desire to have a goal, the authors say. The lack of a goal in the real world is seen as an obstacle for action.
The fantastic battle (the culmination of the books), as well as the game of quidditch (involving flights on broomsticks) cause ambiguous associations in teenagers: on one hand, these competitions are demonstrations of power, and on the other hand, they are related to injuries and pain. So, they have mixed emotions: joy and excitement along with tension and fear, the reason for this being that the outcomes of all the battles in Rowling’s books are almost unpredictable. Climactic, emotionally coloured, and unexpected actions are ‘key to the adolescent’s developmental crisis’, the article claims.
The backdrop for a heroic deed is the Forbidden Forest, which is full of dangers and mysteries. It represents to some degree the quintessence of the ’wizarding’ world. The researchers used factor analysis to study the opinions of teenagers aged 13 to 18 (those who are familiar with at least one book/film about Harry Potter, as well as those who regularly participate in online discussions about Harry Potter stories) about the two worlds – the real one and the magical one. All of the respondents associate the real world with powerlessness. High school students emphasize the special possibilities of the magical world – it is saturated with events and full of surprises. And, that’s what makes it meaningful, the researchers explain.
What the surveyed teenagers value in a character’s actions is determination. But the conditions in which this determination is realized are explained differently by various groups of respondents. For participants of internet forums, the clarity and meaningfulness of the ’wizarding’ world are not sufficient conditions for action. For this, they believe that an extreme environment, such as the Forbidden Forest, is needed. Researchers suggest that this category of teenagers – Potter fans – feel the lack of their own action in real life especially sharply and compensate by constantly ‘experiencing’ the Potter stories online. This attitude towards a text can be a ‘sign of growing dependency’.
Mass culture texts, one way or another, support the development of a child’s personality in today’s complicated conditions, conclude Polivanova, Sazonova, and Shakarova. At least cartoons and books (although, not all of them) are succeeding in establishing a dialogue with children.
However, one musttake into account that the ‘messages’ of mass culture presuppose that viewers and readers are more sophisticated than in past decades. And these messages provide the audience with much greater freedom, by placing them in ambiguous situations. In fact, this means that when it comes to communication, child and culture are on equal terms.