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Ask an Expert: JoEllen Fisherkeller, NYU

Today’s edition of our Ask an Expert interview series is with JoEllen Fisherkeller, an associate professor in the Steinhardt Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Prof. Fisherkeller is the author of a book on how television affects children and the editor of International Perspectives on Youth Media: Cultures of Production and Education. Her work focuses on the way young people use and react to media in their everyday lives.

Tiggly: In 2002, you published a book titled Growing Up With Television. A little more than a decade later, youths now grow up with touchscreen devices like iPhones and iPads as well. What impact has this change in technology had on the way kids “grow up with” media? Are smart devices inherently different from predecessors like television, or are they mostly similar?

JoEllen Fisherkeller: With the introduction of every new medium, there is always some similarity to older media as well as some key differences.

For example, early radio and TV content adopted vaudeville forms of entertainment but then also included news and advertisements, and of course, the audience reach was broadened. When it comes to “iWhatevers,” some of the content of films and TV and radio are brought into that technology, but certainly, the level of interactivity with “smart technologies” is much greater than switching channels. In particular, the opportunities for being creative on newer interactive media have greatly expanded for those who have access.

Laptops, cellphones, iPods, and tablets are more mobile than the TV I watched when I was a kid in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The only mobile media then were books, magazine, pens and paper! Although my dad did have a transistor radio, but we were not allowed to use it.

Tiggly: What are the advantages to children of growing up with media like television or touchscreens? What are the challenges or detrimental effects?

JF: The advantages of using television have always been and still are that you can laugh, be emotionally moved, get drawn into good stories, and learn about history, other cultures, and current events, given that material is high quality and accurate. I’m not sure of the advantages of touchscreens, except that if you have them on mobile devices you have mobility, and the added interactivity and creative possibilities wherever you go with your device.

The challenges of television are that there is a good deal of stupid and inane material, lots of formulaic and simply sensational shows, and dishonest or inaccurate news, and many detrimental stereotypes of various people. This has been true for a long time, but the proliferation of channels just means there is more of that.

As for touchscreens, I’m just hypothesizing here because I don’t know the research, but perhaps kids growing up with this kind of technology really might expect everything to be “at their fingertips” and so might be frustrated with other technologies that might take more effort but are worthwhile, like pen and paper.

Tiggly: How do you believe kids “learn” culture? What are the key drivers of their understanding of the world/culture around them?

JF: Anthropologists (which I am not by degree) know that we all learn culture through experiencing everyday life; interacting with family, friends, school, community, travel, and of course various symbolic activity and materials, including rituals, ceremonies, and many kinds of media, including of course language, the arts, and all kinds of old and new media they have access to.

Tiggly: What would you tell parents who are apprehensive about the amount of screen time their children are exposed to? Are their concerns valid, misplaced, or somewhere in the middle? Why?

JF: Throughout history parents have had valid, misplaced, and both kinds of concerns. I think it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world, raising kids. That goes for teaching, too, by the way. And childcare of any kind.

I hesitate to tell parents anything. I know from my sisters and friends that many parents don’t want to be told how to parent. I think all parents need to work out what works with their particular kids, given their ages and competencies and needs, and given their family and circumstances and contexts.

One thing both kids and adults need to consider is there physical health when using screens of any kind. Clerical workers are advised that for their occupational safety and health, they should take a brief break from their screens and their sedentary positions every 20 minutes — either get up and walk around a little or do some stretches in their seat and look away from the screen. This will avoid eyestrain and back/neck problems and repetitive stress disorders.

It’s important for young and old to establish various kinds of checks and balances for maintaining their physical and mental health when using and interacting with all media and technologies.

Team Tiggly