Extract from Chapter 1 from Invisibly blighted: the digital erosion of childhood to be published by UCL IOE Press, Spring 2017.
In the old centre of Bern, visitors to the Kornhausplatz are greeted with a very strange sight in the form of the 16th century Kindlifresserbrunnen statue (Bernese German for ‘child eating fountain’). This is a bizarre landmark consisting of a man apparently eating infant children. Its meaning and historical significance has been lost over the centuries, and continues to be debated, especially amongst the Swiss children it has presumably terrified for 500 years. For the purposes of this book, this somewhat alarming statue provides a useful image as we consider the confused and often ambivalent relationships between childhood, identity and technology in the modern age. Such relationships are fraught with questions. As our children navigate a complex and highly connected social world fuelled by technology, how far are we helping them to grow into the adults we would wish them to be? Or are we in fact allowing their childhoods to be ‘eaten’ as we seek to develop and change society in the information age? What are the long term implications of this? To answer such questions, we start with the issue of childhood itself, along with the different philosophies and definitions that have been associated with it over recent centuries.
How we conceptualise childhood depends on many things, not least our own stage of development and position within society. For example, when we were first commissioned to write this book, Sandra’s youngest son Felix was four years old, which was a difficult concept for him and a fascinating one for her. One the one hand, Felix knew he was not a baby any longer. This was clear to him, as babies were associated with nappies, bottles and pushchairs. He wanted to be certain he had left babyhood behind him, as he had worked out that there were many things babies couldn’t do, such as walking, talking, and acting out Star Wars games with his elder brothers. That, for him, represented a significant deficit. He liked to think that he was bigger and better than that, and had moved on. On the other hand, however, Felix realised at four that he was not a proper big boy either. Big boys can read, play computer games involving text based instructions, and count pocket money out by themselves. This leads to a degree of consumer freedom he could only aspire to at that time. Big boys go to big school, a mysterious place accessed by bus or train and involving wearing watches, blazers and ties, something he associated with sophistication and scholarly progress. Even more exciting, big boys can reach into high kitchen cupboards to raid the biscuits, go on more exciting fairground rides than their little brothers, and talk to grown-ups without getting a crick in the neck. In the light of all of these things, Felix posed himself this question regularly: was he little, was he big, or was he both at the same time?
Of course, what Felix didn’t realise was that his existential dilemma was something being played out every day, in every family’s household across the land. The way we define notions of childhood can be very similar to Felix’s categorisations at the tender age of four. There are biological deficits associated with youth, for example, such as being physically shorter or weaker than the majority of the population. There are cognitive deficits, such as not being able to read, tell the time, or count money properly. In addition there are social deficits, such as being expected to stay within a fairly limited geographical boundary, constantly supervised by adults, even if you can’t see they are watching you. Children are also perceived at different times as consumers (of goods and consumer products); chattels (in terms of being the property and responsibility of their parents); proto adults (in terms of their dress); proto delinquents (in terms of some members of society feeling threatened by them) and innocents (in terms of needing protection from the external environment). This is not happening in isolation. In all these different forms of 21st century children’s social identity, we see philosophical debates from history being played out on the contemporary stage. Considering these categorisations and the way they locate children within society is a good starting point for understanding childhood in the technological age.