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Defining the generation gap

By Catherine Beavis - posted Monday, 19 December 2005

The sense of dissonance and unease, and the formation of an entirely new and different generation of young people under 25, are recurring themes in many media accounts of young people, identities and relationships today. Whether writing about young people’s reading and viewing habits, media consumption, literacy, employment, life-style preferences or the use of mobile phones, there’s a widespread suggestion that young people now are quite different, and see the world in significantly different ways than did generations that have gone before. Such claims make good copy, but where do they come from and what do they actually mean?

Fears about the end of childhood, or of a generation fundamentally different to any that have gone before, sit alongside experiences of rapid and widespread globalisation and change. Clearly, there is a relationship between the global, media-saturated environment many young people now inhabit and the degrees to which they act out of or are shaped by this networked world. One way of understanding increasingly common claims about young people as “different” is to see such statements as a response to this global environment. Seen in this light, anxieties about young people form part of a larger set of concerns about societal change. In some ways, they seem an attempt to identify and hold onto a sense of something essential and unchanged, and a wish for these things for both young people and the world.

Such positions draw on a view of childhood as fixed and universal across space and time. Sociologists and historians of childhood point to the constructed nature of concepts of youth and childhood, the ways in which these vary culturally, socially and over time and the ways in which views of childhood reflect adult positions and agendas. Such agendas may include nostalgia for a golden age, for example, as in some film, TV dramas or children’s literature; or on the other hand, the cultivation of young people as potential markets by consumer and media culture.


It’s timely to remember how recently we have come to think of childhood as a special time, by contrast with earlier centuries where children were seen as smaller adults rather than having distinct characteristics of their own. Reminders such as these highlight the ways in which it is problematic to talk of a “global generation” as a homogenous group. They also point to the ways in which the very notions of youth and childhood are themselves subject to interpretation, struggle and debate.

Nonetheless it is clearly the case that consumer culture and global media culture saturate the worlds in which very many young people find themselves today, and work actively to compete for their attention. In doing so, they shape understandings and expectations about the ways meanings are made and the forms communication and meaning making take. They contribute powerfully to relations within and across generations, and to young people’s affiliations, sense of identity and of community. These expectations and experiences form the basis for claims about fundamental differences between this generation and those which have gone before.

Studies into young people’s engagement with contemporary media have in common an awareness of the power of the media to influence young people, and the pervasiveness of new technologies, but differ with respect to the ways they interpret the interactions they explore.

David Buckingham, of the University of London, identifies three strands that typically run through studies of young people’s engagement with new media. In addition to perspectives on the changing nature of childhood, these include views of technology and the changing nature of the media on the one hand and beliefs about young people’s relationships with the media on the other - whether children and young people are seen as primarily manipulated and passive, or as more actively constructive or resilient.

Buckingham also identifies three central issues of concern in media research: questions around representations of sex and violence (and what young children especially make of these), issues to do with the pervasiveness of commerce and the ways in which identity and consumption are so closely linked, and third, questions about citizenship - what are young people learning about themselves and the world, and what kinds of orientations and expectations about individual, social and public life are developed as they do so.

It is certainly the case in Australia that digital media form a large part of young people’s lives. The Australian Bureau of Statistics study, Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure found that within the total population of children aged 5-14 years (2,647,500), 98 per cent watched television or videos in the period under study, and 71 per cent had played electronic or computer games. Ninety-five per cent of children aged 5-14 years used a computer during or outside of school hours, whether at school, at home, in the library or at someone else’s home. Among 5-8 year olds, 91 per cent had used the computer to play games, 70 per cent used computers for educational purposes and 25 per cent used the Internet or email. Among older children, aged 12-14, 94 per cent said they had used computers for educational purposes, 76 per cent for games and 69 per cent accessed the internet or email.


Statistics on Internet usage saturation and patterns are comparable, as are industry figures about the scale of profits made and the extent of computer games empires, outstripping Hollywood blockbuster sales. So what we have here, in addition to the use of computers for school, is a massive investment of time and money in leisure time, in particular, playing computer games, stand alone or online, whether over the Internet, or in places like Internet cafés.

The huge amounts of time invested by young people in online popular culture demonstrated in figures such as these, and the attendant global industry and profits to be made, provide ample reason to attend to this in terms of knowing more about what young people are doing in their out-of-school time, and the kinds of texts and worlds they are engaging with there. But there are bigger reasons why educators and researchers need to find answers to what this means than just the expenditure of time. For most young people currently in school, their entry into the world of text will have been via visual rather than print forms of story telling - television, film and computer games, often within a heavily marketised context, with spin-off toys and other merchandise with Australian or global franchises.

Their experience of literacy will have included not just print, but other multimodal elements including image, sound, symbol, gesture, maps and graphics, the use of space and experiences of interactivity. It is likely to have involved other people, parents or friends, and to have been quite a social activity. If their early experiences of technology based texts included computer games, these may also have taken the shared knowledge of more than one person to solve or play.

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About the Author

Catherine Beavis is an associate professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies in Education, Deakin University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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