There was a brief flurry of concern recently over the fact that children weren't like children any more, and the old ways of entertaining them no longer worked. Youngsters were "screenagers", to use the term invented by the media commentator Douglas Rushkoff. The days of joined-up consciousness were dead: young people of the 1990s revelled in fractured narrative and intertextuality, leaping joyfully from a bit of one story to quite a different one, riding their remote-controls like surfboards.
Anxieties about children and media keep on breaking out. For a long time, though, the chief anxiety was about content: the horror comics of the 1950s, the video nasties of the 1970s, alarmed the grown-ups because of what they showed, not because of the way they showed it. More sophisticated anxieties, and more sophisticated defences like Rushkoff's, focus on the nature of the viewing experience itself and the way it affects children.
For example, teachers have known for a long time now that children, when writing stories, are very good at dialogue and much less good at narrative, dialogue being the only kind of language that's modelled for them on TV. Furthermore, when excited by one of their own stories, they'll often drop into the present tense - not because they're trying to write like Michael Ondaatje, but because the present tense is the tense in which pictures happen. Children are often writing not stories badly, but TV scripts well. Whether Ofsted knows this is another matter.
A new book, After the Death of Childhood: growing up in the electronic age (Polity Press, £14.99) by David Buckingham, Professor of Education at the University of London, surveys the whole field. He is concerned in particular to emphasise the need for media education, and I couldn't agree more. He wouldn't put it like this, but media studies covers much of the same ground as classical rhetoric. Cicero and Quintilian can show us how to analyse an advertising campaign, for example, to great effect. What's more, a major aim of rhetoric was to train its students to take part in debate, argue law cases, affect how society was run: Buckingham urges, sensibly, that children's involvement with the media must include the right to participation.
Only a few years ago, that was hard to arrange. But with ever-cheaper digital cameras and editing software, it's becoming possible for schools to make films to at least a Blair Witch Project standard, hype them on the internet, then distribute them there.
But Buckingham's book, by focusing on the electronic media, misses the most striking recent phenomenon concerning children. Every few years, the little blighters discover books again. It happened with Roald Dahl, and now it's happening with Harry Potter. A story told in words and printed on paper still has the power to grip and enthrall like nothing else. What's more, thanks to J K Rowling, children might even come to see the merits of the past tense.
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