While some proclaim doom and gloom for kids who grow up glued to computer screens, Professor of Literature Henry Jenkins argues that life in the pre-Internet world may not have been so different after all.
In a seminar on "Children, Computers and Popular Culture" sponsored by the Family Resource Center on February 27, Professor Jenkins, director of the Media Studies Program, said the digital revolution may not have changed people as much as some might believe.
Conducting romantic liaisons on the Internet? Courtship in the 19th century was often conducted via letter, with the recipients rarely meeting face to face.
Web 'zines that tout alternative viewpoints by twenty-somethings and teenagers? The penny printing press provided a popular vehicle for young people to exchange social and political views.
Strangers connecting in chat rooms? Amateur radio could initially transmit as well as receive signals, and was used primarily by young males in what could be described as a virtual community.
Professor Jenkins said technology has a good side and a bad side when it comes to kids, but that the human element has a way of winning out in the end. He cited his 16-year-old son's first romance as an example of how kids manage to work around and with technology to build some very nontechnical relationships.
Professor Jenkins said that given the younger Henry's almost lifelong exposure to computers, he wasn't surprised that his first love was a girl he "met" in a chatroom for pro-wrestling fans.
Henry and Sarah conducted a long-distance relationship between Cambridge and Omaha, NE, for months before meeting in person. But while they sent virtual candy and flowers instead of the real thing, their relationship also included weekly phone calls and exchanges of photos and videos besides time on-line.
And when they finally met, it took them a while to get used to the fact that they were actually in the same place at the same time.
Regardless of the hurdles of virtual relationships and what he calls the media-generated hysteria about pornography and pedophiles, Professor Jenkins believes the Internet's positives outweigh its negatives for children.
Video games in which animated characters slam each other around in surreal landscapes may have replaced, for some kids, backyard adventures and encounters with the neighborhood bully. But maybe that isn't such a bad thing, Professor Jenkins said. He, for one, was relieved that his son explored the topic of sexuality with his girlfriend via computer, "rather than explore it in something that results in disease, pregnancy or death," he said half-jokingly.
Professor Jenkins is editor or co-editor of three forthcoming books on media and popular culture: Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Duke University Press), The Children's Culture Reader (New York University Press), and Gender and Games (MIT Press).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 4, 1998.