A Tale of Two Screen Generations

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 6, 2019

I believe growing up with the television screen made me different from my parents and grandparents. I wonder if kids growing up with smartphone screens will be even more different?

The education you get before starting school is the bedrock of your soul. For most of human history, kids grew up listening to family stories while acquiring their beliefs in religion, economics, and politics. Books, magazines, and newspapers didn’t affect those early years, but when radio came along, a new source of influence competed to program our early childhood. This escalated with television and accelerated even faster with computers, networks, tablets, and smartphones.

In those early years before we learn to read we acquire all kinds of concepts that become the cognitive bricks to our psychological foundation. For example, I didn’t acquire religion during those years, but a belief in science fiction. Aliens replaced gods and angels, heavens replaced heaven, and space exploration replaced theology. And because kids are learning to read at an earlier age today, more concepts are compressed into those formative years. I assume kids today are smarter than we were in the 1950s.

Isn’t this why traditional religious beliefs and family history is less important to people growing up today? Sociologists have long talked about peer pressure influencing teens, but didn’t television shaped the toddlers of my generation? Doesn’t everyone agree that social media pressure is shaping the early childhood of today?

A more descriptive name for Baby Boomers is The Television Generation. We got our name because so many of us showed up all at once after WWII. But more importantly, we were also the first generation to grow up with the television screen. We were raised with three new network eyes on the world. We’re now seeing a generation growing up with mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and these kids have countless extra inputs.

I was born in 1951 and it seemed perfectly natural to suckle at the glass teat. Even now I have a hard time comprehending how my parents’ generation grew up without it. And I can’t conceive of what it’s like growing up today playing with mobile devices in the crib. Mobile devices are so much more intelligent than televisions, especially television programming in the 1950s.

Before radio, children acquired limited mythology from their parents, but also from large extended families that crossed generations, and the church. Whatever creation story you were told you accepted. There wasn’t a lot of skepticism back then. Starting with the radio, it was easy for kids to encounter competing creation myths at an earlier age. But it was television that made a quantum leap in providing alternative explanations about reality.

My earliest extensive memories begin around age four. I don’t remember what my parents told me, or what I heard in church. I do remember the television shows I  watched. I remember exactly where I came from – Romper Room, Captain Kangeroo, The Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, LassieTopper, Love That Bob, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone.  Television ignited my imagination. I remember being four and trying to communicate the ideas I got from television with my parents, but they seemed clueless. It’s like we spoke a different language and lived on different planets. They’d tell me about growing up on farms, or the depression, and I just couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. I’d eventually learned about their upbringing from television.

Once I started school I bonded with other kids over the television shows we loved. Television provided a shared language and mythology. However, I think growing up in the 1950s and 1960s is definitely different from today. We had three television networks, and two Top 40 radio stations, and limited access to a small number of popular movies. Among my generation, everyone pretty much watched and listened to the same shows and music. Sure we arranged our top ten favorites a little differently, but everyone pretty much knew about what everyone else liked.

Growing up today the TV screen now brings kids hundreds of cable channels, and a variety of streaming channels with thousands of different choices, and Spotify lets people listening to tens of millions of different songs. Every week countless new movies show up. But more than that, mobile devices let you choose what feels like an infinity of rabbit holes to fall into. I can understand why social media is so popular, it allows people to share their discoveries and make common connections. And I can see why movie franchises are so popular, it’s another way to bond over a limited selection. We really don’t want more shows, we want more shows we all love the same.

I’m writing this over six decades after I grew up. I wonder what people growing up today will say about their early education sixty years from now? In my generation, it was easy to share because we pretty much shared the same content. Now kids need powerful computers to find friends that like the same stuff they do.

I believe the appeal of the church today is not theology but communion. Not the communion of wine and wafers but being with other people sharing a common experience. However, I do believe television in my generation undermined the hold church had on programming our young minds.

Bible stories no longer provided our ontology. The TV screen widened our epistemology. Mobile devices are the fentanyl of screens. I imagine in another generation or two, cyborg-like devices will inject data into kiddies at an even faster rate. However, I believe there’s a limit to what our brains can handle. I’m not sure if smartphones and tablets aren’t exceeding that limit now. But that might be old fogie thinking, and we’ll have future technology that will match our wildest science fiction.

Yet, I also see signs of a backlash movement. Why are record players and LPs making a comeback? Why are there so many Top Ten lists on the web? Aren’t those signs that people want a smaller selection of inputs, ones that have a commonality with other people? Sure, everyone wants to be famous on YouTube, but 75 million kids can’t all have 75 million followers. What we want are five friends that love the same five shows and songs.

When I was growing up we often watched TV with other people. Our parents, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors. When I was little, I’d have friends over and we’d watch Saturday morning TV under tents built of blankets. As teenagers, we’d get high and watch TV together. At college, we’d watch TV in the student union together. Watching TV on a smartphone or tablet is as solitary as masturbation.

Since around 2000 I’ve stopped keeping up with hit songs and albums. I no longer know what new shows begin in the fall. As a kid, my parents used me as a walking TV guide. When I see the magazines at the grocery store checkout line, I don’t know the famous faces on their covers. Movie stars have to be in their fifties before I can remember their names. There’s a limit to how much pop culture I can absorb. I feel pop music peaked in 1965, although I struggled to keep up with it through the 1980s.

I have to wonder if kids growing up playing with smartphones can handle more data than my generation. Can they drink more from the fire hose of the internet longer? I can only chug so much data before I start spewing. Is that my age showing, or does it reveal my limitations shaped by my training watching television in the 1950s? Are those babies growing up playing with smartphones becoming like that little robot Number Five in the film Short Circuit that kept demanding, “More data, more data!”

Is growing up with a mobile device screen wiring kids differently from how we were wired by our television screens? Does Greta Thunberg represent a new stage of consciousness? I hope so. The Television Generation threw a fit in the 1960s. I feel the Smartphone Generation is about to throw a fit in the 2020s. Good for them. Don’t assume you know more than they do – you don’t!

JWH

p.s. That’s me above with my mother and sister when I was four, and my cyclopic guru.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Screen Generations”

  1. I admire Greta for trying to change sluggish governments to encourage them to deal with climate change. Certainly, technology modifies our brains. TV and radio made an impact on us. Computers, the Internet, and cell phones are changing my children’s minds. Who knows what technologies just emerging will do to kids just being born.

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