Are 'Screenagers' Wiser Than Adults?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in USA Weekend on 14 June 1996

BEFORE AMERICA INSTALLS V-chips in every TV set and padlocks on all the Segas, we’d better take a good look at why kids devote so much energy to channel-surfing, cruising the Internet and playing Doom, as well as the positive effects cybermania may have on them.

Kids’ fascination with new media is preparing them for the workplace and society of tomorrow. If we try to learn from their example, we, too, might gain skills necessary to thrive in a highly technological and chaotic future.

Kids are natives to a mediaspace where the rest of us are mere immigrants. They were born into a world full of remote controls, joysticks and computer networks, and understand the language and customs of this world better than we ever could hope to. Just as immigrant parents look to their children to learn how to behave and even how to think, we should look to our children for cues on how to adapt to our new, some- times baffling, media environment.


Most of us reflexively bemoan the channel-surfing habits of our children. Why can’t they just watch one program all the way through? What’s wrong with their attention spans? But instead of focusing on what children are losing, let’s look at what they are gaining.

Traditional programming appeals to our hearts and wallets by hypnotizing us into a passive stupor. Captive to the linear, emotional storylines of our ads and sitcoms, we are held in the sponsors’ spell and “programmed” with their agendas. But a kid who feels himself being coerced simply hits the remote, pulling himself out of passivity into an active relationship to the TV image. He surfs away before he’s caught in the spell.

The flip side of his decreased tolerance for passive programming–what we usually think of as a decreased attention span–is actually an increased attention range. A child can watch and comprehend five or more television programs at a time, deftly alternating between channels just in time to catch the key moments on each. How better to prepare for a high-tech job where he may have to browse e-mail, voice mail, the Internet and stock quotes at once?

Our children are already more mature media consumers than we are. By playing video games, they increase their hand-eye coordination and interface comprehension. Winning a game is really just mastering a new piece of software. More important, our kids are demystifying the television image for themselves. With joysticks in their hands, they have a fundamentally different appreciation for the picture on the screen: It can be changed. While adults perceive news piped into their homes as indisputable fact, our kids know the truth: The image is up for grabs.


Further empowering them, the average American teen’s bedroom is as well-equipped as a state-of-the-art newsroom was 20 years ago. A computer, a modem and a TV give them instant access to global information. By navigating the World Wide Web, they learn how to move through a discontinuous realm of data and opinions, as well as how to distinguish between the two.

Not surprisingly, our kids’ favorite media content also is filled with coping strategies for the world all of us soon will inhabit. While parents can glean little more than violence from a show like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, it deals quite eloquently with some meaningful core issues. The underlying theme of the Power Rangers is evolution as a team sport. The young Rangers only reach full power when they mutate together into a giant, cooperatively controlled robot. The monsters they fight are controlled by the evil Lord Zed, a victim of his own technological excesses who must remain connected to a complex life-support apparatus. He symbolizes the sad consequence of selfishly exploited technology.

Even the most violent video games, like Doom and Mortal Kombat, may be serving a higher purpose than adults may suspect. Social theorists sinee Aristotle have understood that ritualized violence relieves the need for the real stuff. (Even the Shao Lin priests study kung fu along with their Buddhist texts.) So far, at least, we’ve been able to invent games and programming sensational enough to compete with the slayings out the window or in the armories we call public schools. To my mind, this means we are winning the war.


If nothing else, let’s put to bed the myth that it’s our kids who, left to their own devices, will inevitably seek out the most violent media. Our new generation of fledgling screenagers is not making the games currently on the shelves of Toys “R” Us. They were designed by adults using interface technology originally implemented for war simulation by the military. Once our kids grow into game designers themselves, we’ll be able to make a more accurate assessment of the effect of all this mediated play on their violent inclinations.

The real challenge before us is to resist further insulating our kids. Instead, let’s put the tools in the hands of our children and see what they do with them. Whether it’s game construction kits where kids can fashion their own adventures on the computer, or camcorders where they can make their own TV shows, kids should have the power and opportunity to design the entertainment environments that suit their needs.

This is where the efforts of truly concerned parents should go.

We might be pleasantly surprised by the generation we have spawned. They are, after all, the latest model of human being.