In an opinion-commentary piece “The Social Media (Moral) Panic This Time: Why CAM Scholars May Need a More Complex Approach,” published in the Journal of Children and Media, SC&I Interim Dean and Distinguished Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Dafna Lemish, who founded this journal and served as its editor for years, describes the main frameworks she believes are relevant to the Children and Media (CAM) field, particularly for the study of the effects of media on children. She also shares the process of her own self-reflection and self-criticism surrounding questions Children and Media scholars have not yet answered and still might not be asking.
“I particularly focus on the dilemma we have in the field of giving children a ‘voice’ and respecting their ability to make meaning out of their media experiences and control their media use – versus listening to the worries expressed by parents, educators, and children themselves, about the potential harmful impact that the media (especially social media) have on them,” Lemish said.
Explaining why the global public should be concerned about the future of scholarship on Children and Media and the impact of social media and media on children, Lemish said, “This is a highly relevant matter to parents, educators, policy makers, and media industries as there has been significant public concern about mental health issues of young people and the role social media might be playing in exacerbating it, promoting social alienation, lower self-image, encouraging negative behaviors etc. My opinion commentary tries to push the scholarly community in this field to ask larger questions and attend to these public concerns in new ways.”
For our Q&A, Lemish shared selections from her commentary.
SC&I: Do the CAM field’s research findings in general show that parents should be concerned about the amount of time their children spend viewing social media?
DL: I am among those who argued all along that concerns about “screen time” are misplaced. The issue is not time spent with media, rather, we argued, it is what is consumed and how participatory it might be.
But, how do we explain, for example, the impact of children spending every free hour on Tik Tok watching videos pushed to them by a platform with an unknowable algorithmic engine? Maybe “screen time” does deserve more attention, after all?
SC&I: What are your thoughts about the debate surrounding the potential effects of media on children
DL: I support the perspective that we can add new approaches and developing nuances to existing ones, without necessarily giving up on older traditions of inquiry. Strong effects as well as limited effects can both be true at the same time. Conflicting anecdotal stories and systematic research results can both be true at the same time.
But I remain restless. I am also looking for more robust answers about the aggregate impacts of media on childhood, beyond the individual. And I am paying more attention to media-related “moral panics” and wondering what they reveal to us, about us – about our societies, our anxieties, our values.
Are we asking the right questions? Measuring the key consequences? Certainly, we need to continue to study effects associated with mental health, body image, and sleep deprivation.
But what about generational and cross-generational sociability? Physical health? Knowledge? A sense of belonging and responsibility to something bigger than oneself? Optimism about the future of humankind?
SC&I: Are there additional questions you suggest current scholars of Children and Media ask today?DL: My current line of thinking begs CAM scholars to ask: how far do we want to extend our working assumption that children and youth’s “meaning-making” abilities enable them to interpret content in ways that serve their needs, resist harmful messages, and facilitate their healthy growth and well-being?
Furthermore, imagine that social media platforms (or all media for that matter) were all wonderful – enriching, egalitarian, connecting young people to each other, promoting positive self-image and world peace. Do we still want our children to spend as much time on them as they currently do? What about future impacts of AI in children’s lives?
SC&I: How would you characterize the current field of CAM scholarship?
DL: Perhaps we could think of our field of CAM scholarship as a complex helix, composed of multiple approaches to explaining media effects. Collectively, we are able to study the effects issue in more sophisticated and nuanced ways. Holistically, our understandings are richer and more nuanced, and they will deepen further still as we engage with future challenges, such as AI, in the years to come.
We are all evolving with the use of new technologies. We all need to be educated about their proper use. And all of us who care about children – the entire “village” of parents, educators, scholars, policymakers, and media industries – will need to collaborate. This disharmony of voices is what makes our field so vibrant and exciting.
SC&I: What are a few of your thoughts about the future of the scholarly field of Children and Media?
DL: After 40+ years of work in our field, my doubts and deepening uneasiness are occupying my reflections on our scholarship. Public discourse today is heavily dominated by the potential negative relationships between social media and the mental health of young people.
If we follow what we know from scholarship on the introduction of each medium throughout human history, we might dismiss it as another form of “moral panic.” And yes, we can analyze each argument and remind ourselves that anecdotal stories are not representative data; that negative news make attractive headlines and “sell” audiences to advertisers; and that correlations are not causality.
But can we continue to dismiss the voices of so many parents and educators? Can we continue to advocate for an active audience to bring out their “voice,” and yet, when media users – adults and young people – argue for experiences and concerns that our research does not necessarily strongly support – ignore it?