Growing Up With Television: Everyday Learning Among Young Adolescents
reviewed by Alexander W. Wiseman - 2003
Title: Growing Up With Television: Everyday Learning Among Young Adolescents
Author(s): Joellen Fisherkeller
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1566399521, Pages: 248, Year: 2002
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Growing Up With Television by JoEllen Fisherkeller is an ethnographic exploration of the impact that television culture has on child and adolescent learning and development. Fisherkeller’s emphasis on the impact of television culture is distinct from the more often discussed influence of popular media on youth-related social problems such as juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, and illiteracy. While this distinction provides Fisherkeller with a new frame for a much discussed topic, it will disappoint those readers expecting Growing Up With Television to embrace the standard television-youth problems debates.
The research and scholarship behind Growing Up With Television is solidly ethnographic. To explore the impact of television culture, Fisherkeller selected a school and began looking for any information or discussions related to television. Eventually, she selected several focal participants to interview and interact with on the topic of television and its influence. The cases of three of those participants (Marina, Christopher, and Samantha) make up the bulk of Growing Up With Television. The exploration of television in the lives of adolescents becomes the story of how the adolescents interact with, interpret, and recreate television in their own lives as a cultural artifact specifically. Consequently, for each participant portrayed in-depth, Fisherkeller discusses the home, school, and peer context; the participants’ use and evaluation of TV; and how the participants “reflected” themselves through television.
In Chapter 2, Fisherkeller uses the adolescent Latina named Marina to portray television culture as a way to own or guide one’s life course. Like Christopher and Samantha, Marina uses television as a way to create her self-identity, but her use of television is contextualized by her social and family background. As an immigrant from a disadvantaged background, Marina uses TV as a way to identify the social and cultural norms of American society, and as a way to identify and plan what her future life will be.
In Chapter 3, the portrait of an African-American boy, Christopher, presents television culture as a way not only to create his own identity, but also to supplement his social life. In particular, Christopher’s story is one of transition in family life, school life, and social life. TV is a way that Christopher learns about these transitions and chooses which “norms” to adopt. In fact, Christopher’s TV watching schedule boldly reflects his personal dilemmas at the time. From a TV show about being lost in time and space to a TV show about a stable, African-American family, the programs Christopher watches mirror the transitions that Christopher is making in his own life.
In Chapter 4, Samantha’s integration of television into her life is different still from Marina and Christopher’s. Not only is Samantha an Irish-Jewish American from more advantaged circumstances, she, more than the other two, uses television as a form of entertainment and as a social activity. Her use of TV as a social activity is not as a replacement or supplement to live interpersonal interaction, as it is for Christopher. Instead, Samantha often watches TV with her friends and family. It is something she does together with other people, and the conversations or activities she engages in with these other people while watching TV makes her experience with television culture much more of an affirmation of what she already is than a portrait of what she wants to become.
In Chapters 5 and 6, Fisherkeller discusses the links between the experiences that Marina, Christopher, and Samantha had with television and the elements of a common television culture that impacted all of their lives. Fisherkeller asserts that through TV watching each of the focal participants responded to symbolic representations of “normal” or “typical” social and cultural situations. In the case of each focal participant, the symbols and representations of social life encouraged each adolescent to become more aware of authority or power in their personal relationships or social situations and even to vie for or take control of these relationships and situations. In other words, adolescents were shown through TV what the hierarchy of authority looked like in various situations and how to gain power and authority within these situations.
Finally, Fisherkeller argues that the culture presented through television is not an exact representation of live society and culture. Instead, she argues that it is a facsimile, meaning that the culture discovered and adopted by individual adolescents through television is not the same as the culture that they would acquire through live interactions with other people in their community or social circles. In fact, this television culture reduces common elements of unique cultures and eliminates the specific attributes or idiosyncrasies of individual adolescent’s actual contexts or communities. As a result, Fisherkeller calls television cultures “mediated” and “multiple” because individual adolescents can screen the programs and television characters that they watch and in many cases interact with, and because television advertising and marketing present the symbols and messages that best fit their capitalist, profit-seeking goals.
While the writing style and presentation are intelligent and organized, which makes reading this book a pleasant experience, Growing Up With Television does not take a convincing stance on the value of television culture or the importance of its influence. In fact, other than the critical theory flourish in the introductory chapter and concluding sections of the last chapter, Fisherkeller manages to present a surprisingly bland interpretation of television culture and its influence on American adolescents. While this may be good news to those readers who enjoy tightly written, objective research reports, there is a lot of juicy debate that slips by Fisherkeller. By focusing almost exclusively on the identity and socially interactive elements of television culture, Fisherkeller has avoided the most interesting, and perhaps most relevant, debates. For example, where is the debate surrounding the argument that television culture and popular media in general is fundamentally biased and reproduces social inequality? Or that television culture is so bland and standardized that it reduces unique traditions and cultures to a milk-toast blend of WASP values and corporate single-mindedness?
This is not to suggest that controversy or debate is required in an analysis such as this, but as a starting point for discussion of timely issues related to education, adolescence, and television as one of the most important media influences for the past half-century, Growing Up With Television presents a solid, but uninspiring perspective on a dynamic and often controversial topic.