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Let me tell you a story:
Once upon a time there was a girl growing up in the early 2000s. She lived in a neighborhood without other children in it. Her parents were not the type to curate her experiences, so she wasn't placed in sports or activities (to be fair, she disliked the attempt at dance lessons, and activities were expensive). Even if she had been allowed outside beyond the front yard, there wouldn’t have been anyone to play with anyway. So she spent a lot of time in her room. She occupied herself with toys, books, and television.
And television. There was a TV in her room. She watched television during most meals and in the morning and usually at night too. Children’s television shows were inspiring to her. She drew cartoons that looked like the cartoons she saw on TV. She loved drawing and writing. Most kids do.
From an early age, she thought she might be a teacher (the only visible job—her mother’s job was incomprehensible “office work,” and her father played guitar). She also knew early that she wanted to be a writer, but this wasn’t a far leap, since her other main activity was reading.
The girl got older. School was the only obligation and the only social world. She cared about English and history classes, was an overall good student, but knew that the goal of school was to get an A or B by whatever means necessary. She copied homework, conspired with classmates, and bluffed through assignments with very little guilt. She did not consider herself “academic,” despite endless praise from teachers. She was aware that some of this praise did not quite match her effort. Teachers simply liked her, regardless of how well she had learned anything.
The most enjoyable moments in her life were with her friends at school. But you can’t get a job in school-social-life. (She had long set aside the possibility of becoming a teacher. As she got older, she learned that this was a terribly taxing and low-paying career.) Because she had spent the other half of her time watching television, she loved television. Theoretically, you could get a job making television. This appealed to her ambition—stoked by meritocratic messaging—and also her sense that most jobs were terrible and boring.
Where did she get the idea that jobs were terrible and boring? One: she didn’t know any adults who had interesting careers that they enjoyed. (She barely knew any adults period. Most of the adults she knew were her teachers, she didn’t know her extended family very well, and her parents’ social lives were invisible to her.) Two: television for kids tended to portray sad, lonely, boring adults.
She was suffering simply from a lack of scope. But she didn’t know, because no one had told her. Her favorite adults wanted her dreams to come true just as much as she did.
So she went out in pursuit of media, specifically television. She met a million other ambitious young people just like her who wanted to make media—especially children’s media. They wanted to emulate the thing that had provided them the main joy of their lives (that is, the only one with a potential “job” attached).
This story is about me. While I was studying media in college and living with those ambitious peers, I noticed some distinct ways in which young adults were impacted by childhood media inundation.
A note before we start: I’m taking it for granted that “creativity” is important, and I’m defining creativity beyond the sense of making art. To me, creativity has to do with autonomous engagement, outside commodification, that affects the perception of time. (I don’t totally know what that means yet, but I’m working on it.)
You could easily ask, “What does it matter if people want to live in x way?” Fair question. But I think the way people live matters. The point of an essay is to bring the topic into focus, to sharpen it against the fuzzy status quo, so we don’t dismiss things that are much stranger than they seem.
With that said, here are the categories I noticed:
Adults who constantly consumed children’s media
Many people I knew of this type said that their only goal was to make enough money to pay rent, play video games, and watch television. While I’m all for anti-overachieving, I think this was mostly a reaction to the powerlessness of being 19 and realizing how easy it is to get screwed over in our version of society. I understand the feeling, but this mindset severely limited their possibilities. By their own admission, these adults were willing to live essentially passive lives—at least as far as their current scope could imagine. As a result, their media habits served to isolate them, not empower them.
A subgroup of this category funneled energy into things that were directly related to their beloved media-objects: fan-made art and writing. Fan artists and fanfiction writers passionately defend these outlets as legitimate art forms and their fandoms as “communities.” While it’s clear that these writers and artists get something out of it, I still think we need to consider that fandom is usually built around media commodities. In my experiences as an adolescent, writing fanfiction was a fun way to release pent-up creative energy, engage with an obsession, and build confidence as a young writer. These may be important things at certain developmental stages, but they have little in common with the rhythms of a personal creative practice. Even when a fandom is not in service of a massive intellectual property, creators are outliers. For the majority of participants, fan communities kindle obsessive consumption behaviors more than creativity.
Adults who wanted to create children’s media
I knew a number of people who wanted to create children’s television, YA books, children’s video games, or the-next-big-IP. There's no doubt that creativity and expertise goes into these productions (once you're actually in the industry) but the expressed goal of “making children’s media” was usually pretty vague. The attachment was toward their own memories of media, not a desire to understand what children might gain from media.
And the true audience was often misattributed. I noticed this trend among aspiring YA fiction writers. The real point of YA fiction was to be an in-group member of the online YA culture. Aspiring YA writers imagined their work would be made into TV shows or movies, which would lead to shareable online imagery, merch, and ideally, a fandom. They curated their social media presences, engaged constantly with other aspiring YA writers on the internet, and binge-read the published books of people who seemed to have the status they wanted. In that way, YA writers ended up writing primarily for other adults who wanted to be YA writers, not actual children.
Adults who wanted to create media for adults
This group took the impulse the rest of the way: they wanted to make media for other adults. Dramatic television, comedy television, or news media (especially entertainment news, which is just news-media-about-other-media). Some of these people were extreme high-achievers within the college system: they had resumes of impressive internships and accolades, and lots of older adults who validated the pursuit of their “dreams” even when those choices had massive financial consequences, or were, frankly, delusional.
These categories I observed in my peers all have something in common. There is a belief—overt or subconscious—that media matters. Media might be the only thing that matters. The creation of media is the key to a job that doesn’t suck, and the consumption of media is the primary activity of life.
This is actually a huge assumption. Not that long ago, there wasn’t enough media to fill a life. Jobs in media are notoriously low-paying and often exploitative. Thanks to lots of reporting on the working conditions of production assistants, young journalists, and other entry-level media positions, the consequences of pursuing these jobs are not a secret anymore. And yet, it’s a risk many young people continue to take, and that mentors continue to support. The dream is that pretty. The stakes feel that high.
But let’s pause here. Time for a little semantic switch. What if we replace the word media with the word content?
All of a sudden, we’re not in the realm of story-telling about the 2000s anymore. And we don’t need the categories I observed as an undergrad. We’re all grown up, most generational arguments are moot, and our media activities have been consolidated even further; it seems antiquated to refer to various forms of “media” and their audiences. In the 2020s, the two categories are:
Adults and children who constantly consume content.
Adults and children who want to create content.
The belief, overt or subconscious, is that content matters. Content might be the only thing that matters. The creation of content is the key to a job that doesn’t suck, and the consumption of content is the primary activity of life.
This is an even bigger assumption, stacked on top of so many previous assumptions that the original problems—whatever they were—are entirely obscured.
I also want to flag comments made by an early reader of this essay, who mentioned the subgroup of people who attempt to reject content. She rightly noticed that this often leads back to content: people make content about rejecting content, like homesteader Instagram accounts. I think we see this subgroup in both categories. There’s the content-rejector who is also a content creator (farm life, van life, etc.), and the content-rejector who is also a content consumer (people who engage with anticapitalist memes on Twitter).
This isn’t building up to a conclusion about how everything would be better if not for [insert-bad-guy-here]. I’m not even arguing that television was the first evil. The original problems are obscured: to me as much as anyone else. But I think that true creativity—autonomous engagement, outside of commodification, that affects the perception of time—is at the center of how things get better. How can we cultivate it?
It probably starts by telling stories. What’s your version of my story about children’s media? Where did you learn that content matters?
And asking questions: Who benefits from content as a time-filler, a wealth-generator, or a distractor? What happens when content becomes a way of life? Are we suffering simply from a lack of scope?