Is Childhood Disappearing?

A summary of Neil Postman’s theory with supporting evidence and criticisms.

There is an argument that childhood as we know it is disappearing with the the distinction between adulthood and childhood narrowing. Neil Postman (1994) argued that childhood is ‘disappearing at a dazzling speed’.

book cover: Neil Postman: The Disappearance of Childhood.

As supporting evidence Postman looked at the trend towards giving children the same rights as adults, the growing similarity of adult and children’s clothing and even cases of children committing ‘adult crimes’ such as murder and rape.

Postman’s theory is based on the view that communications technology is the primary thing which shapes society.

Following Aries, he suggested that in the middle ages most people were illiterate (they couldn’t read or write) and speech was the main form of communicating, thus there was hardly any distinction between adults and children.

Postman argues that childhood emerged along with mass literacy. This was because the printed word created a division between those that could read (adults) and those that couldn’t (children). This division emerged because it takes several years to master reading and writing skills, and those years of ‘not being able to read and years spent learning to read and write’ became the childhood years.

HOWEVER, Postman argues that in contemporary society, new technologies like television and the internet blur this separation and that children are now much more able to access the ‘adult world’. As a result, childhood as we know it is disappearing.

The disappearance of childhood: supporting evidence

Some examples which may support the view that the boundary between adulthood and childhood are disappearing include:

  • Children now spend a lot more time online without parental supervision. This means they are more exposed to adult themes at a younger age. Sue Palmer’s work on Toxic Childhood generally supports this.
  • The ‘Learner Voice’ in education. There is more of an expectation that adult teachers will listen to their students and consider their needs. Children are even being used on interview panels for new teachers in some schools.
  • Children have the same rights as adults (The UN’s rights of the child)
  • The growth of ‘Kidults’ means adults becoming more like children. One aspect of this is younger adults spending longer living with their parents.

The Workout Kid

The Work-out Kid is one example which suggests childhood may be disappearing…

Criticisms of the theory that childhood is disappearing

Jenks (2005) suggests that while there are increased concerns among parents about the impacts technologies such as the internet are having on children, this hasn’t resulted in the disappearance of childhood as such.

Rather, such technological changes have led to parents thinking children and childhood need to be more protected that ever – as evidenced in the increase Paranoid Parenting and social policies surrounding safeguarding.

Most of the evidence supporting the March of Progress View of Childhood criticises the idea that childhood is disappearing.

The legal age of marriage was recently raised from 16 to 18, which moves the boundary of adulthood later.

Signposting/ Related Posts

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology. The childhood topic is part of the families and households module. You might also like the related posts below….

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Jenks (2005) Childhood.

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