Durham, N.H. — Childhood as a distinct and special stage of life has disappeared, says a University of New Hampshire communication professor, and television is the main reason.
''Distinctions that were clear 30 years ago are now blurred,'' says Joshua Meyrowitz, who has been studying the effect of electronic media on society for more than five years.
''Children now speak more like adults and adults speak more like children,'' Mr. Meyrowitz says. ''Children wear designer clothing and adults wear jeans and sneakers. Children commit armed robbery and murder; adults play video games.''
Mr. Meyrowitz attributes these changes to a switch from a print-oriented society to a television-oriented one.
''With print, a person has to read simple children's books before reading complex adult books,'' he says.
But with television, Mr. Meyrowitz says, there is no sharp distinction between the information available to the fifth-grader, the high school student, and the adult. Many of the same programs are watched by all age groups.
''A change in communication media can affect the status of children,'' he continues, ''because movement from one social status to another usually involves learning the 'secrets' of the new status.
''Because books expose children to adult information slowly and in stages, adults can keep secrets from children and can present children with an idealized view of the adult world. But with television, shielding information from children is extremely difficult.''
Mr. Meyrowitz believes television contributes to the decline of the American school system, but not by affecting children's ability or willingness to learn. Instead, he says, television undermines the age-grading structure of the school, which assumes that what children know is determined primarily by their reading ability.
''While the school still tries to walk children slowly up the printed steps of social knowledge from complete ignorance to social enlightenment,'' he says, ''television has already provided the first-grader with a broad mosaic image of the culture.
''In a sense, children know too much to sit through traditional lessons. The school needs to build upon what children already know, to clarify details, and correct misperceptions.''
The end of traditional childhood has also affected other institutions, including the family, church, courts, and medicine, Mr. Meyrowitz says:
''The change in children is like a social earthquake that has shaken many old assumptions and disrupted many institutions.''