In the last two decades of the twentieth century, communication scholars began to adopt a perspective that recognizes the dynamic and evolving nature of behavior. Termed “developmental” or “life-span” communication, this approach mirrors its sister disciplines, psychology and sociology, in the study of change across time. Communication scholars became interested in this perspective after the 1979 National Communication Association, led by Carl Carmichael and Robert Hawkins, included a caucus on communication and aging (Nussbaum & Friedrich 2005). Just over 10 years later, notable scholars including Nikolas Coupland, Howard Giles, John Wiemann, Jon F. Nussbaum, and Mark Knapp responded to this surge of interest with a summer conference, a Fulbright International Colloquium, and numerous books that not only showcased a developmental approach to communication scholarship but illuminated the need to more fully appreciate change when examining communicative behavior (Nussbaum et al. 2002; Nussbaum & Friedrich 2005). To date, developmental communication research – with interdisciplinary studies in relationships, media effects, entertainment, education, and health – has produced invaluable knowledge on the individual, relational, and societal levels of how communicative behavior changes over time. Developmental communication has become an increasingly important part of the communication discipline.
Developmental Communication: Influences and Considerations
The Life-Span Perspective
Developmental communication is an area of study grounded in psychological as well as sociological research. Influenced by Baltes et al.’s (1988, 4) definition of life-span developmental psychology, developmental communication involves “the description, explanation, and modification (optimization) of intraindividual change in behavior across the life span, and with interindividual differences (and similarities) in intraindividual change.” Communication scholars have adopted and modified this description as well as other lifespan scholars’ perspectives to create a more communication-specific developmental approach to social science (Nussbaum et al. 2000; Williams & Nussbaum 2001; Nussbaum et al. 2002; Pecchioni et al. 2005). An exploration of these past and present influences reveals the undeniable utility of a life-span perspective when examining human interaction.
Baltes’s (1987) five assertions of the life-span perspective explain the usefulness and stance of this approach in behavioral studies and have markedly influenced developmental communication research. His first assertion states that life-span developmentalists refute the commonly held belief that aging equals decline. His assertion means that we do not necessarily lose communication competence over time. In fact, the opposite is often true: many communication skills actually improve as we age (Bergstrom & Nussbaum 1996; Fingerman 2003). Baltes’s second assertion recognizes that development is not a predetermined, non-influential form of change. Rather, our development varies in speed and is influenced by a multitude of factors. With this in mind, we can claim that communication development may vary due to different life experiences. Baltes’s next assertion states that developmentalists must appreciate the gain–loss dynamic inevitably encountered over time. In other words, as some behavioral skills decline, others may increase in efficacy. Hence, while aging adults may lose abilities that impede their daily living activities, to compensate for such losses they may simultaneously cultivate a more supportive social network that provides assistance in these areas (Nussbaum et al. 2000). Finally, Baltes’s fourth and fifth assertions acknowledge the unquestionable fact of diversity in human life. His fourth assertion acknowledges that behavior varies intraand interindividually over the life-span. Our communicative behavior can vary from situation to situation (intraindividual variance) and from other individuals’ interactive skills (interindividual variance). Baltes’s fifth assertion further recognizes such diversity: behavioral development is impacted by environmental influences, and vice versa. Therefore, when examining how communication changes over time, it is important to account for relational, social, contextual, and technical factors necessary to fully explain behavior.
Developmental communication scholars have modified Baltes’s assertions to reveal the implications this approach has for communication research. One notable modification was presented by Pecchioni et al. (2005) in their text, Life-span communication, which was published to update Nussbaum’s (1989) book, Life-span communication: Normative processes. They modified the above-mentioned definition of life-span developmental psychology to define life-span communication as a perspective that “deals with description, explanation, and modification of the communication process across the life span” (p. 10). They also outlined five propositions exemplifying the need for this approach to answer many communication-related inquiries.
First, they note that it is important to recognize that communication is, by nature, developmental. In other words, communication is a process over time rather than a single event. Second, like Baltes, they advocate acknowledging multiple influences in order to obtain a comprehensive understanding of interactive behavior. Their third proposition asserts that when scholars examine communication change over the life-span, they must appreciate both quantitative and qualitative change because quantitative changes are useful in depicting “a difference in degree” whereas qualitative changes display a “fundamental departure in the meaning of an event or a relationship” (Pecchioni et al. 2005, 12).
In their final two propositions, they address theory and method. The fourth proposition advocates including all theories that are testable. Most communication theories lack any consideration of development, yet life-span scholars fully appreciate that any theory may be useful in expanding knowledge of communication behavior. Moreover, this perspective does not exclude any theory of behavior or development. As a result, developmental communication studies have been firmly grounded in communication theory (Nussbaum & Friedrich 2005). Finally, Pecchioni and colleagues address the need to entertain numerous diverse methodologies in order to gain real knowledge of communication change over time. Although cross-sectional designs are a favorite and are certainly helpful, they lack the ability to make causal inferences, observe change over time, or assess interindividual variation. Therefore, developmental communication scholars must learn the strengths and weaknesses of their methodologies and aim to use those that are of most value.
These guiding principles from past and present experts not only offer ways effectively to examine the dynamic nature of our interactive experiences, but also clearly depict the need for communicative behavior to be examined developmentally. Researchers need to know these basic principles and should also bear in mind the two critical factors that influence the substance and worth of any scientific study: theory and method. As Pecchioni et al. (2005) note in their five propositions, theory and method must be carefully considered when exploring communication change.
Incorporating Communication Theory
Developmental communication studies can incorporate theory from all paradigms of thought (Pecchioni et al. 2005). Pecchioni et al. note that, at one end of the spectrum, interpretive and critical theories are useful in attributing meaning to social interaction as well as in unveiling factors that influence these experiences. For instance, an interpretive perspective – such as Fisher’s (1989) narrative theory – is useful in examining how we communicatively make sense of our social experiences across time through the use of stories. Similarly, critical approaches, such as power and language studies, aid in illuminating factors, like power, that impact communication over the life-span. At the other end of the spectrum, scientific theories enable scholars to examine more universal communicative patterns by using scientific methods to control variables in order to reach more generalizable conclusions from multiple data sets (Pecchioni et al. 2005). The latter approach is more common in the communication discipline as communication theory has typically been generated from this approach. For instance, expectancy violation theory can be used to examine how people react differently over time when their expectations of other people’s behavior have been violated (Burgoon 1994). In addition, Hirokawa & Poole’s (1986) functional approach is useful for scholars interested in communication development during group decision-making processes (Pecchioni et al. 2005).
In addition to the above-mentioned scientific theories, communication accommodation theory (CAT) has greatly contributed to developmental communication research as well as to the communication discipline as a whole (Ryan et al. 1986). Like many life-span studies, CAT views age as a marker related to change. In this case, age is a group identifier that influences behavior leading to generational differences in attitude and behavior. CAT posits that younger adults influenced by negative age stereotypes will over-accommodate their speech with elderly adults. As a result, older adults may encounter negative social experiences with younger generations, which may lead to their avoidance of future interactions. Scholars have also used CAT to advance various models of communication and aging stereotypes. Ryan et al. (1986) introduced the communication predicament of aging model (CPA) to demonstrate that in social interactions, age-related cues (i.e., physical appearance, age, behavior, and socio-cultural signs) activate age-related stereotypes that negatively affect intergenerational interactions, leading for example to over-or under-accommodation results (Coupland et al. 1988).
Even though many intergenerational interactions are influenced by negative stereotypes, Hummert et al. (1994) discovered that some stereotypes are positive. Hummert (1994) extended CPA by proposing the age stereotypes in interactions model to include a stereotype activation cue that is influenced by the perceiver’s self-system, the context, and the physical characteristics of the older person – cues that can lead to either positive or negative outcomes. According to this model, when elderly adults are characterized positively, they are perceived to have fewer communication problems; therefore, we proceed with normal adult communication. Conversely, elderly adults who are characterized negatively receive age-adjusted communication. The communication enhancement model of aging (CEM) also extends the CPA model by considering the conditions that are necessary for positive intergenerational communication to occur (Ryan et al. 1995). This model recognizes that social partners must concentrate on individual needs in addition to group characteristics, in other words, not solely relying on age stereotypes. Recently, Barker and Giles (2003) presented a model that integrates the above-mentioned models and includes intragenerational communication – an often ignored component, even though older adults reportedly stereotype against their own age group (Hummert 1994). Like Hummert’s and Ryan’s models, interaction outcomes can be either positive or negative. For positive outcomes to occur, we must accommodate differences in regard to communication effectiveness rather than just assumptions based on the other person’s social identity.
By integrating communication theory and appreciating all paradigms of thought, developmental communication research can continue to be produced by well-guided means and studies can be replicated and compared by researchers today and in the future. Moreover, by generating knowledge grounded in theory, scholars have the groundwork to establish theories – and models – specific to developmental communication – an element of the discipline that is significantly lacking and, as is seen with research grounded in CAT, incredibly valuable (Nussbaum et al. 2002).
Capturing Communication Development Over Time
While developmental communication scholars should be attuned to integrating theory in their investigations, they must also choose methodologies that enable them to capture change over time (Nussbaum et al. 2002; Nussbaum & Friedrich 2005; Pecchioni et al. 2005). Life-span research, by its nature, is methodologically more difficult as studies must be designed in a manner that enables change actually to be captured rather than just suggested. This is challenging, but experts in various disciplines have already provided guidance to help scholars make better methodological choices.
A critical area of concern frequently discussed in the developmental literature is the issue of capturing intraversus interindividual change. To date, most life-span communication research has examined interindividual change. These researchers typically utilize cross-sectional designs to compare communicative behavior between age groups. By doing so, scholars can only suggest behavioral change over the life-span. For instance, scholars examining adolescents’ conflict communication can show that they behave destructively (Comstock 1994). They can compare such findings with data collected from older age groups, such as elderly adults, whose conflict management skills are more constructive, and hence, competent (Bergstrom & Nussbaum 1996). Hence, we can conclude that conflict communication becomes more competent with age. However, when and how these changes manifest is not captured. Consequently, cross-sectional studies often produce findings that lead to misinterpretations of intraversus interindividual changes over time (Schaie & Hofer 2001; Nussbaum et al. 2002; Pecchioni et al. 2005), illustrating the point that in order to fully appreciate, examine, and interpret communication change, designs and methodologies need to capture change, not just suggest it. Scholars need to consider using new methodologies and data from multiple methodological approaches, and to re-evaluate results across time (Pecchioni et al. 2005). In addition, life-span scholars need to utilize a design that enables them to produce the most valuable data. Currently, scholars in various disciplines are recommending longitudinal designs. Although this design is not immune to validity threats, it remains the best approach in comparison to others (Schaie 2005).
To support this idea, scholars refer to Baltes and Nesselroade’s (1979) five rationales for longitudinal approaches when examining development over the life-span. They argue in favor of this approach because it enables scholars (1) to directly identify intraindividual change as well as interindividual variance within intraindividual change, (2) to appreciate complex phenomena (such as communication) that require knowledge about multiple variables as they occur concurrently, (3) to recognize that development does not always occur in a continuous or same-speed process, and (4) to consider that while behaviors may remain the same for an individual over time, the causes of these behaviors may differ. In essence, these rationales exemplify the critical issue at hand: the need for scholars to capture intraindividual change – an element that has virtually been ignored due to researchers’ preference for cross-sectional designs. According to Schaie (2005), data from a conventional cross-sectional design is limited as it only enables scholars to assess interindividual change. Moreover, it is often based on or contributes to the assumption that development is linear. On the other hand, longitudinal designs offer more realistic portrayals of development. They account for the reality that behavior may develop differently. Thus, these designs portray a nonlinear growth curve that encompasses both intraand interindividual change. In light of this, scholars must formulate longitudinal studies to obtain data over time that takes into consideration inevitable elements of variability (e.g., cohort differences, an unstable environment), and in turn, depicts change more realistically (Schaie 2005).
Although longitudinal research is rare in the communication discipline, other fields – namely human development, psychology, and sociology – have produced studies that can be used as exemplars in constructing future communication studies via this design. These studies include the USC 30-year study of generations (Bengtson et al. 2002), the PAIR project (Huston & Vangelisti 1991), and the Seattle longitudinal study (Schaie 2004). In addition, Schaie (1965) produced a useful tool, the general developmental model, which combines both longitudinal and cross-sectional designs. In the model he also outlines three data collection methods (cross-sequential, cohort-sequential, and time-sequential) in which data is collected with the same participants over time (e.g., time 1, time 2, etc.). Communication scholars have recognized that this model is also an excellent resource to utilize to produce more longitudinal research (Pecchioni et al. 2005).
While methodological choices are a difficult and critical consideration, scholars also need to employ better statistical analyses. This improvement is being sought by developmental scholars across disciplines. According to Schaie (2005), developmentalists using longitudinal design and multiple methods have begun to alter how they measure change because it is now possible to apply very powerful statistical models that enable them to separate patterns individually rather than just assess group averages. Communication scholars are also backing this claim. Nussbaum et al. (2002) note that powerful statistical resources, such as multilevel modeling, are valuable in testing longitudinal hypotheses of developmental change. They note that linear structural equation modeling (SEM) allows researchers to consider variances and co-variances rather than just mean differences from t-tests or MANOVAs, the typical statistical procedures. Like SEM, confirmatory factor analysis can assess differences in communication phenomena within as well as across samples of different age groups (Schaie 2005). Thus, as new, more appropriate methods are utilized in developmental communication research, so too should scholars employ more sophisticated tools to analyze their findings.
Significant Areas of Developmental Communication Research
To date, experts in life-span communication have integrated theory into many areas of research using various methods. These studies support the need to examine communicative behavior developmentally, and simultaneously highlight the multidimensional nature of communication. According to these scholars, cognition, language, communication competence, relational change, and media effects are key areas of concern in developmental communication studies (Nussbaum et al. 2002; Nussbaum & Friedrich 2005; Pecchioni et al. 2005).
The Foundation of Communication: Cognition and Language
Cognition and language are foundational roots of communicative behavior. Yet, as Pecchioni et al. (2005, 41) point out, neither is more important than the other. Rather, “the development of language, cognition, and communication are intertwined.” Hence, communication scholars must consider cognition and language in order to accurately explain and interpret the short-and long-term consequences of behavior.
Cognition refers to any thought process that involves the use, storage, and retrieval of knowledge (Nussbaum et al. 2002). Cognitive aging, itself, is a discipline that investigates changes in memory, learning, and intelligence as a function of age (Schaie 2004). These processes impact our social experiences, more specifically our communication efficacy, as early as infancy. Child development studies clearly depict a massive development in cognitive abilities early in life that directly impact children’s capacity to communicate effectively (Haslett & Samter 1997). While it was originally believed that this cognitive development was biologically driven (e.g., Piaget’s theory of early cognitive development), theorists today consider environmental influences, and hence, view cognitive and communication development as bidirectional (e.g., Vygotsky; see Haslett & Samter 1997). Yet, the trajectory of our cognitive development is clear. While this development is significant early in life, it levels off in midlife, followed by a slow decline in later life and a sharper decline after the age of 80 (see Schaie & Hofer 2001). Even though cognitive abilities decline over time, these declines (such as processing speed and retrieval of information) do not significantly impair our social interactions until they are very pronounced, either due to old age or mental pathologies. In addition, people often compensate for these losses by adopting other strategies in order to continue to thrive in their social world.
Like cognitive development, language skills also develop considerably during early life. Moreover, language aptitude develops over the life-span and impacts social interaction. Reportedly, children show great variance in this area of development, likely due to both biological and environmental influences (Nussbaum et al. 2002). By the time children reach the age of 5, they have acquired basic language skills that affect interaction (sound, meaning, grammar, and discourse). By the end of early childhood, language skills slowly decline with the exception of vocabulary, which can continue to expand over the life-span. However, by later life, we begin to lose linguistic skills, primarily those related to syntactic and discourse processing (Ryan et al. 1991). By the age of 70, older adults may even lose competence in verbal fluency, vocabulary, and verbal performance (Schaie & Hofer 2001). As a result of these declines, older adults are more likely to experience social interactions that may negatively impact their self-esteem (see CAT research).
Language and cognition enable us to transmit information and are a part of our social world. Communication scholars have the challenge of carefully considering these foundational elements of behavior – and how they overlap – while assessing communication change over time. As scholars continue to recognize the importance of this interplay in communication development, future studies will continue to enhance our understanding of interactive behavior.
The Development of Communication Competence
Research in communication competence has been instrumental in capturing the developmental nature of communicative skills. According to Parks (1994, 595) communication competence is “the degree to which individuals satisfy and perceive that they have satisfied their goals within the limits of a given social situation without jeopardizing their ability or opportunity to pursue their subjectively more important goals.” While communication competence is related to cognitive and linguistic capacities, acquisition and refinement of these skills is inherently linked with age and experience – in other words, time. Although developmental research in communication competence did not take off until the late 1980s and 1990s, developmental scholars asserted long before this that such skills were learned and cultivated with age. Thus, life-span communication scholars should be concerned with how these communication competencies develop over time.
To date, research in communication competencies has centered on specific points in time, namely child development. As communication competence is linked with linguistic competence – skills typically acquired during infancy and adolescence – this focus on youth is not surprising. Much of the research centers on two areas of communication development: verbal skills and communication knowledge. Haslett and Samter (1997) note that most verbal skills (e.g., word production, initiating conversations) are learned from birth up to the age of 5. From birth up to the age of 3, children learn that communication is interpersonal. Between the ages of 3 and 5, conversational competence begins, and after the age of 5 more complex verbal skills are learned, such as monitoring, evaluating, and repairing messages. With time, individuals also learn to integrate these skills into social experiences (i.e., communication knowledge). These competencies accumulate as early as one year from birth, and like verbal skills, continue to develop with age.
Although less prominent than research focused on child development, scholars have also examined communication competence during middle childhood (see Stafford 2004). During this period of life, children learn communication competencies in nonliteral language, code switching, appropriateness of roles, conversation rules, and more complexity in language organization, vocabulary, abstractness, and syntax (Stafford 2004). In other words, linguistic competence coincides with the development of communication skills. Similarly, cognitive growth is also linked to communication competence. As we age and our cognitive skills become more sophisticated, so too do our interactive strategies. For instance, older children have more competence in perspective-taking, adapting messages, message design, counter arguing, as well as in attending to listeners’ needs (O’Keefe 1988). In addition, Stafford (2004) notes that social growth occurs as children learn to communicate more competently in a variety of settings (e.g., school, family, peers). During this time, they acquire skills such as caring behaviors, argumentation skills, and emotional/affective display rules – skills that have been found to develop further in later periods of life.
In sum, the findings indicate that communication competence develops over the life-span. Various areas of communication competence demonstrate this growth. Emotional support skills first emerge in middle childhood when the parent–child separation and adolescent struggle for independence begins (Burleson & Kunkel 2002). As we become more cognitively complex (or age), we become more competent in our ability to support others emotionally. This development is also exhibited in conflict communication. Children begin to learn argumentation skills in middle childhood, such as persuasive messages and situationspecific arguments (Stein & Albro 2001). By later life, older adults prefer and utilize more solution-oriented or cooperative conflict strategies, and hence, are more communicatively competent (Bergstrom & Nussbaum 1996).
Clearly, with age, our communication skills become more competent. Hence, communication competence is a developmental phenomenon and should be examined as such. In addition, it is crucial that scholars take into account the interplay of cognition and language, as communication is grounded in these phenomena. By doing so, scholars can better examine how we develop and refine our communicative behaviors to adapt to life changes over time.
Communication scholars have also produced a multitude of studies on relationship change. Ultimately, due to cognitive growth alone, relationships are bound to change over time (Cohen 1981). Nonetheless, relationships are also influenced by life events that alter roles, dynamics, and expectations (Pecchioni et al. 2005). For these reasons, relationships are not stable phenomena, and the communicative behaviors used to adapt to relational changes are also not stagnant. Research to date illustrates the dynamic nature of relational communication in both family and nonfamily bonds. Therefore, it further supports the need to examine relationships and communication developmentally.
Studies across disciplines show that families change over time as relationships evolve or cease; members are born, welcomed, or lost; and the structure as a whole is altered. Family scholars have been examining family changes for the most part of the twentieth century. They have termed this approach the family life cycle (Duvall 1957), family development (Rodgers & White 1993), life-span (Hagestad & Neugarten 1985), and life course (see Price et al. 2000). Today, communication scholars also examine family from this perspective and have provided insight into how relationships and communication change over time in the following bonds: parent–child; sibling; marital; and grandparent– grandchild.
The parent–child bond has been examined developmentally during the child’s adolescence (Haslett & Samter 1997), during midlife (Putney & Bengtson 2001) and during the parent’s old age (Fingerman 2003). During these time periods, the bond experiences role changes, variation in closeness, struggles of power and control, and at the same time encounters normal and non-normative transitions that alter the nature of relationships, such as health crises, divorce, marriage (Pecchioni et al. 2005). During these changes, parents and children are challenged to cope by adapting the way they communicate. For example, during the child’s adolescence, parents must learn to adjust communicatively to the child’s desire for independence and simultaneously manage their own midlife changes, such as “juggling” multiple roles and encountering unexpected transitions such as divorce (Fingerman et al. 2004). In later life, aging parents may have to adjust to being cared for by their adult children by communicatively adapting to changes in power dynamics and independence (Fingerman 2003).
Siblings also experience incredible change over time, and yet display a life-span of closeness that significantly impacts their lives. Cicirelli’s extensive work has shown that siblings experience several relational changes in closeness. The relationship begins with a high level of closeness in early life, there is then a loss of closeness in midlife, and finally, closeness resumes in later life (Cicirelli 1983, 1991). Early in the life-span, siblings encounter life events, such as leaving home, that may lead to distance in their relationship; however, during later life, when siblings have more in common, they often become a significant source of social support to one another (Nussbaum et al. 2000). Although even less studied, research also indicates that the grandparent–grandchild bond experiences communication change in response to transitions. For instance, when parents divorce, grandparents and their grandchildren may lose contact or see one another less frequently (Noller & Fitzpatrick 1993). As a result, they may employ new communication strategies to maintain the relationship. Age also plays a role in how this bond develops. For instance, older grandchildren perceive their grandparents’ role differently in comparison to younger grandchildren, which ultimately impacts how they communicate (Pecchioni et al. 2005). In addition, younger grandparents tend to be closer to their grandchildren than older grandparents; consequently, cohort differences may impact this bond’s development.
Though not widely studied, bonds outside the family also experience dramatic changes over time. Of these voluntary relationships, friendships have received the most scholarly attention. Though little is known about friendships on the macro-level, these studies highlight how the meaning of friendship evolves, how conversations with friends change with time, and how friendships play different roles at various stages of life (Pecchioni et al. 2005). Like other bonds, the friendships are influenced by cognitive, linguistic, and communicative development (Haslett & Samter 1997). Patterson et al. (1993) found that the meaning of “best friends” becomes more complex with age. In pre-adolescence, friendships are based on play or shared activities (Haslett & Samter 1997). By adolescence, friendships influence identity formation (Haslett & Samter 1997). From young adulthood through middle adulthood, the number of friendships decreases as other aspects of life (e.g., career, marriage, and children) influence the nature of the bond (Pecchioni et al. 2005). Yet, by later life, older adults’ friendships are often considered a critical component to successful aging as they become a significant form of social support. Research shows that friendships in later life provide a critical source of social contact, offer a context in which to manage health decline both emotionally and physically, and act as a primary source of emotional comfort not received from family (Nussbaum et al. 2000).
Thus relational changes are evident across time. Likewise, communication changes within voluntary and nonvoluntary bonds occur as the relationship evolves and encounters new circumstances. It is evident that communication scholars need to approach such studies from a developmental perspective that takes into account the dynamic trajectory of change both relationally, communicatively, and individually.
Media exposure has greatly increased in recent years, which heightens the need to examine media influences on communication over the life-span. Wilson and colleagues’ studies reflect how media exposure leads to shortand long-term consequences (see Strasburger & Wilson 2002; and Wilson 2004 for reviews). A notable media influence, television, plays a large part in how we formulate and evaluate our social world, and even impacts development into adulthood (Strasburger & Wilson 2002; Wilson 2004). Rather than just being influenced by friends, peers, family, and real-life social experiences, children are now noticeably impacted by what they see on TV. According to Wilson (2004), media shapes behavior, views, and expectations of family life behavior. Studies show that family communication patterns predict media habits and that media exposure can lead to conflict and power struggles between family members (see Wilson 2004). Moreover, these exposures affect perceptions of beauty and health, violence and aggression, and can even endorse stereotypes (see Strasburger & Wilson 2002). Additionally, more TV viewing in children is associated with negative long-term outcomes such as the potential for aggression and violence (see Strasburger & Wilson 2002).
Ultimately, these media effects are related to cognition. As children cognitively develop in youth, they utilize these skills to interpret their social world, as well as what they view on TV (Strasburger & Wilson 2002). Recently, Valkenburg & Cantor (2001) produced a typology that descriptively characterizes cognitive development in accordance with media consumerism. During the first stage (infancy), primary information concerns are centered on the senses: smells, colors, sounds, and objects. During the second stage – preschool years – cognitive processing is still unsophisticated as children cannot distinguish between advertisements and sitcoms and also cannot identify the intent of programming. Interestingly, however, social relationships do influence our consumerism during this stage. For instance, when preschoolers are accompanied by an older sibling while watching a suspenseful program, they are less likely to experience fear (Weiss & Wilson 1998). During the third phase or elementary years, cognitive aptitude increases, and by the end of this stage, the foundations of consumer behavior are set (Valkenburg & Cantor 2001). Children can categorize information into schemas and are better at information processing (Strasburger & Wilson 2002). Their perspective on what they see on TV affects how they behave and perceive real-life events (Strasburger & Wilson 2002; Wilson 2004). For instance, during these years, children perceive that families on TV are realistic, even though studies show that TV programming typically portrays families too idealistically (Weiss & Wilson 1998). Hence, by the time children enter elementary school, exposure to media has cultivated an unrealistic view of the social world, which ultimately influences interaction (Wilson 2004). In other words, part of our interactive learning comes from unrealistic representations on TV. As a result, scholars have recently been advocating mediation, suggesting that families should exercise more control over children’s media exposure (Wilson 2004). According to Wilson, by producing more studies, particularly longitudinal research, scholars can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the long-term effects of media on interaction.
Today, developmental communication scholarship has expanded and enhanced the stature of the discipline by contributing theory-grounded knowledge of human interactive behavior as a dynamic process. However, it should be noted that research has predominantly centered on communication at certain points in time (youth or later life). Consequently, a lack of knowledge of communicative behavior over the entirety of the life-span still persists. In addition, outside of life-span research, communication as a developmental phenomenon is still rarely integrated into studies. According to Pecchioni et al. (2005, 14) it is not an understatement that “communication as a developmental phenomenon has been systematically ignored in the discipline.”
Nussbaum & Friedrich (2005) note that advances in this area of research should continue with the following two issues in mind: (1) expand the scope of the life-span to include it in its entirety; and (2) utilize the most appropriate and optimum methodologies to capture change. For instance, communication scholars need to pay more attention to overlooked areas in the life-span (midlife and young adulthood) and become more familiar with methodologies such as longitudinal design and multilevel modeling. In doing so, scholars can help contribute to our understanding of communication as a developmental phenomenon and continue to extend knowledge of the dynamic nature of communication in our social world.
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