Children, adolescents, and adults use many types of media. These include varieties that do not require input from the user, such as print media, movies, video tapes, DVDs, music, and television, as well as those with more extensive interactive possibilities, such as video games, computer applications, and Internet resources. As the media landscape has become more varied and extensive, children and adolescents in particular have increased use of these newer media (Rideout et al. 2005). However, at all ages studied, television has maintained its place as the most commonly used medium. Further, characteristics of television enable a variety of measures of attention (e.g., eye movements, visual orientation to the screen, probe responses to events). Perhaps for these reasons, television is the focus of most studies of attention to media. Developmental differences in attention have been studied most systematically across childhood and adolescence, with far fewer studies examining attention to media in adults, especially in older adults.
Patterns of Attention to Television
Since the introduction of television, popular conceptions of television viewing often have characterized children as “zombies” who are captured by television and stare fixedly at the screen. Naturalistic and laboratory studies of how children watch television generally deny this stereotype. Many studies document key commonalities in patterns of looking at and away from television among infants, children, and adults. Across ages, most looks are very short (less than 3 seconds), with a minority of extended looks at the television. Individuals typically divide attention between television and other activities, with attention patterns revealing systematic influences and consistencies in how attention relates to viewers’ comprehension and learning.
Similarities in patterns do not mean, however, that attention to television is unchanging across development. The percentage of time actually spent looking at television at home or in the laboratory increases steadily from infancy through the end of elementary school, levels off during middle school, and finally declines somewhat during adolescence and adulthood (Anderson et al. 1986). In general, increases in percentage of attention to television are due to more time spent in longer looks as children’s age increases. In turn, such long looks appear to enable greater engagement and deeper processing of content, as viewers are less distractible and remember more content presented during long looks. Although the overall percentage of time looking at television declines during adolescence and adulthood, these ages maintain a mixture of short and long looks at television (Hawkins et al. 1995).
Theoretical Accounts of Factors Influencing Patterns of Attention
Several theoretical viewpoints on attention to television concur that children, from an early age, are active viewers whose visual attention to television is guided by ongoing comprehension, expectations, and purposes for viewing. For example, Anderson and Lorch (1983) proposed that for young children, a look at the television may begin in response to any of several possible reasons, including stimuli that elicit orienting responses; formal features that signal informative, appealing, child-relevant content; and cues derived from the behavior of other children. Once a look has begun, its continuation primarily depends on the child’s ongoing judgments of whether program content is comprehensible and on the fit of the content to the child’s purposes. In this view, developmental changes in patterns of attention stem primarily from cognitive development and associated developmental changes in comprehension processes.
Huston et al. (2007) discussed similar factors as influences on visual attention, but traced the evolution of three overlapping models of the development of children’s attention to television: exploration-search, stimulus sampling, and the traveling lens model. Exploration-search refers to a sequence likely to occur when an individual of any age encounters a new stimulus environment. Initially, the individual is dominated by exploration, characterized by relatively disconnected, brief attention to perceptually salient aspects of the stimulus. With greater familiarity, it is possible to become more systematic and goal-directed, with attention increasingly guided by knowledge, expectations, and strategies. With age and experience with a medium, many exploration–search sequences accumulate, resulting in an overall developmental change toward more systematic search underlying attention patterns. For example, the very youngest viewers, infants and toddlers, largely are exposed to television not designed for them. They may explore but process little content, primarily reacting to the changing sights and sounds of television. By as early as 1.5 –2 years of age, however, children begin to respond more systematically to features that are not merely salient but signal content that children are likely to find relevant or entertaining (Valkenburg & Vroone 2004). For example, the presence of children’s voices, peculiar voices, sound effects, animation, and puppets cue children to the child-relevance of the content.
In the stimulus sampling model, Huston et al. conceptualized a series of decisions children make about whether to continue a look at the television. At the beginning of a look, decisions are most heavily a function of formal characteristics, once again those that are indicative of informative, interesting, child-relevant content. If a look continues, more extensive, deeper cognitive processing takes place, such that a subsequent decision is affected by both current comprehension and initial expectations about content (Rolandelli et al. 1991). As further cycles occur, later decisions are increasingly influenced by deeper processing and more elaborated expectations about story content (Hawkins et al. 1995). In addition, the stimulus sampling model incorporates developmental changes in these cycles of decisions. For younger children, the continuation of a look at the television may be more dependent upon superficial features of the program than for older children, who are more likely to make elaborated decisions based on deeper processing of content.
The traveling lens model builds upon the ideas of exploration–search and stimulus sampling. According to the traveling lens model, attention is maximized at optimal levels of complexity, novelty, and predictability. These optimal levels “travel” with development and experience with the medium, story structure, or a particular program. Relative to infants and toddlers, children’s ongoing comprehension increasingly influences their attention across the preschool years. If children are making sense of a program and judging it to be “for them,” they are more likely to sustain attention than if the program seems confusing or adult-oriented. Preschoolers’ attention also begins to show influences of familiarity with specific programs (e.g., the meaning of formats in Blue’s Clues) and about story structure in general.
During middle childhood and adolescence, the cycle of decisions during stimulus sampling and optimal settings of the traveling lens are affected by considerable increase in media experience and substantial development in comprehension skills. Children and adolescents make more of their own programming choices than do younger children, select a wide variety of general audience programming, and combine television viewing with the use of other media (Rideout et al. 2005). Regarding comprehension skills, children become more sophisticated at building an ongoing representation of the interrelations among story events during viewing. Not until later in elementary school do children become consistent at understanding complex production techniques (e.g., flashbacks) and characters’ emotions, intentions, and motivations. Older children and teens also become more skilled at connecting groups of events to an overall theme. With age, children add to their store of world knowledge, and so become capable of appreciating a wider variety of situations. Associated with expanding media literacy and development in comprehension skills with age, attention patterns reveal increasing effects of event centrality, causal structure, and plot development. For example, school-age children have been found to look at the television more during presentation of material that adults rated as important (i.e., central) to the plot of the story than during material rated as low in importance, and to increase attentional engagement on the basis of subtle cues to the centrality of the content (Lorch et al. 2004).
It was mentioned earlier that at all ages, the majority of looks last less than 3 seconds, with only a minority of extended looks at the television. This distribution of looks that is typical across age also is characterized by a phenomenon known as “attentional inertia,” based in the observation that the longer a look at television is maintained, the more probable that the look will continue to be maintained, regardless of content or content changes. As such, attentional inertia is thought to represent an automatic, nonstrategic means of insuring occasional engagement with material that might not otherwise be sampled, assisting in providing cognitive challenge to advance development (Anderson & Lorch 1983; Richards & Anderson 2004).
Attention to Multiple Media
Although individuals at all ages divide attention between television viewing and other activities, children and adolescents increasingly divide their attention and activities among multiple media in complex multitasking. Adolescents watch television while using computer software, or play music while interweaving instant messaging and a video game. To date, there is no specific evidence that individual activities suffer as a result of divided attention, but systematic studies of attention divided among media are yet to be pursued.
Although research has provided a wealth of theory and research concerning developmental change in attention to television across childhood and adolescence, several aspects of attention to media need more extensive developmental investigation. As media materials increasingly are produced that are targeted at infants and toddlers, more investigations of attention are needed among these youngest audience members. Studies of developmental changes in attention to media other than television also are called for but are only in early stages for print media, video games, and computer use. As noted above, although children and adolescents are known to engage in media multitasking, studies of divided attention to media are lacking. Finally, although media use continues throughout adulthood, little information exists concerning attention to media in older adults, indicating a need for more systematic research on attention to media across the entire life-span.
- Anderson, D. R., & Lorch, E. P. (1983). Looking at television: Action or reaction? In J. Bryant & D. R. Anderson (eds.), Children’s understanding of television: Research on attention and comprehension. New York: Academic Press, pp. 1–33.
- Anderson, D. R., Lorch, E. P., Field, D. E., Collins, P. A., & Nathan, J. G. (1986). Television viewing at home: Age trends in visual attention and time with TV. Child Development, 57, 1024 –1033.
- Hawkins, R. P., Kim, Y., & Pingree, S. (1991). The ups and downs of attention to television. Communication Research, 18, 53 –76.
- Hawkins, R., Tapper, J., Bruce, L., & Pingree, S. (1995). Strategic and nonstrategic explanations for attentional inertia. Communication Research, 22, 188 –206.
- Huston, A. C., Bickham, D. S., Lee, J. H., & Wright, J. C. (2007). From attention to comprehension: How children watch and learn from television. In N. Pecora, J. P. Murray, & E. A. Wartella (eds.), Children and television: 50 years of research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 41– 63.
- Lorch, E. P., Eastham, D., Milich, R., Lemberger, C. C., Sanchez, R. P., Welsh, R., & van den Broek, P. (2004). Difficulties in comprehending causal relations among children with ADHD: The role of cognitive engagement. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 56 – 63.
- Lorch, E. P., Milich, R., Astrin, C. C., & Berthiaume, K. S. (2006). Cognitive engagement and story comprehension in typically developing children and children with ADHD from preschool through elementary school. Developmental Psychology, 42, 1206 –1219.
- Richards, J. E., & Anderson, D. R. (2004). Attentional inertia in children’s extended looking at television. In R. V. Kail (ed.), Advances in child development and behavior. Amsterdam: Academic Press, vol. 32, pp. 163 –212.
- Rideout, V., Roberts, D. F., & Foehr, U. G. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8 –18-yearolds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
- Rolandelli, D. R., Wright, J. C., Huston, A. C., & Eakins, D. (1991). Children’s auditory and visual processing of narrated and nonnarrated television programming. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 51, 90 –122.
- Valkenburg, P. M., & Vroone, M. (2004). Developmental changes in infants’ and toddlers’ attention to television entertainment. Communication Research, 31, 288 –311.
Back to Developmental Communication.