The ability of young children to distinguish between fantasy and reality with regard to television, and the changes that occur in those perceptions have significant implications for their preferences in television content, their comprehension of such content, and their emotional responses (e.g., fear reactions). By applying developmental psychology theories, researchers primarily in the field of communication studies have found that developing the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality may influence the tendency to imitate dangerous behaviors, to expect unrealistic solutions to problems, and to hold misconceptions about the nature of social life. It may also have an impact on purchasing decisions.
While “television reality” is a complex and multidimensional concept, the literature relates more specifically to the degree of factuality of the mediated reality, for example: (1) the ability to determine when people and events presented on television exist beyond the screen; (2) the understanding that some characters on television are real people representing themselves while others are actors playing a role; (3) the distinction between events depicted on the screen that happen in the outside world and those that are staged and created according to a script.
Research studies have sought to determine at what age and through what processes children learn to understand that television is not a “magic window” (Hawkins 1977) to the real world, but a constructed reality. Studies of social realism focus on children’s answers to questions such as: Are the people, places, and events on television similar to the ones familiar to us in the real world? Are they believable? Is it probable that events depicted in fictional programs will take place? Is knowledge acquired through viewing television applicable in real life?
In most cases, children are not systematically instructed in developing such distinctions, but rather they develop them on their own – as they mature, as they gain experience and come to understand the real world, and as their knowledge of the media expands. Until the age of 4, on average, children believe that everything on television is real, that television characters also live outside of the screen, and that action in the real world can affect these characters directly (e.g., they can pet an animal on television; they expect a television character to recognize them and react to their speech; Lemish 1987). As children grow older, their perception of television as a “magic window” is gradually replaced by a growing understanding that television reality is not quite like the everyday reality in which they live.
External and Internal Dimensions of Fantasy-Reality Distinction
Studies indicate that children use two principle types of criteria to make distinctions between fantasy and reality on television: external versus internal dimensions (Hodge & Tripp 1986). The external dimension refers to the reliance of children on their knowledge of the real world that results from their individual life experiences. The internal dimension refers to cues within the television program itself that direct children’s evaluation of its realism.
Dorr (1983) specified three levels of the external dimension. The first level refers to the concreteness of the television image – when something on television is exactly as it is without television. This ability to evaluate the reality of television based on the perceptions of people, objects, and events actually existing outside of the television world has also been called “physical actuality” or “factuality.” The other two levels accept the fabricated nature of the television world and judge each specific content item according to the criteria of possibility or probability. For the most part, elementary school children evaluate the reality of television based on their perception of whether events portrayed are possible in the reality familiar to them beyond the screen. As they move into the formal operations stage of cognitive development, around the age of 12, they gradually learn to evaluate the reality of television based on their perception of whether it is probable that it represents something that could happen beyond the screen, even if it is possible. Thus, while it is possible that one family will experience all the intensive events happening in the life of one television-family and solve them in similar ways, the child’s life experience suggests that it is not very probable that this would be the case. In contrast, adult thinking about reality on television is mostly characterized by an understanding that everything on television is constructed to some degree and therefore cannot be “purely” real, but it is defined as real if it is representative of real life or probable in real life.
The second group of criteria for judging television reality has been defined by researchers as relating to the internal properties of the program, namely those related to the formal features of television (i.e., production elements such as camera shots, editing conventions, sound effects, and the like). According to this line of research, formal features also serve as cues through which children learn to perceive the reality of television content and to classify programs as real or fictitious (Fitch et al. 1993). For example, by the age of 4 –5 on average, children begin to identify the grouping of television programs that are distinguished by the co-occurring features of form and content, i.e., the concept of program genre. Thus they come to understand that a live, unedited series of pictures of a war scene followed by a medium range camera shot of an adult who seems to be talking seriously and who is seated in a studio behind a desk indicates a “real” news report, while a colorful, animated scene of talking animals in children’s voice with background music is “unreal.” Similarly, children learn to identify commercials as a distinct genre (Lemish 1997).
These two interactive dimensions – external and internal – can be framed as “real-world knowledge” versus “television-related knowledge.” Both forms of knowledge are used by children, in varying degrees, to make sense of the reality of television and to classify genres. The demand or urge to organize the world of television according to the integration of both these dimensions and to establish content and form expectations of different programs seems to be a central cognitive task undertaken by young viewers in particular.
Age Differences in Fantasy-Reality Distinctions
It is possible to organize the above criteria in a complementary manner. Generally speaking, researchers have found that younger children are more heavily dependent on internal criteria. However, as they mature, children learn to incorporate external criteria as their knowledge of the world expands (e.g., a specific animation series can be much more realistic in content than many programs employing live actors). However, similar to adults, there are many levels at which it is possible to interpret children’s responses in research situations when they are asked to evaluate something as fantasy or real (MessengerDavies 1997). Children may say “this is not real,” or may remind themselves that “this is just pretend stuff,” but not be able to apply such knowledge to the reduction of anxiety, for example.
Therefore, some researchers disagree about the age at which children can distinguish between fantasy and reality and the various stages in the process. The age of 7– 8 (the beginning of the concrete-operational stage, according to cognitive development theories) has been pinpointed by researchers as an important turning point in the development of such understanding. As children grow older, however, the task becomes more complicated as it involves answering the question, “real in what sense?” Through their elementary school years, their knowledge of both the world and the making of television expands significantly and they become more critical of the lack of realism they find in much of programming and commercials.
Fantasy-Reality Distinction, Fear, and Imagination
Related to this ability are the age-related differences in fear reactions to television content. On the whole, children before the 7– 8 turning point are much more fearful of fantastic content on television that looks and sounds scary, while older children gradually become more aware of the implications of real and more abstract dangers (Cantor 2002). Effective parental strategies for coping with such fears were also related to their children’s developmental stage on the fantasy–reality distinction continuum, with physical strategies (e.g., hug, snack, favorite comforting object) found to be most appropriate for children who were scared of fantastic elements, and verbal strategies more effective with older children who already had a clearer ability to detect real dangers.
Also related is the research that investigated children’s creativity, imagination, and play as related to the developing ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and to the role television fantasy has in children’s make-believe world (Götz et al. 2005). The argument put forward in such work is that children build upon a wealth of fantasy-related information gathered from mediated resources in playing out their wishes to imagine and act. Even when clearly capable of making cognitive distinctions, they purposefully mix and interweave fantasy and reality elements taken from their media experiences to suit their needs and desires.
Similarly, there is evidence that children’s trust of commercials and vulnerability to their persuasive messages is related to their difficulty in distinguishing between the fantastic elements, including size of product, its performance, and the implied psychological and social gains from purchasing the product. Here, too, the development of associated cognitive skills, as well as children’s real-world experiences with the product or those similar to it, both of which develop over time, facilitate the development of such distinctions. There is no evidence that heavy exposure to television fundamentally transforms such cognitive processes as the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Media literacy efforts that sought to accelerate and facilitate it at an early age have also had only limited success.
The task at hand for children – as well as adults – is becoming increasingly complicated with recent trends in the television industry worldwide. One such trend is the development of new television genres that purposefully aim at blurring the distinction between fiction and real for the purpose of infusing entertainment content with relevant real-world information, such as those coined “edutainment,” “infotainment,” and “informacials.” A second is the widespread flourish of reality TV genres in prime time around the world. These texts require much more sophisticated, media-literate consumers in order to manage the influence that such content can have on cognitive processes, attitudes, behaviors, emotions, purchasing decisions, etc.
In addition, studies on the fantasy-reality distinction have focused to date almost exclusively on the medium of television. The convergence of various audiovisual media into an integrated “screen culture” that also includes computers, Internet, mobile phones, video games, and hand-held consoles, and probably more in the near future, requires the development of a new research agenda that will address the concerns created by such a rich, diverse market.
- Cantor, J. (2002). Fright reactions to mass media. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 287–306.
- Dorr, A. (1983). No shortcuts to judging reality. In J. Bryant & D. R. Anderson (eds.), Children’s understanding of television: Research on attention and comprehension. New York: Academic Press, pp. 190 –220.
- Fitch, M., Huston, A. C., & Wright, J. C. (1993). From television forms to genre schemata: Children’s perceptions of television reality. In G. L. Berry & J. K. Asamen (eds.), Children and television in a chancing socio-cultural world. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 38 –52.
- Götz, M., Lemish, D., Aidman, A., & Moon, H. (2005). Media and the make-believe worlds of children: When Harry Potter meets Pokémon in Disneyland. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Hawkins, R. (1977). The dimensional structure of children’s perceptions of TV reality. Communication Research, 4(3), 299 –320.
- Hodge, B., & Tripp, D. (1986). Children and television: A semiotic analysis. Cambridge, MA: Polity.
- Lemish, D. (1987). Viewers in diapers: The early development of television viewing. In T. Lindlof (ed.), Natural audiences: Qualitative research of media uses and effects. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 33 –57.
- Lemish, D. (1997). Kindergartners’ understandings of television: A cross-cultural comparison. Communication Studies, 48(2), 109 –126.
- Messenger-Davies, M. (1997). Fake, fact, and fantasy: Children’s interpretations of television reality. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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