Traditionally, research into the effects of television has assumed that children are passive recipients on whom television has a powerful influence. Since the mid-1970s, however, media effects research has increasingly recognized the child viewer as an active and motivated explorer, rather than a passive receiver. Recent research suggests that children are critical evaluators of what they see in the media. Even very young children have been shown to actively screen media offerings for attractiveness and understandability and make an effort to interpret television images in their own terms.
The Research Area
Media use and child development are mutually related: not only does children’s media use influence their development, but children’s developmental level also determines their media uses and preferences. According to research that has been conducted thus far, developmental level is one of the most important predictors of children’s media uses and preferences. This article will focus on the question of how children’s developmental level influences their media use and preference. The question of how children’s media use influences their child development will be discussed in other articles.
In the past decades, several media-effects researchers have suggested that the concept of optimal level of stimulation might be central to understanding young children’s media uses and preferences (e.g., Anderson & Pugzles Lorch 1983). These authors assume that children prefer to look at stimuli that they can at least partially incorporate into their existing comprehension schemas, and that they show less preference for extremely simple or extremely complex stimuli. This moderate-discrepancy hypothesis predicts that at any given age, a moderate level of stimulus complexity is preferred and that this level increases as the child matures.
The moderate-discrepancy hypothesis predicts an inverted-U-shaped relationship between program comprehensibility and content preference: Children’s attention to media should be highest for content that departs only slightly from what they know or are capable of (Anderson & Pugzles Lorch 1983). The moderate-discrepancy hypothesis offers a viable explanation of why the media uses and preferences of children in various age groups differ so greatly. After all, the perceived simplicity and complexity of media content change dramatically as children mature. Media content that is only moderately discrepant and therefore attractive to 4 year olds may be overly simple and thus unattractive to 10 year olds. The next section explains some typical developmental characteristics of preschool and young elementary school children and argues how these characteristics might affect their uses and preferences for media content. In the section after that, I will do the same for children in middle childhood.
Early Childhood: Ages 2 To 7
Around 2 years of age, most children watch television on a daily basis, and from this age their attention to program content increases dramatically. A study by Anderson and colleagues (1986) demonstrated that 1-year-old children have their eyes on the screen for only 12 percent of the time a television is on, whereas for 5 year olds this figure is 70 percent (which seems to be the maximum, because the average time that older children have their eyes on the screen also fluctuates around 70 percent).
The rapid increase in attention to television programs between 1 and 5 years of age reflects the proportionally rapid increase in children’s understanding of television content. From 2 years on, children start to develop a genuine interest in the storyline of media productions. In an observation study by Valkenburg (2004) among toddlers and young preschoolers, almost half of the children asked the co-viewing researcher questions while viewing in order to improve their understanding of the program’s content. This asking of questions started at around the age of 2.5 years.
For preschoolers and young elementary school children, there is an unclear demarcation between fantasy and reality. Virtually anything is possible in this child’s imagination: A sponge can become a rock, bears can talk, and the wind can pick the child up and take him or her away. Research by Morrison and Gardner (1978) has demonstrated that between the ages of 3 and 10 years, children gradually become more accurate in distinguishing fantasy from reality on television. At first, children believe that everything on television is real. Jaglom and Gardner (1981), for instance, observed that 2 –3 year olds ran to get a paper towel to clean up an egg they saw break on television. In addition, most 4 year olds who participated in a study by Sue Howard (1998) were convinced that Big Bird and Bugs Bunny were real.
Children’s failure to distinguish fantasy and reality can affect their preferences for media content in important ways. First, because fantasy and cartoon characters are perceived as real, they can be just as engaging as real-life characters for young children. Second, some special effects or stunts, such as a character vanishing in a puff of smoke, can have a great impact. Because young children cannot put these events in perspective by understanding that they are cinematic tricks, they are more strongly affected by them.
Another quality of preschoolers’ thinking is their tendency to center attention on an individual, striking feature of an object or image, to the exclusion of other, less striking features. Piaget (1954) has referred to this tendency as “centration” or “perceptual boundedness.” A study reported in Acuff (1997) is illustrative of this tendency of young children. In this study, girls were presented with three dolls. Two of the dolls were very expensive, had beautiful and realistic faces, and came with sophisticated mechanical effects. The third doll was cheaply made, but this doll had a big, red sequined heart on her dress. To the surprise of the researchers, the majority of the girls preferred the cheap doll with the sequined heart. This choice is typical of children in this age group. When judging a product or media content, they focus their attention on one striking characteristic, and they therefore have little eye for detail. Their descriptions of television characters tend to fix on single, physical attributes, without integrating them into an overall picture. Young children pay less attention to what characters are doing or saying, and pay most attention to simple, brightly colored visuals and colorful, uncomplicated, nonthreatening characters (Valkenburg 2004).
Children seem to have an innate tendency to respond to language. They enjoy listening to songs, rhymes, and music. In a study by Cupitt and colleagues (1998), almost half of the mothers of 2.5 year olds reported that their child had imitated music, rhymes, or songs from television. This study also showed that nearly all of the 2.5 year olds had interacted with television programs while watching, for instance by singing, dancing, or clapping hands. It is no surprise, therefore, that songs, rhymes, and music are often used successfully in educational and entertainment programs for young children.
Because of their immature cognitive capacity, children in this age group need more time than adults to interpret and make sense of information and television images. This is the reason why young preschoolers often respond best to programs with a slow pace and with lots of repetition, for example Barney and Friends or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For the same reason, young preschoolers often prefer familiar contexts and visuals, and objects and animals that they can label, such as a cat, a dog, or a horse. According to Lemish (1987), they like to watch programs that show babies and young children, and they adore nonthreatening real or animated animals, such as kind birds, friendly dinosaurs, and babyish creatures like the Teletubbies.
By the time they are 4 – 6 years old, children begin to develop a preference for more fast-paced programs. By that age, they become more responsive to verbally oriented shows, with more sophisticated forms of humor, like The Simpsons. And they often find slower-paced programs with friendly characters boring or childish. At that time, they begin to prefer more adventurous themes located in foreign countries or in outer space, and more complicated characters.
Middle Childhood: Ages 8 Through 12
In contrast to preschoolers, the fantasies of 8 –12 year olds more often entail realistic and plausible themes. In this period, children develop a sincere, sometimes even exaggerated, interest in real-world phenomena. They can be highly critical of television programs and commercials that lack realism. According to Mielke (1983), children in middle childhood continue to like animals, but they are mainly interested in real-life animals. Because most fantasy characters have been demystified, children in this age group tend to become attached to real-life heroes, such as sports heroes, movie stars, and action heroes.
With the developing ability to “decenter,” children come to appreciate details. As explained earlier, a preschooler may focus on only one striking detail of a toy – a doll’s clothing, for example. For the 8 –12-year-old child, many characteristics of a toy may be carefully observed, from the face and body to details of the doll’s clothing to how it moves. At this age, children become progressively critical of television programs of low quality, such as those that are poorly produced or repetitious. They are no longer content with simple, salient characteristics, such as a colorful cartoon character. Unlike younger children, who are greatly impressed by special effects and characters with special powers, older children seem to agree that special effects by themselves are not enough.
During middle childhood peer interactions become increasingly sophisticated. Because children in this age group develop such a strong sense of commitment and loyalty to the norms of their peer group, they are increasingly sensitive to the thoughts, opinions, judgments, and evaluations of other children, and become very sensitive to what’s “cool” and what’s “in.” They therefore become alert to how to behave in public and how to avoid being ridiculed with respect to what they wear, or prefer to watch on television. For example, older children feel the need to firmly demonstrate their aversion to programs designed for younger children or for shows that feature characters younger than they are.
Current media theories assume that children purposely select and expose themselves to media content to satisfy specific needs. These theories also assume that any effect of media content on children is enhanced or mitigated by how the child perceives it. Research has shown, for example, that the effect of television violence on aggressive behavior is mediated by the extent to which a child likes to watch violent programs. To understand media effects on children, then, it is crucial to gain insight into children’s uses of and preferences for media content. This article has discussed how age affects children’s media uses and preferences. Future research should focus on how other child characteristics, such as personality characteristics and emotional development, may affect children’s media preferences and selective exposure to television content.
- Acuff, D. S. (1997). What kids buy and why: The psychology of marketing to kids. New York: Free Press.
- Anderson, D. R., & Pugzles Lorch, E. (1983). Looking at television: Action or reaction. In J. Bryant & D. Anderson (eds.), Children’s understanding of television. New York: Academic Press, pp. 1–33.
- Anderson, D. R., Pugzles 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.
- Cupitt, M., Jenkinson, D., Ungerer, J., & Waters, B. (1998). Infants and television. Sidney: Australian Broadcasting Authority.
- Howard, S. (1998). Unbalanced minds? Children thinking about television. In S. Howard (ed.), Wired-up: Young people and the electronic media. London: UCL Press, pp. 57 – 76.
- Jaglom, L. M., & Gardner, H. (1981). The preschool viewer as anthropologist. New Directions in Child Development, 13, 9 –29.
- Lemish, D. (1987). Viewers in diapers: The early development of television viewing. In T. R. Lindlof (ed.), Natural audiences: Qualitative research of media uses and effects. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 33 –57.
- Mielke, K. W. (1983). Formative research on appeal and comprehension in 3 -2 -1 contact. In J. Bryant & D. Anderson (eds.), Children’s understanding of television: Research on attention and comprehension. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 241–263.
- Morrison, P., & Gardner, H. (1978). Dragons and dinosaurs: The child’s capacity to differentiate fantasy from reality. Child Development, 49, 642 – 648.
- Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.
- Siegler, R. S. (1991). Children’s thinking, 2nd edn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Valkenburg, P. M. (2004). Children’s responses to the screen: A media psychological approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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