Co-viewing is the viewing of media content in groups. Typically, the co-viewing group is a dyad, but the term can also refer to groups of three or more. Most of the research has been conducted in regard to television viewing, but the concept has been a part of communication research since the investigation of silent motion pictures in the early 1900s. Generally, studies of co-viewing fall into three areas: co-viewing configurations (who views with whom and with what frequency), co-viewing as a socialization aspect of the family decision-making process (who controls the TV and decides what to watch), and – making up the bulk of current research on co-viewing – parent–child co-viewing as a mediation process.
Research on co-viewing configurations began with studies of the motion picture. In the early days of motion pictures, theaters were often small and dimly lit, and were generally considered unhealthy places for children. Studies by Phelan (1919), Dale (1935), and others assessed the extent of the theater problem and documented the audiences for motion pictures and other social amusements, such as vaudeville and burlesque. These early studies found that children were most likely to view motion pictures with other children. Although some of the viewing was done with parents or siblings, the most common viewing situation was with peers. There was often an assumption of positive effects for parent–child co-viewing of motion pictures in these early studies; for children, co-viewing with friends drew the most attention and concern.
Few studies investigating radio seemed particularly concerned with co-listening. Kirkpatrick (1933) was one of the few reporting any data related to the concept. His report, though, suggests that, because the radio was a medium accessed at home, listening to the radio with others was a good thing. Reporting that about 3.5 persons listen together to an average radio program, he noted that radio listening “is to a certain extent a family matter.”
With the advent of television, co-viewing again became a subject and context for research. During the 1950s and 1960s, research focused on co-viewing configurations and co-viewing as a context for family decision-making. As Wand (1968) noted, researchers and broadcasters wanted to know who controlled the set. Much of the early literature focused on the idea of a dominant individual deciding when and what to watch (McDonagh 1950; Blood 1961). During the 1970s and 1980s, this stream of work continued, but researchers began to suggest that quasi-democratic processes (Lull 1978) and socialization (McLeod et al. 1982) might be better explanations. By the late 1980s, overlapping preferences as a result of socialization and physical maturation, rather than domination of the set by an individual, appeared to be the primary explanation for both the decision-making process and the most common co-viewing configuration of peer coviewing (either parent–parent or children of similar ages; McDonald 1985; Dorr et al. 1989).
In the 1990s, most co-viewing research was undertaken within the context of what Nathanson (1999) described as a dimension of parental mediation research (the other two dimensions being active mediation and restrictive mediation). Parental mediation research is focused on the nature of parents’ or other adults’ behaviors regarding television, and the impact that those behaviors have on a child’s reactions to television or other media. Co-viewing research in this context has led to mixed results in terms of whether adults’ co-viewing leads to positive or negative outcomes for children. There is increasing evidence that co-viewing of content suggests to the child that the parent approves of the content, even if the content is violent (Nathanson 2001). Such a conclusion helps explain a number of negative and positive effects attributed to co-viewing of TV content (McLeod et al. 1982; Nathanson 2001).
While co-viewing has become a part of the literature on mediation in recent years, research results suggest that the antecedents and consequences of co-viewing are different from those of other forms of parental mediation. Some researchers see these as different dimensions of the concept of mediation, while others suggest that parental mediation is a particular case of co-viewing – one in which a parent and child watch together. As indicated above, the earlier literature suggests that parent–parent or sibling–sibling co-viewing occurs most commonly.
A more general model of co-viewing and media effects is faint, but evident in the literature. Even the early literature suggests that anyone who views media content with another person may have an impact on their enjoyment and interpretation of that content. Such peer effects have been documented in televised sports and in watching sports at a stadium (Hocking 1982). More recently, McDonald and Fredin (2001) found evidence indicating a synchronization of emotional responses among co-viewers of televised content.
The co-viewing literature established thus far suggests that our future knowledge of media use and media effects will hinge to some extent on how well we understand social aspects of the media. Early evidence on the proliferation of newer forms of media suggests that social uses of these media will also be an important part of their diffusion and acceptance. Some of these new media are inherently individualized or seem most likely to diffuse with dyadic use patterns (e.g., personal mp3 players, mobile phones with video capabilities), while others would appear to be very similar twenty-first-century versions of television or motion picture viewing (e.g., home digital video recorders, DVD players). Still others may emerge with differing co-use or coviewing configurations (e.g., digital music through networks, video on demand). Our concept of co-viewing may need to be expanded to incorporate co-use of these new media, or some other term may need to be introduced, which can incorporate new forms of media in social use situations.
- Blood, R. O. (1961). Social class and family control of television viewing. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 7, 205 –222.
- Dale, E. (1935). Children’s attendance at motion pictures. New York: Macmillan.
- Dorr, A., Kovaric, P., & Doubleday, C. (1989). Parent–child coviewing of television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 33(1), 35 – 51.
- Hocking, J. E. (1982). Sports and spectators: Intra-audience effects. Journal of Communication, 32(1), 100 –109.
- Kirkpatrick, C. (1933). Report of a research into the atttitudes and habits of radio listeners. St Paul, MN: Webb.
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- McDonagh, E. C. (1950). Television and the family. Sociology and Social Research, 35(2), 113 –122.
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- McDonald, D. G., & Fredin, E. S. (2001). Primitive emotional contagion in coviewing. Paper presented at the International Communication Association Annual Conference, Washington, DC.
- McLeod, J. M., Fitzpatrick, M. A., Glynn, C., & Fallis, S. (1982). Television and social relations: Family influences and consequences for interpersonal behavior. In D. B. Pearl, L. Bouthilet, & J. B. Lazar (eds.), Television and behavior: Ten years of scientific progress and implications for the eighties, vol. 2. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, pp. 272 –286.
- Nathanson, A. I. (1999). Identifying and explaining the relationship between parental mediation and children’s aggression. Communication Research, 26, 124 –143.
- Nathanson, A. I. (2001). Parent and child perspectives on the presence and meaning of parental television mediation. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 45(2), 201–220.
- Phelan, R. J. J. (1919). Motion pictures as a phase of commercialized amusement in Toledo, Ohio. Toledo, OH: Little Book Press.
- Wand, B. (1968). Television viewing and family choice differences. Public Opinion Quarterly, (32)1, 84 – 95.
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