Media use is a central leisure-time activity for many families worldwide. Given the considerable time investment of family members in media use collectively and individually, and the fact that the family is the context in which young people are first exposed to media, it is important to study how family dynamics shape the use of media and the ways in which media messages are understood. A related question is how communication within the family is influenced by the presence of media in the home.
While television and radio are the most pervasive media in households worldwide, in economically developed countries the home is the site for increasing numbers of televisions, radio, audio, and video playback devices, computers, the Internet, and video-game systems. Media management is recognized as an important task of contemporary parenting, albeit with a wide-ranging set of practices within and across cultures (see Livingstone & Bovill 2001 for a comparison of media environments for children across 12 European countries).
Media-Related Practices In The Home
Research on media and families has identified several key media-related practices initiated by parents in the home: “restrictive mediation” (or rule making), “social coviewing” (or, more broadly, co-use of a medium), and “active mediation” (or the role that parents play as mediators or interpreters of media content for children through active discussion). Most of this research emerges from American studies on the medium of television, but more recently, Nikken and Jansz (2006) point to the applicability of these three forms of interaction to other media such as video games.
Restrictive mediation – parental control over children’s media use through the establishment of rules about time spent with media or permissible media content – is a common practice with children under 7 years old. While parents of children of all ages voice concerns about sexual content, violence, and adult language in television, video games, and music, the majority of parents with children aged 8 years and older do not enforce rules related to content or time spent with media (Roberts et al. 2005). Restrictive mediation is associated with parental fears about the ill-effects of media (Nathanson 2001).
Use of media by parents and children together is more typical with younger children, and when parents have positive attitudes about a given medium and are frequent users themselves. Recent trends, however, point to declining co-use of media due to the development of technologies that are more adapted to individual use and the increase in the type and numbers of media present in the home. These factors, added to the social changes that lead children to spend more time indoors and to exert more control over their lifestyles and activities, have resulted in increasing numbers of children with their own media systems in their bedrooms, a trend that is associated with increased solitary media use (Livingstone 2001). The diminishing opportunities for parents and children to share media experiences together are of concern because they suggest missed occasions for discussion and interaction, even though most research finds limited parent–child communication about media experiences (Austin 2001).
Active mediation has been shown to have several positive outcomes for children. It leads to greater learning of concepts from media, enhances or reinforces information presented, can mitigate internalization of fears and worries and the modeling of antisocial behavior, and helps children form accurate judgments about the realism or accuracy of media information (van Evra 2004). Active mediation has been associated with parental concerns about the potential impact of media whether it be perceived to be positive or negative (Nikken & Jansz 2006).
While the typical emphasis in family and media research has been on the actions initiated by parents vis-à-vis their children, other relationships among family members are also of scholarly interest, including the ways in which children’s media preferences and use affects parents’ media use, the use of media among siblings, and the role media play in the functioning of the family as a system in general.
Communication scholars have examined how more general communication styles within families affect media-use patterns, including how media are regulated and how content is discussed and interpreted. McLeod and Chaffee (1973) developed a widely used model of family communication patterns that related to media use in the family. The research revealed two communicative styles within families: socio-orientation (an emphasis on avoidance of controversy and conformity among family members) and conceptorientation (an emphasis on openness to exploring ideas and accepting controversy or differences of opinion). While the conceptualization and measurement of these communicative styles have evolved over time, research has found that more concept-oriented families tend to view television more critically and engage in discussions that both affirm and negate media messages, while socio-oriented families tend to watch more television in general, and draw attention to television messages that affirm their values (Austin 2001).
Family systems theory offers another framework to explain how media are used within the family context. This approach takes a holistic view of the family, putting the emphasis on studying the family as the primary unit of analysis rather than studying the behaviors of family members separately. Media use is seen as an extension of the norms, values, and beliefs that define the family system (Jordan 2002). Media research from a family systems perspective includes examinations of how media fit in with the structure of families (e.g., how families organize themselves temporally and spatially within the home), interaction patterns (e.g., how media use facilitates or inhibits communication), and the roles that members of the family assume in relation to one another (e.g., mother’s role as family manager extending to media). Family systems theory, while underutilized, is seen as an important direction for media and family studies because it moves away from a more linear, causal model of how families use media to a more interdependent and complex conceptualization of the family unit and the role played by media in the home (Bryant & Bryant 2006).
The study of roles – the recurrent patterns of behaviors of family members – in the home has also been undertaken within a more critical or cultural studies framework of communication research, with a focus on how media may help maintain or change power relationships. David Morley’s (1986) research on British families drew upon this approach, and his in-depth interviews with family members revealed how traditional gender roles played out in mothers’ and fathers’ use of television. Specifically, fathers exercised their privilege as breadwinners to come home and control their leisure environment, making more decisions about the content of what was watched on television and viewing with more attention. Mothers, on the other hand, tended to watch television as a more social act, accompanied by other household activities or conversation. In addition to gender, media may help reinforce or change other roles within the family (Bachen 2007). Of particular interest with newer media such as computers and the Internet are role reversals, whereby teens assume the role of the “expert” with parents taking the role of “learner.” As work-related media (computers, Internet, fax, mobile phones) erode the boundaries between work and home, the home becomes a contested site where the roles of parent, spouse, and worker are increasingly challenging to negotiate.
- Austin, E. W. (2001). Effects of family communication on children’s interpretation of television. In J. Bryant & J. A. Bryant (eds.), Television and the American family, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ; Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 377–395.
- Bachen, C. M. (2007). Just part of the family? Exploring the connections between family life and media use. In S. R. Mazzarella (ed.), Twenty questions about youth and the media. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 230 –252.
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- Jordan, A. (2002). A family systems approach to examining the role of the Internet in the home. In S. Calvert, A. Jordan, & R. Cocking (eds.), Children in the digital age: Influences on electronic media on development. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 231–247.
- Livingstone, S. (2001). Children and their changing media environment. In S. Livingstone & M. Bovill (eds.), Children and their changing media environment: A European comparative study. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 307–333.
- Livingstone, S., & Bovill, M. (eds.) (2001). Children and their changing media environment: A European comparative study. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- McLeod, J. M., & Chaffee, S. (1973). Interpersonal approaches to communication research. American Behavioral Scientist, 16, 469 – 499.
- Morley, D. (1986). Family television: Cultural power and domestic leisure. London: Comedia.
- Nathanson, A. (2001). Parent and child perspectives on the presence and meaning of parental television mediation. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 45, 201–220.
- Nikken, P., & Jansz, J. (2006). Parental mediation of children’s videogame playing: A comparison of the reports by parents and children. Learning, Media and Technology, 31, 181–202.
- Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8 –18-yearolds. Menlo Park, CA.: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. At www.kff.org/entmedia/7250.cfm, accessed July 9, 2007.
- van Evra, J. (2004). Television and child development, 3rd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.