Parental Mediation of Preschool Children's Television Viewing

Article excerpt

In the long history of research on children's television viewing, scholars have frequently focused on preschool children. The growth of studies in children's cognitive development has refocused attention on young children's interaction with the medium. This was inspired, in part, by the growing recognition that preschool children represent a distinct television audience. Since the 1960s, programmers have recognized that young children are a viable target market. This has spawned an ever-expanding block of preschool programming on broadcast and cable networks (e.g., PBS's PBS Kids and Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. programming) funded in some cases by government agencies, such as the National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education's "Ready to Learn" program (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Some of the most popular U.S. programs (e.g., Blues Clues, Barney, Teletubbies) target preschool children. Viewing research indicates that 1-year-olds watch one to two hours of television per day (Comstock & Scharrer, 2001), and a sizable portion of 2- to 4-year-olds watch for 2 to 4 hours per day (Nielsen Media Research, 1998).

One of the biggest concerns of mediation research is to encourage parental guidance of children's viewing, whether that is comprised of children's programs or prime-time fare. Young children, in particular, bring a unique and quickly evolving set of cognitive skills to the medium (e.g., Thomas, 1992). Their inexperience with television necessitates a primer from the medium's most basic elements to its presentation of complex narratives. Because young children's cognitive and linguistic skills are still in their nascent stages, parental guidance is important for learning television codes. However, few studies have focused solely on mediation with this audience. This study uses recent research (Austin, Boils, Fujioka, & Engelbertson, 1999; Valkenburg, Krcmar, Peeters, & Marseille, 1999; Warren, 2001) as a foundation for examining television mediation with young children.

Parental Mediation

For decades, the supervision and guidance of parents have been considered key to overcoming television's potential negative effects. Recent research on parenting with television (Austin et al., 1999; Valkenburg et al., 1999) has confirmed three distinct types of mediation: restrictive mediation, coviewing, and instructive mediation. Restrictive mediation includes parents' rules regarding the amount and/or time of viewing, permissible or forbidden types of content, and the use of viewing as a behavioral reward or punishment (Bower, 1973; Fry & McCain, 1980; Mohr, 1979). Early studies of parents' television rules indicated infrequent mediation at best. Despite parental reports that more than half tried to limit viewing and that a full three-quarters felt able to do so (Corder-Bolz & Fellows, 1979), some studies showed that fewer than half made viewing rules (Atkin, Greenberg, & Baldwin, 1991 ; Brown, Bauman, Lentz, & Koch, 1987; Greenberg & Heeter, 1987). Other studies (e.g., Holz, 1998; Krendl, Clark, Dawson, & Troiano, 1993) found that a majority of parents report enforcing television rules in their homes, though far fewer of their children report the existence of such rules.

Parent-child coviewing is defined as shared viewing with no purposeful discussion of content (Dorr, Kovaric, & Doubleday, 1989). There is some discrepancy about this definition, however. Some studies (e.g., Bybee, Robinson, & Turow, 1982; van der Voort, Nikken, & van Lil, 1992) defined coviewing as a coincidental activity. Children's viewing was determined by parents' program selection. Valkenburg et al. (1999), though, defined coviewing as a set of motivations for viewing (e.g., out of a common interest in the program, viewing just for fun). Estimates of parent-child coviewing varied from half (Field, 1987; McDonald, 1986) to about two-thirds of children's total viewing time (Carpenter, Huston, & Spera, 1989). …