Explicit and Implicit Television Cognition of Left-Behind Children in China

Article excerpt

The rapid economic development in China, along with the country's policies of reform and opening up, has resulted in considerable rural-urban migration of people seeking better job opportunities. A commonly cited figure indicates that the number of rural migrants residing in cities was 149 million in 2009 (National Bureau of Statistics, 2010). Such migrants usually leave their children at home in the rural locations. The term "left-behind children" refers to children younger than 16 years who are in the care of a single parent, grandparents, or other relatives because one or both of their parents are migrant workers in urban areas (Zhang & Chen, 2007). These children, because of parental absence, suffer many psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, antisocial behavior, and demoralization (Li & Liu, 2011). Thus, left-behind children have been attracting increasing attention from sociologists, economists, psychologists, and others interested in their welfare.

Taking this under consideration, a study of the impact of media on left-behind children was proposed. The types of difficulties left-behind children experience include low-level family education, inadequate school education, and fewer sources of information (Duan & Yang, 2008). All these conditions are, to some extent, responsible for why left-behind children may consider television as a useful tool from which to get outside information or as a "spirit nanny" in that it takes care of children when adults are absent (Liu & Chen, 2009; Zhang & Chen, 2007). Moreover, left-behind children mostly live in the remote, impoverished regions of China, including Chongqing, Sichuan, Anhui, and Jiangxi provinces. The Survey and Statistics Institution of China (SSI, 2010) found that the average rate of left-behind children in rural area is 26.1%, which the maximum value is 51.3%. However, the actual living conditions in these areas are often largely different from those in television programs. On the other hand, to some degree, today's media demonstrate a superficial and unhealthy social culture, in order to increase their ratings (Yang, Wang, & Wang, 2007). Thus, whether or not left-behind children can distinguish between positive and negative information and make effective use of television media resources has become a growing concern.

Many researchers have found that left-behind children have difficulty distinguishing between television virtual and real life (Hawkins, 1977; Huston et al., 1995). Most researchers tend to discuss the reason behind this under the heading of "modality judgment" (Chandler, 1997). For example, in a semiotic approach to studying children's understanding of television in Australia, Hodge and Tripp (1986) adopted the linguistic term "modality" to refer to the reality status attributed to television programs by viewers. Where there seems to be a great distance between a program and everyday reality, television has "weak modality"; where television seems like a "window on the world" it has "strong modality". The modality judgments of young children tend to be polarized, contradictory, and unstable. Wright et al. (1995) added that children get two different kinds of social information schemata from a television virtual scene and real life experience. Those children who believe television shows are real life will tend to integrate information from television into their reality-based schema. Moreover, children have a strong tendency to imitate the behaviors of characters in a television program and to then repeat them in the real world (Schmitt & Anderson, 2002; Strouse & Troseth, 2008). In addition, it has been proven that in cases of parental absence, children become overly dependent on television, resulting in values dislocation and lack of familiarity with life in the real world (Henning & Vorderer, 2001; Liu, Liu, Zhang, & Yang, 2010). Therefore, if children cannot distinguish well between television virtual and real life, they may blindly imitate inappropriate behaviors they see on television, which may eventually have an impact on their physical and mental development. …