The Status of Research on Children and Television

By Pecora, Norma | Communication Research Trends, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Status of Research on Children and Television


Pecora, Norma, Communication Research Trends


Anyone who has been trying to understand the relationship of children and youth to the media will tell you this is an exciting time to be involved. Collaboration and the exchange of information come more readily to those of us fortunate enough to have access to email and Internet services, while international conferences allow us, as policy-makers, producers, teachers, parents, and scholars, to come together to share ideas and gain perspective in ways that had been more difficult in the past. (1)

This essay is an attempt to look at some of the issues currently under discussion, such as the ways violence on television affects children and ways television's influence on children might be changed for the better, but it is in no way a comprehensive review of the research or work in the field of children and television. For example, a review of the research on children and media in the United States in process by the author has generated more than 400 citations in U.S. publications alone since 1990. However, this will be an attempt to introduce the reader to some of the most current work in the field. (2)--In conversations with scholars, participation in conferences, and a scouring of journals and publications it became evident that little has changed in the questions under debate. As we will see, what is changing is the way in which we approach these questions. Traditional effects research is beginning to give way to a cultural studies approach that considers the complex nature of peoples', including children's, relationship to the media.

The "Dangers" of Media

Historically, concerns about children's media use have come from the notion that media [beginning with penny dreadfuls and dime novels and extending to computers and video games] have had a harmful "effect" on children and that it is our responsibility as adults to protect them from the dangers of these media. This has led to a concern with social issues such as violence, role modeling, and other questions about the media's role in behavior.

Based on this review of the research on children and television, these are still very much the issues du jour. However, as Gauntlett argues, it is time we moved beyond concerns of simple effects to an understanding of media influences. This review supports his claim that "the largest proportion of 'effects' studies have been into aggression--specifically, the hypothesis that the viewing of acts of aggression or violence on the television screen causes people (or young people) to act in similar ways" (1996: 2). He goes on to say that it is of far more concern than "political attitudes, language use, awareness of current affairs" and I would add role-modeling and diversity. Others support this (see Jenkins 1997, for example) as does the review of research presented here. There is still work being done on gender issues such as body-image and career choice, and language acquisition or cognitive processing, but overwhelmingly the chief concern appears to be with television violence.

Media Literacy/Media Education

The second area that appears to dominate the field as we attempt to find ways to control the influence of media messages is media literacy/media education. Here the debate is about the merits of different ways to understand and explicate information. Simply put, the first, media literacy, is defined as the "the ability of a citizen to access, analyze, and produce information for specific outcomes" (Aufderheide, 1993: 2). Built on a protectionist model of media understanding--designed to "protect" children from the evils of the media--the pedagogical goals are to give students the skills to analyze messages.

Media education on the other hand recognizes that social change is fundamental to the understanding of media representations. Most often built on the philosophy of Paulo Freire that takes a "questioning stance," media education is "an analysis of both the form and content of mediated communication . …

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