Many children around the world are born today into a media-rich environment. Multi-television homes, multiple channels, video recorders, video cameras, interactive video, and computers--all are part of their everyday life. Debates over the meaning and influences of this environment are common in current literature (Buckingham, 2000; Livingstone & Bovill, 2001). The present study sought to understand how the early experience of growing up in a media-rich environment affects development of young viewers' perceptions about television in general, and television visuals in particular.
The growing body of research on young children's understanding of television has revealed that by six years of age, children spend an average of two hours a day viewing a variety of television programs, including prime-time content (Comstock, 1991). They have favorite programs and tend to know when these are broadcast. They have a fairly good grasp of some audio-visual conventions (such as montage). They discriminate between children's programs and other television genres as well as between programs and commercials (Bryant & Anderson, 1983; Leibert & Sprafkin, 1988; Lemish, 1997). Yet, research anchored in cognitive-psychology perspectives suggests that young children's understanding of television content and television as a medium is different from that of adults (van Evra, 1990).
Young children's limited capacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality on television has been a central research theme and its potential implications discussed at length (Chandler, 1997; Davis-Messenger, 1997; Dorr, 1983; Fitch, Huston & Wright, 1993; Hawkins, 1977). These studies and reviews indicate that children use two principal types of criteria to make distinctions between fantasy and reality on television. Hodge and Tripp (1986) used the twin concepts of external versus internal criteria to describe them. By external criteria they refer to children's reliance on their knowledge of the real world as a function of their individual life experiences. Hawkin's (1977) well known concepts of television as a "magic window" to the world and of "social expectations" are but two examples of this type of criteria. Dorr (1983) further specified three levels of the external dimension. The first, typical of very young viewers' thinking, refers to the concreteness of the television image. "One may say that something on television is real and mean it is exactly as it is outside of television" (p. 202). This level is also referred to as "factuality" (Fitch, Huston, & Wright, 1993). According to Dorr's other two levels, children accept the fabricated nature of the television world and judge each specific content according to the criteria of possibility and probability: Are events, characters, messages, etc. as presented on television deemed possible in the real world? Or are they deemed representative of it and thus probably exist in reality?
The second group of criteria for judging television reality was defined as relating to the internal properties of the program, namely those related to the formal features of television. According to a line of research developed at the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRITC) and summarized by Fitch, Huston, and Wright (1993), formal features are part of television's syntax and serve as cues to perceiving the reality of television content and to classifying programs. These features are intrinsic to the television text and play a part in viewers' interpretations. These interpretations are the result of specific visual and auditory production techniques and include both the specific and more global dimensions of the program's attributes (Huston & Wright, 1994).
The two interacting criteria--external and internal--can also be framed epistemologically (using Fitch, Huston, and Wright's 1993 definition) as "real world knowledge" versus "television related knowledge. …