Electronic media, particularly television, have long been criticized for their potential impact on children. One area for concern is how early media exposure influences cognitive development and academic achievement. Heather Kirkorian, Ellen Wartella, and Daniel Anderson summarize the relevant research and provide suggestions for maximizing the positive effects of media and minimizing the negative effects.
One focus of the authors is the seemingly unique effect of television on children under age two. Although research clearly demonstrates that well-designed, age-appropriate, educational television can be beneficial to children of preschool age, studies on infants and toddlers suggest that these young children may better understand and learn from real-life experiences than they do from video. Moreover, some research suggests that exposure to television during the first few years of life may be associated with poorer cognitive development.
With respect to children over two, the authors emphasize the importance of content in mediating the effect of television on cognitive skills and academic achievement. Early exposure to age-appropriate programs designed around an educational curriculum is associated with cognitive and academic enhancement, whereas exposure to pure entertainment, and violent content in particular, is associated with poorer cognitive development and lower academic achievement.
The authors point out that producers and parents can take steps to maximize the positive effects of media and minimize the negative effects. They note that research on children's television viewing can inform guidelines for producers of children's media to enhance learning. Parents can select well-designed, age-appropriate programs and view the programs with their children to maximize the positive effects of educational media.
The authors' aim is to inform policymakers, educators, parents, and others who work with young children about the impact of media, particularly television, on preschool children, and what society can do to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.
Since television first appeared in the nation's living rooms in the middle of the twentieth century, observers have voiced recurrent concern over its impact on viewers, particularly children. In recent years, this concern has extended to other electronic screen media, including computers and video game consoles. Although researchers still have much to learn, they have provided information on the links between electronic media, especially television, and children's learning and cognitive skills. The message is clear: most (if not all) media effects must be considered in light of media content. With respect to development, what children watch is at least as important as, and probably more important than, how much they watch.
In this article we review media research with an emphasis on cognitive skills and academic achievement in young children. We begin by arguing that by age three, children are active media users. We then discuss important aspects of child development that highlight the debate over whether children younger than two should be exposed to electronic media, emphasizing the apparent video deficit of infants and toddlers in which they learn better from real-life experiences than they do from video. Next we look at research on media effects in three areas: associations between media use and cognitive skills, particularly attention; experimental evidence for direct learning from educational media; and associations between early media use and subsequent academic achievement. We close with some suggestions for both media producers and parents for enhancing and extending the potentially beneficial effects of electronic media use in children, particularly those who are of preschool age.
Children as Active Media Users
Until the 1980s, social science researchers had only an implicit theory of how viewers watched television. …