Noting that the social and emotional experiences of American children today often heavily involve electronic media, Barbara Wilson takes a close look at how exposure to screen media affects children's well-being and development. She concludes that media influence on children depends more on the type of content that children find attractive than on the sheer amount of time they spend in front of the screen.
Wilson begins by reviewing evidence on the link between media and children's emotions. She points out that children can learn about the nature and causes of different emotions from watching the emotional experiences of media characters and that they often experience empathy with those characters. Although research on the long-term effects of media exposure on children's emotional skill development is limited, a good deal of evidence shows that media exposure can contribute to children's fears and anxieties. Both fictional and news programming can cause lasting emotional upset, though the themes that upset children differ according to a child's age.
Wilson also explores how media exposure affects children's social development. Strong evidence shows that violent television programming contributes to children's aggressive behavior. And a growing body of work indicates that playing violent video games can have the same harmful effect. Yet if children spend time with educational programs and situation comedies targeted to youth, media exposure can have more prosocial effects by increasing children's altruism, cooperation, and even tolerance for others. Wilson also shows that children's susceptibility to media influence can vary according to their gender, their age, how realistic they perceive the media to be, and how much they identify with characters and people on the screen. She concludes with guidelines to help parents enhance the positive effects of the media while minimizing the risks associated with certain types of content.
Children today live in a world where many of their experiences are mediated by screen technologies. Small children are likely to feel some of their first fears as they watch a scary movie or television program, feel some of their earliest non-familial attachments as they view a favorite media character, and even experience the beginnings of emotional empathy as they follow the adventures of a well-liked media protagonist. Because American children spend so much time with the media, much of their social life takes place while they sit in front of a television or a computer screen or concentrate on an iPod or a cell phone. In fact, children under the age of six spend more time watching television than they do playing outdoors. (1) Historically, the United States has reached a point where most of children's social experiences no longer consist of face-to-face interactions with other people.
Children develop their emotional and social capabilities through a complex process. To participate effectively in their culture, they must acquire the norms, rules, and values that will enable them to form connections and function in families, peer groups, and the broader society. They learn about emotions and about relationships from parents, friends, teachers, and siblings. They also bring their own personalities, temperaments, and cognitive abilities to each social situation. Electronic media too play a role in children's socialization. Television programs, movies, and even the Internet provide children with a window into popular culture. Children can come to appreciate norms and standards of conduct by watching social actors in fictional stories and can even experience emotional and social situations in a vicarious way through the media.
In this article I review the research evidence regarding how electronic media influence children's emotional and social well-being. I begin by exploring the role the media can play in children's affective or emotional development. …