V. Children

By Biernatzki, W. E. | Communication Research Trends, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

V. Children


Biernatzki, W. E., Communication Research Trends


The Greatest Concern

Perhaps the most nagging concern about the effects of the mass media has been for their impact on children. Communication Research Trends has devoted five issues entirely to children and youth (CRT 1983; White 1984; Kumar 1986; Cordelian 1990; Pecora 1999), and most other issues of the journal have included material relevant to children in one way or another.

Mass media targeted to children already had a long and controversial history before the dawn of the electronic age--Grimms' fairy tales and the dime novels of the late nineteenth century, to name just two examples. But the electronic media have added a revolutionary dimension. White (1984: 1) cited French authors Marie-Jose Chombart de Lauwe and Claude Bellan (1979) as emphasizing that the years from seven to fourteen are of critical importance in the formation of personal identities and adult role models, because it is the period when children are leaving infant dependency and beginning to learn to deal with the larger social reality.

But, in modern urban societies, in contrast to tribal or agrarian societies, children have little opportunity to experience the "real" adult world. Both parents often are employed outside the home, and schools often do little to form personal ideals and life goals. Children shape their identities largely through interaction with their peers, in leisure-time activities, and increasingly by their exposure to the electronic media, especially cinema, television, and now the Internet. Media producers and advertisers recognize this and the importance to themselves of shaping these future generations into consumers who will buy the products they advertise.

Attractive programming for children centers on action heroes and invites a vicarious participation in the action and identification with the protagonists, according to the French authors. Children do not "copy" what they see on the screen. Instead, they use what they see and what they remember from other contexts to construct their own versions of heros and give them personal meanings. The mass media often have a dominant role in this process because of the relative paucity of images and ideas available to children from non-media sources. The French researchers traced the evolution of children's media in France throughout French history, then did a content analysis to show the changing characteristics of heros from 1880 to the 1970s. Finally, they gathered data on how children today perceive their popular heroes and analyzed the factors influencing their interpretations (White 1984: 1, citing Chombart de Lauwe and Bellan 1979).

The French study found that the heros presented by the media often were portrayed as children with the characteristics of "super adults," without any corresponding guidelines to how to act in real society. It also found that, while female "heros" were shown as equal to males, no longer conformist or submissive, their dominant image was only that of "sweetened" male roles, robbed of any feminine identity. In general the media heros presented unrealistic role models, and left children, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, with ambiguous feelings about their identifications (White 1984: 2, citing Chombart de Lauwe and Bellan 1979).

Fears

Three fears about media effects on children stand out above others in terms of the attention they receive from researchers and the general public. First is the media's role in encouraging violent behavior. Second, but considerably down the list as an attention-getter, is sex. Outright pornography is more available to children on the Internet than on television, but more insightful parents see a greater danger than overt pornography in the general culture of sexual promiscuity--usually subtle and carried mainly by dialogue--that pervades broadcast and cable television, as well as motion pictures. Even further down the list, and alluded to by only a small proportion of the public, is the culture of consumerism which also dominates the media and seems to strive to turn impressionable children into consumption-obsessed adults. …

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