CMF Research Blog Research Forum

Two-year-olds: the big research gap?

Post by

I've worked in the field of media education and children and media since the late 60s when I was an aspiring film teacher in London secondary schools. I worked at the British Film Institute from 1979-2007, developing media education curricula and leading the BFI's interventions in publishing, teacher training, research, events and advocacy. I am now doing doctoral research on children's early encounters with loving-image media - between the ages of 18 months and 3.5 years.

It's notoriously difficult to investigate what is going on in very young children’s engagements with moving-image media. Rag Doll Productions, the creators of Teletubbies and In the Night Garden, have accumulated an enormous video archive of toddlers and preschoolers watching their programmes. But only a minority are filmed in children’s own homes, and they cannot follow children over an extended period of time. Research that has attempted to observe children at home, such as Lemish and Rice’s 1986 study of 16 children between the ages of 6 and 29 months, tend to be based on relatively short visits to the home, and unsurprisingly, what they call “the richness of the interactions surrounding the television experience” (ie the general chaos of home life with toddlers!) makes it very hard to establish a consistent research methodology.

The alternative, of course, is lab-based observation and experimentation, and this approach at least in the Anglophone world, has dominated the thinking behind public debate and policy-making in relation to children and media. Much of this work has been heavily criticised for its methodological shortcomings and its tendency to promote irrational suspicion of moving-image media. But a more serious shortcoming seems to me to be that it is locked into a paradigmthat has dominated Anglophone academic research and public discourse on children and moving-image media for many decades. The enduring adult quandary between “protecting” children and “doing them good” situates most research in this field into various points along a continuum between the risk and benefits that these media present to children (Bazalgette 2013).

Thus moving-image media are presented as either beneficial or dangerous to children, with most of the more substantial studies situated in between: for example in their review of five decades of research on children and television, Pecora et al conclude that “they spend a great deal of time with content that has no known value to their development, but when they watch programs designed to provide education and information, they can profit considerably”(Pecora, Murray and Wartella 2007) - a fine example of what most of us have figured out anyway - except that I'd dispute that "no known value" comment.

I'm hypothesising that children start to learn, very early on,from ALL moving images, regardless of their content and quality: what they are learning is how to make sense of this amazing medium. This is why they often choose to focus intently on material that isn't intended for their age-group, and why they select certain bits of films, or certain programmes, to watch over and over again. However, the problem remains: how can we find out  what two-year-olds are thinking?


Pecora, N., J. P. Murray & E. A. Wartella. 2007. Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bazalgette, C. (2013) Challenging the Risk - Benefit Paradigm. Medienimpulse.

Leave a Reply