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Preschool child development and TV: revisiting CMC 2015

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Fiona Scott is a mixed methods researcher with an interest in early childhood education, media and psychology. She is currently working on an ESRC White Rose PhD at The University of Sheffield, focusing on young children’s engagement with television and related media in the digital age. The project is an industry collaboration with CBeebies and will examine the relationship between television and the lives and experiences of very young children. She has previously worked in both academic and commercial research roles, covering diverse topics such as investigating public attitudes to energy issues, engaging arts and cultural audiences and evaluating learning programmes.

As a researcher living and working in Sheffield, I’m incredibly lucky that the industry-led Children’s Media Conference takes place every year right here in my home city. Working in academia provides no end of opportunities to engage in incredible conferences world-wide, but the chance to break out of the academic 'bubble' and spend a few days in the company of colleagues from across the children's media industry is invaluable. This year's conference has a particular emphasis on diversity and inclusion, which feels like a perfect 'fit' with my own research. My 2016 session aims to provoke new discussion about the need to consider social class as an integral part of the process of ‘making it happen’ in the TV industry.

Preparing for my 2016 session has given me cause to reflect and revisit my session from last year, when I presented my research on the transitionary preschool audience alongside presentations from Ofcom and The Pineapple Lounge.

In 2015, the CMC set out to tackle the theme of "change". When we think about change in the industry, I think there's a tendency to focus on year-on-year change and getting ahead of the 'next big thing'. My presentation aimed to focus in on another important transition that will always be fundamental to understanding children’s media engagement; the transition taking place within the individuals who make up our ‘smallest’ child audience (preschoolers). 0-6 is an incredibly diverse bracket and one within which very young children are making new discoveries and steps forward on an almost daily basis. This change is something that I think is important to pay attention to. At the same time, the historic study of child development, as embodied in the discipline of developmental psychology, is something that can be seen as problematic in the context of television and related media.

Developmental psychology has traditionally been studied in a very specific way - researchers will recruit children to come into the lab and study their behaviour. We've learnt a lot from this and certainly this body of research has informed my own research. At the same time, I don't think it's the most useful way to study the lives and experiences of very young children in relation to television and related media. Children don't watch television in a lab - they watch TV (and engage with a range of other media) in their own homes, as part of families and extended peer networks. My 2015 presentation set out to critique normative developmental psychological approaches to the topic of preschool children and television and to bust three pervasive (and unhelpful) myths that I believe are its legacy.

Myth 1: Watching TV is a sedentary activity

My research findings reflect traditional cognitive developmental theory in so much that, as children develop, they generally move from glancing to fully watching television as their cognitive development allows them to pay attention to the screen for longer. The topic has been endlessly revisited in psychological 'attention studies'. And yet, these conventional studies are missing something of the reality of children watching television. My quantitative survey actually found that parents reported younger preschoolers spending more time watching the main TV set than their older counterparts. To understand what's going on, I think we need to bust a myth about children and television - that watching TV is a sedentary activity. Last year, I went to an academic debate on children and technology and sat through a presentation from a health psychologist talking about interventions for sedentary behaviours in children. The speaker repeatedly (unquestioningly) stated that watching TV is a sedentary behaviour. This notion of sedentary watching frequently induces panics in the media about television and its relation to poor school performance and obesity. Both my survey and my in-depth qualitative research strongly dispute this notion, but it's nevertheless a pervasive myth and one that clouds our understanding of what preschool watching television looks like in a very basic way. When I asked parents 'what does your child do when they watch TV?', a whopping 82% said that their children talked to them about the programme. 76% said that their child danced and 75% said that they would sing. The prevalence of these cognitively and physically stimulating activities firmly contests the notion that real preschool engagement with TV at home is sedentary - especially at the younger end (younger preschoolers in my study were much more likely to talk to characters on screen and sing). In terms of implications for the industry, certainly my research reaffirms the need for broadcasters to understand individuals within the 0-6 bracket as unique and evolving. Older preschoolers are paying more attention and have more need for strong, engaging narratives. Younger preschoolers are drawing on their brief windows of engagement creatively, responding with dance, song and conversation.

Myth 2: Watching TV is a solitary activity

Developmental psychologists pay very little attention to the social contexts of children's viewing - largely because there is another pervasive myth that watching TV is solitary. My own survey found that parents spend a significant time watching television with preschoolers - in particular the parents of younger preschoolers. 77% of parents with 2½ to 3 year olds watched an hour or more with their children every day. This decreases as preschoolers get older. Older preschoolers were, conversely, much more likely to watch television with another child. The social nature of preschool children's engagement with television has particularly important implications, because any exposure to people and language presents a potential emergent literacy learning opportunity (c.f. Blanchard & Moore, 2010). Traditional literacy studies (i.e. book reading) are really interested in the role interaction with parents plays in aiding literacy learning, but we tend to ignore the valuable and educative interactions that happen in relation to television and related media.

Myth 3: TV is damaging because young children can't distinguish between fact and fantasy

Many academics worry about the potential negative effects of television based on early studies about children's ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Traditional Piagetian theory holds that children aged between 2 and 7 are in the 'preoperational stage' can't distinguish between reality and fantasy. Children, then, are perceived to simply 'receive' the messages of television in a very literal way (e.g. watching violent cartoons might make them more violent). This is seen as particularly problematic in terms of advertising (preschoolers are more vulnerable to marketing) and also in terms of content. Socio-cultural theorists have more recently shown that children can actively construct their own interpretations of the messages they see on TV. Again, contesting the received narrative of developmental psychology, my own study contains numerous examples of preschoolers much younger than 7 processing the messages on TV in complex, intelligent and creative ways. Preschoolers in my study have shown awareness of the intent of tv advertisers. There are also interesting trends emerging in relation to what preschoolers find 'scary'. Some of the youngest preschoolers in my study take great pleasure in gory and frightening narratives, displaying very obvious understanding that the stories on TV do not represent 'real' jeopardy. Conversely, some of the older preschoolers were beginning to show very really complicated emotional responses to the seemingly tame storylines of such programmes as 'Topsy & Tim' - demonstrating their awareness of the reality of such narratives and their closeness to their own lives. Clearly, the issue of fact and fantasy is complicated - but perhaps the industry could afford to take more risks?

You can watch the full presentation, alongside others, on the CMC website or Vimeo or read more about it in the CMC blog.

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