CHILDREN: Media's Message Can Fool Kids


This article originally appeared in Issue# 35

The effects of media on young children are not simply watered-down versions of the effects on older children and adults. How young children think adds dimensions to the media picture that are not at issue at other age levels.

Young children have immature concepts of identity and reality and are easily fooled by actors, puppets, and animation. They may believe that all or nothing in the media is real. Because of their beginning logic capabilities young children may not be able to follow a story line or find the message in a program; instead they may concentrate on isolated and unrelated events, creating their own unique impressions.

And, since mass media communication is one-way; there is no opportunity for them to check meanings and confirm assumptions.

As a result, young children can easily be taken in. They rarely see the whole picture," so it is difficult to use media to teach them broad lessons. But it is also unlikely that preschoolers will lean undesired values through media exposure alone.

Just as the impact of media on children depends on their ages, so it also depends on the media being considered. Most analyses, research, and generalizations deal almost exclusively with TV, ignoring their perceptions of radio, movies, records, tapes and billboards. Almost nothing is known about the impact of these media on children.

Even thirty years of inquiry into television has left more questions than answers. Much of the credit for the confusion goes to the treatment of television as a unitary medium. Television offers children exposure to many types of programming — educational TV, entertainment programs, commercials, news, and sports. What are the unique effects of each type of program? Parents do not need to wait for researchers to find the answers before they get involved.

Although the mass media are powerful influences on young children, parents have even greater power. Adults can help to choose programs that are appropriate for them, communicate the importance of selective rather than random viewing or listening, and comment on the content and values of the programs they see and hear.

This week, watch at least one program from start to finish with your child. Ask questions and observe. Make comments. Use the program guide instead of the channel selector to choose what you watch or listen to. Then turn the TV and radio off and just be together.

What a great reward for being responsible media consumers!

Author Bio: 

Judith Myers-Walls, PhD is associate professor of child development at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.