Comprehension of Television Messages
The literature surveyed so far regarding children’s attention to television has relied on observation of visual attention by the child viewers. Measures of visual attention alone do not provide an indication of what aspects of the message children are extracting from the television screen. In order to acquire indications of this, researchers have relied on post-viewing measures of children’s recognition and recall of information from the program. This research will be considered in this section on children’s understanding of television messages. Here the concern is not with what children are looking at and listening to, but what they remember from the TV and what meaning the TV content has for them. Much of the research which has adopted a cognitive developmental perspective on studies of children and television has examined children’s comprehension of television messages. The underlying assumption of these studies is that children bring different cognitive abilities and social experiences to the TV-viewing situation and that these influence how children made sense of the messages. Younger children with more limited inference-making ability are more likely to focus on the consequences of actions rather than the motivations of the actors, and often are shown to construe the television plot line quite differently from children and adults. The way in which children construe meaning from television cannot be directly inferred from cognitive development theory. Cognitive development theory may aid us in describing how children make sense of television, but we should examine children’s understanding of television directly. How, then, has cognitive development theory been used to study children’s comprehension of television? First, several authors have relied on Piagetian theory to provide evidence of some general cognitive ability, such as the ability to focus on motivations when judging the goodness or badness of an action. These authors attempt to demonstrate through experimental or survey procedures that children of a particular age or stage level accordingly do or do not use television characters’ motivations when assessing their behaviors. This is a clear-cut example of directly borrowing developmental theoretical notions and demonstrating their applicability when children are processing television information. In other situations, however, cognitive development theory in general may be less useful in directly describing or predicting age-related changes in children’s construction of meaning from television. For instance, we are only beginning to examine children’s understanding of various kinds of filmic techniques, such as zooms, camera movements, and montage (see Salomon, 1979). One researcher in this area, Solomon (1979), argues that these and other sorts of filmic techniques– indeed, the whole symbol system used on television for representing reality–may actually play a role in accelerating or otherwise affecting cognitive developmental changes among child viewers. That is, Solomon argues for a reverse causality, that just as child viewers’ level of cognitive development may lead them to interpret television in a certain manner, television viewing may lead to changes in their level of cognitive abilities. This is a relatively new hypothesis in the literature and has seldom been tested. Television content may pose particular difficulties for children to understand on a number of levels of “understanding.” First, children must interpret the social behavior portrayed on television. The typical dramatic program of people engaging in various kinds of interpersonal relationships in usual and unusual circumstances is presented in an abbreviated form on television. Viewers must make inferences regarding motivations of characters and the relationships between characters. Sometimes the cues utilized to enable these inferences are exceedingly complex; sometimes character motives are not explicitly portrayed but must be inferred between scenes. The complexities of interpreting social behavior–even social behavior in day-to-day situations–is heightened on television because of the use of various production techniques. For example, a dissolve from the face of one boyfriend to the other used to illustrate the heroine’s ambiguous love relationships could be crucial to the plot. Young children who may not understand such production forms may have more difficulty interpreting the program plotline. Furthermore, use of various production techniques, such as flashbacks, requires that viewers leap back and forth in time and coordinate symbols which may tax and confuse the young child. On another level, children must develop an understanding of television’s reality–Who are those people on television? When is television real and when is it fantasy? The events portrayed on television can represent a “magic window” reality (Hawkins, 1977) showing children places and people beyond their everyday experiences. The characters, however, are “acting,” and the programs themselves are drama, not real life. Such understanding about the reality of the events portrayed on television and about the characters on the programs may develop only gradually. Finally, television has a programming structure which should be understood by the viewers. Programs are distinct from advertisements and other sorts of announcements. Children must come to understand, at the most simplistic level, that advertising content is different from other types of programming and, further, that the motivations of advertisers should be considered when interpreting the advertising message. In the remainder of this section consideration will be given to each of these issues. First, age-related differences in children’s abilities to accurately recognize dramatic plotlines will be discussed. Second, children’s perceptions of television characters and developmental changes in such perceptions are reviewed. A brief discussion of the role of various audio-visual filmic techniques in aiding or confusing children’s understanding of television messages is then offered. Finally, a brief discussion of various types of understandings children acquire about the medium of television, such as understanding of the economic structure of television, completes this section. Children’s comprehension of television narratives. The traditional dramatic plotline which is used in most narratives, either in print or on television, has a predictable pattern: There is an initiating event where the scene is set, (boy meets girl); events proceed to a crisis (parents intervene to stop the budding love); followed by a resolution of the crisis (boy and girl win over parents to the romance); and the denouement (boy and girl show parents they can live happily ever after). While many television programs involve subplots or other incidental characteristics, adult viewers of a television program can easily bring a new viewer up to date half-way through a program by reiterating the major points of the plotline. Part of the reason we, as adults, are capable of doing this is because we easily recognize plotline structures, and on the basis of both previous experience with television and experience with social relationships we can often predict fairly accurately the progression and outcome of a plot. Thus, as adults, we are capable of recognizing major events central to the plot as they unfold. There is evidence from research on children’s memory for central plotline information that children only gradually develop this kind of understanding of television plotlines. The evidence indicates that (1) young children have difficulty distinguishing essential from nonessential information from a dramatic story, and (2), young children may not be attempting to organize and draw inferences about the behavior or story unfolding on the screen. Children’s abilities to accurately select essential plot information from a dramatic program has been shown to increase with increasing age. Across several studies, Collins (1970, 1973, 1979) and his colleagues have utilized a procedure to examine children’s memory for central plot information. This procedure involves showing groups of adults a dramatic or situation comedy program and then interviewing them about the program– specifically, about which scenes they considered essential to understanding the plotline. A series of multiple choice recognition items are then constructed about the program. Some of the items measure information central to understanding the plot, while others are incidental to the plot. Groups of children of various ages are then shown the television program and after viewing are given the multiple-choice tests. Across several studies, two findings emerge: first, that, overall, children’s memory for the scenes in the program increases substantially with age; and, second, that children’s memory for the “essential” information for understanding the plot also increases with age. For instance, in one study where second, fifth, and eight graders were tested on their recognition of essential plot information from a detective program, second graders recognized an average of only 66 percent of the essential scenes; fifth graders 84 percent; and eighth graders 92 percent (or nearly all). Similar age differences were found for children’s memory for central information from a situation comedy program (Collins, 1970). Other researchers have noted similar differences in children’s memory for central plotline information for television programs (Hale et al., 1968; Hawkins, 1973; Katzman, 1972). Moreover, young children have been found to have difficulty even placing scenes of a plotline into the correct order. Leifer et al. (1971) showed children aged four, seven, and ten a short narrative film. After watching the film, children were shown groups of three, five, seven, or nine photographs and asked to reconstruct the scenes in the correct order. Only four of the 20 four-year-olds tested could correctly order the three photographs, and none were able to order the groups of seven or nine photographs. By contrast, most of the 10-year-old children were consistently able to reproduce even the nine-photo sequence into the correct narrative order. What are possible reasons for the younger children’s rudimentary understanding of narrative information? First, evidence from several studies suggests the younger children may not be focusing their attention on the “essential” information. For instance, in the research by Collins, memory for nonessential information in the programs (such as character’s hair color, dress, room furnishings) also tends to increase until junior high school and then decrease. Similar findings were obtained in studies of incidental learning in a variety of specific tasks (Hagen and Hale, 1973). In general, these studies suggest that as children grow older, their ability to know what is important in the plot and they acquire greater control in allocating their attention and focusing on what is important. This increased attention control has been found in other types of information-processing tasks. According to Comstock et al. (1978), child viewers have to “learn to learn” what is and what is not important information in a plotline. In addition to this “learning to learn” hypothesis, it is also likely that as children’s general memory capacities increase with age, so too does their ability to remember parts of the program. Collins (1979), however, makes the argument that in addition to memory deficiency, other factors may account for the differences in the younger children’s understanding of narrative plot. In a rather ingenious study Collins (1979) examined children’s attempts to organize and integrate plotline information as the program proceeds. In this study, Collins showed second-, fifth-, and eighth-grade children a detective show in which the scenes of the plot were randomly ordered or jumbled, or a version in which the scenes were in their original order. When asked questions that required causal inferences about relationships between the scenes of plot, the second graders, even when they had the central information from each discrete scene to do so, correctly answered far fewer of the inference questions than did the older children. Collins argues that the young children not only recall less information from the television shows, but also do not appear to be organizing the information in a meaningful fashion as they watch the program. The fifth and eighth graders, in contrast, appears to be trying to make sense of the programs. While they answered more inference questions than did the younger children, these older children were confused by the jumbled versions of the show and answered far fewer inference questions about the jumbled version than the ordered version–that is, they showed annoyance and poorer comprehension about the less comprehensible program. In summary, younger children’s lesser ability to recognize essential plotline information, to select it, and organize the scenes in a causal fashion has been shown in various manners by several research studies (Collins, 1979; Flapan, 1968). It seems likely that children even as old as seven and eight construe different meanings from a television show than do older children and adults. The difference in meaning will arise from the different cues the younger and older children recollect from the program and piece together to derive plot understanding. Similarly, these younger children appear to view television characters in a different manner. Children’s understanding of television characters. Just as there is evidence that children only gradually acquire adultlike comprehension of narrative forms, research on children’s understanding of other people indicates similar age-related trends. As was noted in the first section, general cognitive development research has shown decided age changes in children’s understanding about other people–in particular, there is movement from egocentric to nonegocentric views of others occurring about by middle childhood and the development of the concrete operational stage of development. Just as children are developing an understanding of others’ points of view, their impressions of other people change in terms of the kinds of characteristics focused on to describe others. Several studies of children’s descriptions of their friends and others have noted age-related changes in the content of these free descriptions (Dornbush et al., 1965; Peevers and Secord, 1973; Scariett et al., 1971; Livesly and Bromley, 1973). The general dimensions of change appear to be that as children grow older they describe others less often in terms of external characteristics, such as overt physical descriptions and appearances, and more in terms of “internal” characteristics, such as personality traits and motivations. Wartella and Alexander (1977) report similar findings for second-, fifth-, and eighth-grade children’s descriptions of television characters. They asked children to describe a television father, mother, and child. While the preponderance of descriptions at each age level focused on the actions the characters performed, eighth graders used more personality trait and motivational state descriptors than did fifth or second graders. Second graders, on the other hand, were more likely to describe the characters in terms of physical characteristics, appearances, and possessions. Moreover, the fifth- and eighth-grade children were more likely to attribute causes to the character behaviors they discussed by making references to the character’s motivations for the behaviors. Similar findings are reported by Alexander and Wartella (1979) in a replication of this study. Reeves and Greenberg (1977) and Reeves (1979) report that when children are asked to compare a variety of television characters, third-, fifth-, and seventh grade children use similar traits in the comparison. In both studies the researchers used a multidimensional scaling system (2) to determine the underlying dimensions children use to differentiate or compare one character with another. They report no age differences in their study. They determined that children at each age level–third, fifth, and seventh grade–utilized four main attributes in differentiating characters: humor, physical strength, attractiveness, and activity. Reeves (1979) attempts to resolve the lack of age differences in these multidimensional scaling studies with age differences found in studies of children’s free descriptions of television characters and real people. He argues that differences between the studies may reside in the two methods used or the tasks employed (a comparative versus descriptive task); that is, the differences may be methodological. The two methods may require that children focus on different aspects of people in complying with the researcher’s requests. However, if the study differences are not just methodological, Reeves offers an alternative theoretical explanation: Children may learn fairly early (by third grade) that television characters are relatively simple people and only simplified discriminations among them need be made. Thus, while Reeves and his colleagues find no age differences in the underlying dimensions children use to compare television characters, other descriptive studies (as noted above) have found age differences in how children describe TV characters. The difference in findings from these research approaches has not been resolved. There is support from other research for the finding that children only gradually come to develop an understanding of the motivations and consequences of characters’ actions. In a series of studies, Leifer and Roberts (1972) examined kindergarten, third-, sixth-, ninth-, and twelfth-grade children’s understanding of the motivations and consequences of aggressive actions. They report that although kindergartners understood (as measured through a multiple-choice recognition test) only about one-third of the motives asked about, third graders understood about half of the motive cues and the high school seniors understood nearly all of the characters’ motivations. Collins et al. (1974) further examined children’s comprehension of the motive-behavior-consequence linkage. They argue that, in keeping with Piaget’s research on the development of moral judgments in children, the bases of the child’s judgments of television acts shift at about age nine or ten from evaluations based on the consequences of the act to more intention-based evaluations of acts. In a nonexperimental procedure they examined whether this might be the case in children’s evaluations of television actions. Collins et al. (1974) showed kindergarten, second-, fifth-, and eighth-grade children a specially edited version of an aggressive television program. When the children were asked to recall the aggressive action, kindergartners mentioned only the action, while second graders mentioned both the action and consequences. Fifth graders mentioned either the motive-behavior linkage or the behavior-consequence linkage, and the majority of eighth graders provided the entire motive-behavior -consequence linkage in their recall of the program. In short, the older children knew that person A killed person B for a certain reason and with a certain consequence; these older children were able to articulate the causal relationships among the action events. There is some evidence that part of the difficulty young children have in understanding motivations for character behaviors resides in the relatively ambiguous and complex presentation of motivation cues on television. Furthermore, motive cues are often separated in time from the behaviors they elicit. There is evidence that when motives for actions are very explicitly stated and occur contiguous to the actions they elicit, even children as young as seven or eight can recognize them (Berndt and Berndt, 1975). The manner in which these social cues are portrayed, then, may be important for children’s understanding of characters and their actions. In summary, research on children’s understanding of television characters suggests that during the elementary school years children have difficulty understanding characters’ motivations for actions. Kindergartners seem to be the most deficient at this; high school children the most adept. By fifth grade there is evidence, however, that children begin to describe motivations for why characters behave as they do (Wartella and Alexander, 1977); recognize motive cues in multiple-choice tests about a given television program (Leifer and Roberts, 1972); and offer explanations of motives when describing television plotlines (Collins et al., 1974). However, there may not be developmental differences in the underlying dimensions or traits children use to compare one television character with another, according to Reeves’ (1979) research. Unfortunately, we have relatively little knowledge regarding the effects of various kinds of television production techniques or the audio-visual symbol system on children’s comprehension of television messages. While systematic research in this area is only beginning, there are some preliminary indications of age-related growth in children’s understanding of filmic techniques. This research will be considered next. Children’s understanding of audio-visual techniques. Various sorts of production techniques, such as cuts, zooms, pans, and montage, are routinely used in television programs. Research on children’s understanding of these “formal features,” the symbol system of television, is sparse. There is some indication that children’s confusion regarding interpretations of television messages may be the result of their misunderstanding of these formal features of television. For instance, Dorr (forthcoming) reports that the five- to seven-year-old children she talked with could not understand how Steve Austin, the “Six Million Dollar Man,” could catch the bad guys when he ran so slowly. These children obviously were not interpreting the use of slow motion as an indicator of bionic strength. Some indication of children’s relative lack of understanding of television production features comes from research by Tada (1969), who examined Japanese children’s comprehension of film images. He found strong age-related differences in children s understanding of various production techniques and their relationship to theme development. For example, in one study he presented elementary school children with an industrial film about the development of factories along Japan’s coastal fishing villages. The film opened with scenes of quiet fishing villages and then cut to groups of factories being built along these shores. Fewer than half of the third-grade children who saw this film were able to predict the effect of the factories on these fishing villages as intended by the producer. Further, these children had difficulty understanding any connection between these two scenes. Tada found that elementary school children had difficulty understanding and predicting the direction of theme development in the film, and that much of the difficulty stemmed from misunderstanding production techniques. His interpretation is that the young children had not yet learned to “read” film images and understand the symbolic meanings of different film techniques such as scenic shifts, rhythm montage, and image symbolism. Research by Huston-Stein (1977) in the United States and Salomon (1979) in Israel tend to support this interpretation. They find that variations in the use of formal features such as zooms, fades, and pacing affect comprehension of the program. Huston-Stein (1977), for instance, is currently examining the effects of various auditory features which have been found to affect attention on comprehension of the program. Also, Singer and Singer (1979), in reporting current research, argue that some of the production techniques used to capture children’s attention such as fast pace may actually hinder young children’s learning from television and in the classroom. The precise nature of children’s understanding of various kinds of production techniques has not been detailed. There is some evidence that at least major change points in the structure of television programs are processed by children as early as third grade, even where fancy camera techniques may not be understood. Wartella (1978), for example, reports an examination of the size of units children use to “chunk” a television narrative into different happenings in the program. She found that third graders used smaller units to divide the stream of behavior in the narrative portrayal than did ninth graders or adults. However, major break points in the action, or changes in the direction of the behavior stream, noted by ninth graders and adults were also noted by the third graders. These third graders appeared to have learned at least the basic changes in audio-visuals, such as the use of cuts, to indicate changes in direction of theme development. Salomon (1979) examined how the symbol system of television may act to “supplant” the child’s level of cognitive skills to “cultivate” the development of mental skills. In his research, Salomon has examined the impact of various kinds of camera techniques on comprehension and their relationship to the development of mental skills. For instance, he examined the role of the zoom as a camera movement which relates parts of objects to the whole object and has compared this to the child’s ability to relate parts to wholes. His research question is: Can use of zooms aid children’s development of an understanding of how parts are related to wholes? He argues that visually the zoom can supplant children’s ability to make the connection between parts and wholes on their own. Furthermore, he then asks: Might not television’s symbol system aid in the development of other mental skills in children? He suggests that heavy users of television who are working at making sense of the television visuals may acquire various kinds of mental skills more quickly. He reports, for instance, that with the introduction of “Sesame Street” in Israel, second- and third-grade children who viewed the program acquired mastery of various kinds of mental skills, such as relating parts to wholes, as a result of exposure to the symbol system of the program. Salomon (1979) further reports the results of a cross-cultural study of Israeli and American children’s mastery of various kinds of mental skills. In this study fourth- and sixth-grade children were studied. First, he found that Israeli children remembered more of the content of television programs they reported to watch the previous day; that is, Israeli children were more likely to engage in what Salomon calls “literate viewing” than were their American counterparts. Not only did the Israeli children appear to be watching television more “seriously” according to Salomon, but they showed greater mastery of mental skills than did their American counterparts; and in particular the Israeli “literate” viewers showed greater mastery of precisely those mental skills (such as series completion) which correlated with literate viewing, but not of those skills which did not correlate. Salomon argues that the low correlation between viewing and mastery of mental skills among the American sample may be the result of the “less serious” televiewing by the American children; that is, American children may not be trying as hard to make sense of the television programs and extract information from them. Salomon’s research represents an unusual hypothesis in the literature and has not been replicated by other studies. To summarize, our knowledge of children’s understanding of the various techniques used in production of television programs is still rudimentary. The research to date suggests that children’s understanding of some of the symbols of the audio-visual medium probably does not develop until they acquire mastery of other abstract information-processing abilities–such as relating parts to wholes–and have greater experience with watching television. Unfortunately, we have little evidence pinpointing where confusions arise in interpreting television messages as a result of the use of particular production techniques. Children’s understanding of the television medium. The content of television can be real-life, as in a news show, and it can be fantasy, as in many comic or dramatic programs. Sometimes television tries to entertain without engaging the viewer’s intellect; other times it tries to persuade the viewer to adopt a certain point of view or to buy certain products. How do children understand the nature of television programming? Can they recognize reality from fantasy? Can they distinguish among different kinds of programming? When do they understand that advertising is different from other programming? In short, do they understand the medium of television? Several studies have reported that as children grow older they are less likely to report that television is “real” or that television people are like people in real life (Greenberg et al., 1976; Lyle and Hoffmam. 1972; Noble 1975). In particular, preschoolers and kindergartners have been shown to have difficulty understanding that television programs are “make believe” and television characters are actors. These young children are reported to believe that television people live in the television box (Lyle and Hoffman, 1972) and know the viewer just as the viewer knows the characters from television (Noble, 1975). Furthermore, Noble (1975) argues that young children engage in parasocial interaction with television characters–television characters are viewed as real people and real friends with whom to interact in play and real life. Television seems a very real world indeed to young children, a world in which they become emotionally and cognitively involved. However, evidence of such parasocial interaction is weak and has not been much studied. While television may not be real in the sense that preschoolers talk to and use it, it does present some events realistically (in a real-life manner). Perceptions of television as real in the sense that television portrays events and people in a real-life manner may be accurate perceptions of the medium. Television does show how people eat, dress, and engage in other sorts of everyday activities. This is not to say that television does not engage in stereotyped portrayals; television may stereotype different racial and ethnic groups as well as men and women, and yet, at the same time, some aspects of the portrayals are realistic. Similarly, Hawkins (1977) presents evidence that the construct of perceived reality may have several dimensions and that the general findings that perceived reality decreases as children grow older may refer to only one dimension. In particular, he found that between first and third grade there is a marked increase in understanding that most television programs present fiction or actors playing parts and are not pictures of actual events. That is, between first and third grades children realize that television is not a “magic window” on the world, as the preschoolers and kindergartners are reported to discuss television’s reality. Hawkins found a different age pattern, however, for children’s perceptions of television people and events being like real life–what he calls the social expectations dimension of perceived reality. There was no age-related decrease in children’s perceptions of television characters as similar to people in real life–at least not through the sixth graders he studied. It seems likely that children’s perceptions of television reality are as multiple as the phenomenon would suggest. For example while Archie Bunker is not a “real person” you and I may meet on the street, he may act like “some real people” you and I know. Moreover, ‘how much” like real-life people we perceive Archie to be depends on our experiences and perceptions of Archie as a stereotype. The major hurdle may be for children to understand that television people are actors portraying events. This understanding seems to occur between first and second grades. Understanding that television people may be like real people, or that television people may be useful in showing the viewers how to behave, may not decrease with age. This finding may account for the often-cited statistic from Lyle and Hoffman’s (1972) study, which found 25 percent of tenth graders interviewed reporting that people on television were like people in real life. Indeed, television people often act like people in real life, even when the characters are stereotypes. It seems reasonable that children might recognize these similarities. Just as understanding the reality of television appears to be multidimensional, so too might children’s understanding of the structure of television programming. For instance, there is evidence from several studies that between kindergarten and third grade children acquire the knowledge that television advertising content is different from programming because the former tries to sell products (see Adler et al., 1977, for a review). However, comprehension of the relationship between programming, advertising, and audience size (the basic economic structures underlying the television industry) is a more complex notion to understand, one with which many adults might have difficulty. Dorr (forthcoming) reports that none of the elementary school children she spoke with understood the complex economic basis of television programming and advertising. To the best of our knowledge, children have only rudimentary understanding of the business of television. Summary of children’s understanding of television content. The picture f children’s understanding of television is one which indicates that, on a number of dimensions, children in elementary school are not so competent as adults in processing television messages. By kindergarten, when adultlike televiewing begins, children have rudimentary understanding of television characters and actions, probably perceiving television in discrete action bits. Preschooler’s interpretations of television programs are probably quite idiosyncratic. Children as old as eight or nine (second or third grade) have been shown to have difficulty in identifying program information which is considered by adults to be central to understanding plotlines. Further, these relatively older children have been shown to have difficulty explaining character motivations for behavior and tend to describe characters in terms of very surface characteristics, such as appearance and behaviors. Similarly, understanding about the television medium as an economic business is only rudimentary in grade school. In particular, public controversy surrounds the question of children’s knowledge and awareness about advertising content on television. In the next section, consideration will be given to several of the research studies regarding when and how children acquire an understanding of advertising content as distinct from other types of programming. III. CHILDREN’S UNDERSTANDING OF TELEVISION ADVERTISING In this last section several pragmatic questions about age-related changes in children’s comprehension of television advertising will be discussed. Three major questions will be considered: How do children discriminate between programs and commercials? What is the nature of children’s understanding of the concept of television advertising? What is the nature of children’s memory for commercials? Program-commercial separation. Questions of children’s awareness of programs as distinct from commercials revolve around the issue of what constitutes awareness. In evidence of shifts in attention level when commercials come on the screen an indication of “awareness?” Or must the child be able to articulate functional, conceptual explanations of the differences between the two types of content? Evidence from studies of children’s attention to commercials suggests that children as young as three or four shift attention upward at the onset of a commercial (Wartella and Ettema, 1974; Zuckerman et al., 1978). Attention to the screen during the commercial has been found to decrease and then shift upward again at the onset of the second commercial in a sequence. Only Ward and Wackman (1973), who had mothers observe their children watching television in homes rather than utilizing trained observers in a controlled viewing situation, do not find movement toward higher attention for young children at the onset of commercials. Advertisements, when embedded in programs, seem to represent the kind of “bit changes” Anderson and his colleagues have been studying as mentioned in section II. In one study, Ward and Wackman (1973) found that five- to twelve year-old children’s visual attention to the set decreases at the onset of a commercial–attention went down in the transition from program to commercials. This differentiation in attention was found most strongly for the children at higher cognitive levels (those more than eight). In this study mothers observed their children watching television in the homes and recorded their observations. However, in two other studies where trained observers recorded children’s attention in controlled viewing rooms, an increase in attention was found at the onset of a commercial after breaking from a program (Wartella and Ettema, 1974; Zuckerman, et al., I977, 1978). This is in contradiction to Ward and Wackman. Wartella and Ettema (1974), observing nursery, kindergarten, and second-grade children, found that the youngest age group, in particular, showed variation in attention to commercials depending on the commercials’ perceptual activity–the more visual and auditory changes present in the commercial, the more likely it was to elicit full attention by the nursery schoolers. Second graders’ attention was less susceptible to variations in perceptual complexity; these children showed uniformly high attention to the commercials. In contrast to the Wartella and Ettema study, Zuckerman et al. (1977) found second, third, and fourth graders who watched a 15- minute presentation with four commercials embedded in program content to show relatively low mean attention to the commercials. In both studies the pattern of attention to the commercials was comparable: movement toward higher attention at the onset of a commercial with attention falling during the commercials; then again movement toward attention at the onset of a second commercial in the series or at the return to the program. Two studies which have examined children’s attention to clustered commercials, Duffy and Rossiter (1975) and Atkin ( 1975a) have found that clustering of commercials in blocks does not decrease young children’s attention. For instance, Duffy and Rossiter showed groups of first- and fourth-grade children either a clustered commercial/program format or the traditional dispersed commercial/program format in a classroom viewing situation. Observers estimated the percentage of children in the class at “full attention” to each commercial shown. First graders had slightly higher attention to the clustered commercials than to the nonclustered commercials. Fourth graders showed lower attention to the clustered than nonclustered commercials. Atkin (1975a) found higher attention to clustered commercials in his study of preschool through fifth graders, but he reports no age differences. The recent research on children’s patterns of attention to television would suggest an explanation for attentional shifts toward full attention when commercials come on the air. If it is the case that by age five children have acquired adultlike viewing patterns which involve monitoring the screen interspersed with periods of inattention, then any perceptible changes in content should attract viewers’ attention. It would seem likely that changes in the visual and audio channels, if even for a split second, are enough to capture an inattentive television watcher. Such changes in television content occur in the movement from programs to commercials and also from one commercial to another. Strong audio and visual shifts (even a blank screen) would appear to be cues even kindergarten children use to note changes in the content of the television and which help them monitor their television-watching. Such cues should result in looking at the television for children who are visually inattentive and perhaps other shifts in attention for children who have been attentive. It would seem to be the shift in content alone, independent of whether the commercials occur in clustered or dispersed formats, which heightened attention. In addition to shifts in attention at the onset of commercials, children as young as four have been shown to have other sorts of perceptual awareness of program-commercial separation. Gianinno and Zuckerman (I 977) have shown that about 50 percent of the four-year-old children they interviewed could correctly pick out a picture of a television commercial character when paired with a TV program character in eight out of 10 comparisons. On the other hand, nearly all of the seven-year-old children they interviewed could recognize the commercial characters when presented with the 10 paired comparisons. Furthermore, when asked to choose the picture of a character who shows products on television, nearly all of the four- and seven- ear-old subjects were correct in recognizing the television characters in eight of 10 paired comparisons. Nevertheless, it is difficult to equate such perceptual discriminations as evidence of conceptual understanding of the functional differences between programs and commercials. While children may be able to recognize perceptual features of commercials, such as characters in commercials, it is an inferential leap to assume this is evidence of understanding the purpose of commercials. Most tests of conceptual understanding of the distinctions between programs and commercials have relied on verbal measures of children’s articulation of differences. For instance, Ward and Wackman (1973) report that 79 percent of five- to eight-year-olds they interviewed distinguished the two types of programming in largely perceptual terms; that is the children recognized that commercials and programs have different characters and are of different lengths. On the other hand, these authors report that 73 percent of nine- to 12-year-olds offered functional differences in making the distinction, such as that commercials tried to sell products and sponsored programs. Even lower estimates of functional discriminations are reported by Giannino and Zuckerman (1977): Only 12 percent of the seven-year-olds and 25 percent of the 10-year-olds they interviewed could articulate that commercials try to sell products. In summary, awareness of the distinction between programs and commercials appears to proceed from perceptual discrimination (evidenced as early as age four in attentional patterns) through recognition and articulation of perceptual differences by kindergarten and first graders, to higher level understanding of functional differences somewhere between kindergarten and second grade. Depending on the criterion for what constitutes “awareness of the difference between programs and commercials”, children of different age levels can be said to be aware. Perceptual discrimination, however, does appear to precede conceptual discrimination. Children’s understanding of the purpose of commercials. Research on children’s understanding of the purpose of commercials has relied on verbal measures of children’s abilities to articulate the persuasive aspect of advertising. Results of the various survey studies seem to indicate clearly that the vast majority of children below age six (kindergarten) cannot articulate the selling purpose of advertising. Between kindergarten and second grade (between the ages of about six and seven) children have been shown to articulate the selling intent of advertising with various estimates or percentages at each age level. Variations in the percentage of children between kindergarten and second grade who understand the purpose of commercials appear to be the result of the measurement context of question wordings and scoring systems. Wackman et al. (1979) report estimates that range between one-tenth and one-half of kindergarten-aged children who understand that advertising is trying to sell them products. In a survey study reported in 1977 (Wackman et al., 1977), they interviewed kindergartners in their homes and asked them several different questions about the purpose of advertisements. In response to the question “What is a commercial?” only 10 percent of the kindergartners mentioned the persuasive aspect of advertisements. In the same interview, 22 percent of the kindergartners reported that commercials try to get them to buy products in response to the question “What do commercials try to do?” Evidence from their experimental studies in which children are shown commercials and then interviewed about the factual information in the commercials produces even higher estimates of the percentage of kindergartners who understand selling intent. They report that in response to an end-of-interview question, “What does this commercial for (product X) want you to do?” approximately half of the kindergartners in various viewing conditions (and as high as 62 percent of the kindergartners in one condition) say that the commercial wants them to buy or try the product. As children develop beyond kindergarten into late elementary school, more complete understanding develops of the notion of persuasive intent and commercials’ role in broadcasting. Several researchers put the demarcation between rudimentary understanding and grasp of the persuasive aspect of advertising at age eight or older (Atkin, 1979; Roberts, 1979; Robertson and Rossiter, 1974). For instance, a slightly different criterion than that used by Ward et al. (1977) and Wackman et al. (1979) is offered by Roberts (1979) for what constitutes understanding of persuasive intent. Roberts argues that just understanding that commercials want someone to buy or try a product is not sufficient evidence of understanding the purpose and persuasive aspect of advertising. From general cognitive developmental notions and research on children’s development of role-taking skills, Roberts develops an argument that not until about age nine or 10 can children take the advertiser’s motivations into account when considering the advertisement. Children who lack role-taking skills are not able to recognize that because advertisers are trying to sell them products, the presentation of the product information may be biased. Roberts’ argument is that children below at least eight years of age cannot be wary consumers sages. His argument reasons from general cognitive development theory and research, but it has not been put to direct empirical test. Research supports the notion that as children grow older they acquire a more complete grasp of the notion of advertising, including the idea of sponsorship of programs. It seems likely that, as they grow older, children’s understanding of advertising proceeds from rudimentary ideas of commercials trying to sell products to more complete comprehension of the consequences of advertiser motivations in the presentation of product information in commercials. As the discussion of program-commercial separation and children’s understanding of persuasive intent indicates, evidence of “understanding” or “awareness” varies depending on the standards to be used in judging these notions. If evidence of attention shifts when commercials appear on the screen is an acceptable indicator that children “discriminate programs from commercials,” then three- and four-year-olds can be said to make such discriminations. However, if other standards are used, such as the ability to articulate the notion that the selling intent of commercials distinguishes them from programs, then only a slim majority of kindergartners may meet this criterion. On the other hand, most third graders do meet this criterion. And if the criterion of “understanding” is articulation of the total economic relationship between advertising and programming, including the idea of sponsorship, then even most sixth-grade children are deficient. In summary, children’s understanding of advertising proceeds from showing evidence first of perceptual discriminative ability and then rudimentary conceptual distinctions followed by an increasingly better grasp of the concept of advertising through the elementary school years. The beginning of conceptual understanding as articulated verbally by some kindergartners appears to be well articulated by nearly all children by the time they reach third grade. It is difficult to provide evidence of when children begin to take advertiser’s motivations into account when assessing any particular advertisement’s claims, although there is reason to argue, as Roberts does, that this does not occur until after children understand that advertisements try to sell products. Throughout the elementary school years children build on their understandings of television and advertising to acquire fuller grasps of these concepts. Memory in advertising information. In this section consideration will be given to research on age-related changes in children’s memory for advertising information. Two sorts of measurement procedures have been used: first, measurement of cumulative knowledge about advertising outside of a television-viewing situation and, second, recognition or open-ended recall tests immediately after viewing television advertisements. Both sorts of measurement procedures have yielded essentially similar results: children’s recognition and recall of the advertising messages increase as they grow older. Major increases in memory seem to occur between kindergarten and third grade. Ward (1972) and Ward et al. (1977) report studies of five- to 12- year-old children’s recall of their “favorite” television commercial. Measures were taken in the course of an interview outside of a television-viewing situation. The children’s responses were content analyzed for the number of commercial elements mentioned, the completeness of the storyline, and mention of brand name and other product features. The general finding from both studies is that children’s recall for the commercials becomes more complete, coherent, and unified as they grow older. Whereas the youngest (kindergarten) children tended to recall a single element of the commercial (for example, a girl playing with a doll), the older children tended to recall more product and commercial plotline information, recognized that the information in a sequence was telling a story, and generally gave a more unified multidimensional description of the commercial and the product. The major shift in recall from memory for one dimension to multidimensional memory seems to occur between kindergarten and third grade, according to Ward et al. (1977). The older children recalled both more information about the commercial and more different kinds of information–that is, information about the storyline, brand name, and product attributes. Studies of children’s ability to remember commercials they had just been shown tends to support these findings. For instance, Atkin (1975a) reports several studies of children’s memory for product elements in several specially produced commercials. In one study, a cereal commercial was produced which claimed that the cereal had four specific vitamins. Immediately after viewing the commercial, 90 percent of the eight- to 10-year-olds interviewed could recall two or more details from the commercials, while only about two-thirds of the four- to seven-year-old children interviewed could do so. Moreover, about half of the older age group could name all four of the vitamins mentioned in the commercial. One-seventh of the four- to seven-year-old children could name all four vitamins. Wackman et al. (1979) report three experimental studies of children’s information-processing of specially produced television advertisements. Kindergarten and third-grade children were shown groups of television commercials for either candy products or toy products embedded in a half-hour cartoon show in viewing rooms in their schools. A post-viewing interview with each child was conducted to measure their recognition and recall of advertisement information. One general finding across studies was that kindergartners performed better on multiple-choice recognition measures than on open-ended recall measures of their memory for the commercials. Kindergartners generally performed at levels above chance on recognition measures (accurate recognition of about 40 percent of the product or commercial storyline elements across recognition measures which offered three choice alternatives). Furthermore, when the information about a relatively simple game product which the kindergartners appeared interested in was presented, they answered three-fourths of the recognition measures accurately. Nevertheless, kindergartners’ recognition trailed third graders’ recall and recognition memory. Across studies, third graders remembered between two-thirds and three-fourths of the product and commercial elements compared with the kindergartners’ 40 percent. While the Wackman et al. studies involved children’s memory for novel advertisements, there is evidence from other sources that even young children learn particular brand name slogans. For instance, Atkin (1975b, 1975c) reports that memory for slogans is well established by the time children reach grade school. In a survey study he presented three different slogans with the brand name missing. Almost half of the preschool-kindergarten children interviewed and 80 percent of the first to third graders interviewed identified the correct brand referred to in the slogan. In summary, age-related increases in children’s memory for commercials are indicated by the research. In particular, recall of brand name and mention of attributes about the product seems to increase substantially between kindergarten and third grade. There seems to be some indication, also, that young children have an easier time recognizing product information through a multiple-choice test than they do via open-ended measures. In general, kindergartners perform less well in recollecting advertising information, even immediately after watching the ad, than do third grade children. These findings certainly are in keeping with the research on children’s memory for television plotlines and narrative information, as discussed in the previous section of this chapter. IV. SUMMARY AND POSTSCRIPT In this section the major conclusions presented in the preceding three sections will be summarized. Also, implications of this review of children’s understanding of television will be considered in light of current policy concerns. Section I presented a brief description of cognitive development theory, particularly the work of Jean Piaget and critiques of his approach to examining the development of children’s thinking abilities. A major conclusion of this review is that cognitive development theory and research argues strongly for the notion that children’s thinking and interpretative abilities change radically as they grow older. Children’s attention to and interpretations of the physical and social world follow several dimensions of change. First is the decrease in perceptual boundedness, or the ability to go beyond immediate perception for cues to assess objects as children grow older. A second major dimension of cognitive growth is the development of decentration or the use of multiple dimensions of objects when assessing them. Third, there is evidence that a major dimension of growth in children’s interpretations of other people and the social world is the movement from more egocentric ways of perceiving and understanding others to mutual perspective-taking in understanding people’s behavior. Critiques of Piagetian approaches to cognitive development theory also have several implications for approaching research on children’s understanding of television. First, one should be wary of making inferences from more theoretical literature on children’s general cognitive development to the specific instance of children’s responses to television. Second, the particular tasks and measures utilized in television research should be assessed in light of their appropriateness to the children’s ability levels. Third, the critiques suggest that stress should be placed on discussions of age-related changes in children’s understanding of television as opposed to “stage-related” changes in understanding. The concept of age-related growth in understanding the medium of television is considered in section II. Evidence from attention research (mainly research on children’s television-watching behavior) indicates that attention is influenced by the age of the child, the particular content attended to, and distractions in the viewing situation. First, by about age five, children’s patterns of looking and not looking at the television set begin to approximate adult styles of viewing. While at times children may appear glued to the television set (zombie-like), these periods appear to be of relatively short duration–at least in laboratory studies. Second, there is evidence of selective viewing of television. Viewing involves monitoring of the television screen which appears to be elicited and maintained by various kinds of visual and auditory elements on television. In particular, changes in the audio elements appear to have the greatest impact in drawing children’s attention back to the set if they are not attending. Finally there is some evidence that the comprehensibility of the television message is important in maintaining the child’s attention; when the message is relatively unintelligible for children of a certain age level, continued attention is unlikely. Children appear to be actively and selectively attending to television. This conclusion is not, however, evidence that television-watching is inherently as “active” or more “active” than other ways in which the child can engage his or her body and mind. The literature on children’s comprehension of television content has found age-related changes in children’s understanding of plotlines, perceptions of television characters, perceptions of the reality of television, and comprehension of the economics of the medium. First, children as old as eight and 10 have been shown less proficient than older children in recalling those scenes of a television program adults consider essential to understanding the plotline. Furthermore, there is some evidence that children at this age level also are less proficient at drawing inferences about the relationship between scenes of the plot, and may not be attempting to organize the plotline information in a meaningful fashion as they watch the program. Similarly, during the elementary school years children have difficulty understanding characters, motivations for actions. Kindergartners through third graders have been found to be less adept at recalling characters’ motivations for actions than are older children. There is evidence that by the fifth grade children begin to describe motivations for characters’ behaviors when asked to give a description of a television character; children recognize motive cues in multiple-choice tests about a particular television character’s actions; and they offer explanations of characters’ motives when describing television plotlines. However, there is some evidence that the underlying dimensions or traits children use to compare on television character with another may not change as children grow older; humor, attractiveness, activity, and strength are four dimensions which children of different age levels have been found to use in comparing television characters. What little research exists on children’s understanding of audiovisual techniques and the economics of television as a business suggests that understanding of these aspects of the medium increases as children grow older. Elementary school children appear less adept at understanding various sorts of production techniques, such as flashbacks and slow motion, than older children and adults. Furthermore, children in the elementary grades appear to have little comprehension of the economic relationship among advertising, programming, and viewership or other characteristics of the economics of television. Further examination of the development of understanding of television advertising is offered in section III. The development of an understanding of the differences between programs and television commercials appears to proceed from perceptual discrimination (as evidenced as early as age four in attentional patterns) through recognition and articulation of perceptual differences between programs and commercials among kindergarten children. Higher level understanding of the functional differences between programs and commercials occurs between kindergarten and third grade. It is during the elementary grades that children develop increasingly better understanding of the purpose of advertising. By about third grade, children have been shown to articulate that advertisers want to sell them products. However, it is difficult to provide evidence that children at this age level take advertisers’ motivations into account when assessing any particular advertisement’s claims. This may not occur until later than third grade. We have evidence that memory for advertising information, including brand name and attribute claims about products, also appears to increase between kindergarten and third grade. Third graders show more complete, multidimensional, and coherent memory for television advertisements than do younger children. The major implication of this review for the current policy deliberations concerns the issue of age-specific programming. Is there a need for age-specific programming? On the basis of this review of children’s understanding of television, I think that there is a need for age-specific programming. Since children’s abilities to interpret and understand television content changes, particularly between preschool and the elementary grades, programming which takes into consideration children’s abilities to interpret the messages is needed. Major demarcation points would appear to be between preschool and elementary school-aged children, and, second, between younger and older elementary school children. Major changes in viewing and understanding television occur around third grade (ages eight to ten). In addition to television programming which represents the child’s abilities to interpret and understand the messages, there is also an implication of the need for future attempts to improve children’s viewing skills. Throughout this chapter reference has been made to the notion that children are active cognizers of their world, that they are constantly making sense of objects and events around them. This sense-making occurs within the limits of the child’s level of cognitive abilities and set of social experiences. The same appears to be the case with children’s interaction with television. The mental and experiential skills children bring to television have an impact in shaping the meanings they construe about the messages in programs and commercials. Does this mean that the misunderstanding of the seven-year-old child about a program plotline or the rudimentary knowledge about advertising of a five-year-old cannot be changed until the children grow older? Can children be taught or aided to understand more about television earlier than current descriptions of their understanding indicates? Researchers are currently examining this question. As was pointed out early in the chapter, Piaget’s theory and other cognitive developmental research have often been presented as fixed and unchanging descriptions of how children of certain ages think–primarily, the deficits of their way of thinking. However, evidence is mounting that stage guidelines for when children acquire certain cognitive abilities are not fixed, that children can be taught to acquire some cognitive abilities earlier than a given theory’s age limit. Similarly, there is some preliminary evidence that learning environments can be developed to help children acquire better understanding of television earlier. For instance, there is evidence that adults who watch television with young children can help highlight crucial scenes and help interpret the action on the screen (Stevenson, 1972). Furthermore, there is evidence that consumer learning programs can be developed to teach kindergartners elaborated notions about commercials, advertising, and persuasive intent (Wackman et al., 1979). Of course, these programs must start with the child’s current level of ability and use teaching tools understandable to the child. Appropriate educational materials may help children develop critical viewing skills at earlier ages. Such receivership skills research is currently underway. At this point, it seems likely that appropriate learning materials will be developed to teach children about the medium of television, both its programming and advertising content. Such materials should help children overcome their misunderstandings of television messages. By improving the skills children bring to the viewing situation we may be able to moderate the impact television has on the child. NOTES The argument advanced here does not mean to imply, however, that children are as active when watching television as they are when engaged in athletics or doing other sorts of activities. Activity here is relative. Multidimensional scaling is a statistical technique that looks at how subject’s ratings of a variety of variables group together; that is, it seeks to determine underlying dimensions which describe the relationship among a set of variables for a given group of subjects.
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