Early Childhood Education
Children’s media is a popular topic in many fields, including early childhood education, child development, psychology, sociology, technology, and media studies. As a term, children’s media has been interpreted in different ways, including media connected to books, television, music, movies, theater, computers, videogames, and the Internet that are produced for and engaged by children. Children’s media is often a controversial topic within the popular discourse due to the attention it has been given by the political, educational, familial, and other community sectors. As children spend an increasing amount of their day engaged with media and finances are channeled to expand this industry, concerns have been raised regarding the media’s effects on children as well as the messages being conveyed to children.
Research on media has primarily examined the media’s effects on children from a developmental perspective with a psychological focus on the correlation or causal variables between the media and children’s behavior. Despite this dominant point of view, there are other perspectives on children’s media. Sociocultural perspectives examine how children’s media is situated contextually in social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. Poststructural perspectives are also interested in the media contextually, but emphasize how children and the media interact with each other. Each of these multiple perspectives will be examined to provide a broader view of children’s media.
From the developmental perspective, researchers are interested in how a given phenomenon, such as the media, affects children’s development. Studies from this perspective are often referred to as “effect studies.” Albert Bandura’s (1973) social learning theory hypothesizes that people acquire behaviors through observations and subsequent modeling of other people’s behavior. He was particularly interested in understanding aggression and how people acquire aggressive behaviors. He conducted a meta-analysis of research studies examining the relationship between television viewing and aggression, finding that there is a strong correlational relationship between viewing violence on television and the expression of aggressive behaviors both in the short- and long term. Many researchers have used Bandura’s social learning theory to examine how different forms of media, particularly television, influence children’s behavior. The popular press often reports on these types of studies, which in turn raise strong concerns among parents and educators. Many policies and regulations have been based upon this perspective, including ratings for movies, music, computer and videogames, the V-chip for cable television, and bans on books.
Adult concerns were further heightened when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children’s television in 1984. This legislation increased advertising minutes and the opportunity for children’s toys to be marketed together with children’s television programs. There were many concerns that the direct marketing of products related to television programs would negatively influence children’s behaviors and in turn their families. Indeed, there was a significant increase in the amount of products available and purchased in connection to television programming. In response to this increase in children’s media, many teachers found media-related toys or references to children’s media inundated within the classroom. Frequently, teachers banned guns, superhero, and war play from the classroom due to the perceived connection to violence and aggression. These concerns are rooted in the developmental perspective and personal beliefs that the media is having a negative influence on children’s behavior.
A sociocultural perspective differs from the developmental perspective because it situates the media in social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. Thus, this perspective is less focused on the effects of the media on children, but rather in how children interact with, respond to, and construct understanding about the media in cultural contexts such as their homes, classrooms, and in their peer culture groups. A sociocultural perspective often includes a focus on understanding children’s perspectives, which is absent in a developmental framework that emphasizes adults’ concerns and perspectives on child development.
Like many adults in the early 1980s, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin (1987) were concerned about the consequences of deregulation of children’s television. In their work, they specifically address teachers’ concerns about children and the influences of the media. Their sociopolitical theory emphasizes the importance of engaging children in discussions about media-inspired play and they recommend that teachers focus on trying to understand children’s use of media within the context of their learning. They argue that parents and teachers should express their concerns directly with marketing companies, television agencies, and governmental bodies, rather than banning this play or these toys from the children.
William Corsaro (1985) extended the study of children’s media by understanding children’s daily lives through his theory of peer culture. Through long-term studies, he immersed himself in children’s lives and found that children used popular culture texts ranging from literature, movies, and television to construct their own peer culture themes and texts. For example, a group of researchers who studied children’s peer cultures in a classroom setting found that superheroes were important to the peer culture group. The children used artifacts related to superheroes to show their affiliation as a group of peers. The children were not simply imitating or repeating thematic ideas from the media; rather these media references were important to the children socially (Kantor and Fernie, 2003).
Vivian Paley (2004) has written prolifically about her interest in understanding children’s perspectives and how they construct meaning within her classroom. In many of her writings, she discusses children’s interest in the media and how it is brought into their play. Paley believes that fantasy play is an essential part of children’s lives. She believes teachers should listen and learn from the children as they construct meaning together through their own storytelling, often around media texts ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to Star Wars.
Poststructural theorists interested in children’s media examine the complex interplay between the reader/viewer and the media. In this perspective, children are viewed as simultaneously having agency while not being completely free from the knowledge and power of the media. In Henry Giroux’s oft-cited text, “Are Disney Movies Good for Your Kids?” he conducts a critical analysis of the Disney empire, including its movies, theme parks, and the constructed residential community, Celebration (1997). Giroux believes that children are not passive consumers of the media, but argues that Disney is extremely large and influential and as such holds a large amount of power and influence on children.
Joseph Tobin (2000) argues for the use of children’s voices and perceptions in examining children’s media. In his book, Good guys don’t wear hats: Children’s talk about the media, Tobin uses a poststructual lens to analyze children’s interactions with the media. He selected specific media clips and had the children view and discuss the clips with each other and with him through interviews. He argues that children’s “talk” about the media is not solely their individual perspective, but rather is situated with societal concepts and views of the larger society within which they participate.
Similarly, through her ethnographic study of a primary grade classroom, Anne Haas Dyson (1997) analyzed how children incorporate the media into their classroom texts. She examined the infusion of popular culture both in the “official world” of the classroom and in the “unofficial world” of their peer culture groups. In the “official world” the teacher recognized the children’s interests in the media, including superheroes, and incorporated these interests into the classroom, such as through their writing. Through integrating the children’s media interests into the classroom context, she and the children analyzed their texts and made connections to societal constructions of racism, sexism, and classism. She utilized their written texts and drawings to examine, name, and critique these constructions within their stories, their classroom, and society. Through this, she was acknowledging the complex interplay of knowledge construction between the media and the children’s constructed texts.
The study of children’s media continues to be a complex and emotionally charged topic. Extending research perspectives will assist families, educators, and legislators to better understand how to address and monitor the potential impact of the media on children’s lives. See also Play as Storytelling; Technology Curriculum.
Further Readings: Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Carlsson-Paige, N., and D. E. Levin (1987). The war play dilemma: Balancing needs and values in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press; Corsaro, W. A. (1985). Friendship and peer culture in the early years. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Ablex; Dyson, A. H. (1997). Writing superheroes: Contemporary childhood, popular culture, and classroom literacy. New York: Teachers College Press; Giroux, H. (1997). Are Disney movies good for your kids? In S. R. Steinberg and J. L. Kincheloe, eds. Kinderculture: The corporate construction of childhood. Boulder, CO: Westview, pp. 53-68; Kantor, R., and D. Fernie (2003). Early childhood classroom processes. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press; Paley, V. G. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Tobin, J. (2000). “Good guys don’t wear hats": Children’s talk about the media. New York: Teachers College Press.
Jeanne Galbraith and Laurie Katz