Open sesame to young minds

January 5, 1996

Maire Messenger Davies examines TV's effect on children.

Just before Christmas there was a lively press debate about a vicar in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire who told his flock not to encourage their children to believe in Father Christmas. Some thought the vicar was wrong to debunk harmless childish fantasies; others defended his common sense. Unfortunately for both parties, young children often decide for themselves what they will believe. They have their own "theories of mind".

In recent years psychology has become interested in children's theories of mind - beliefs about their own and other people's mental states. However, research has concentrated on preschool children and their performance of artificial experimental tasks, such as guessing whether other children know where hidden toys are. Not much interest has been shown in cultural challenges to children's ideas about truth and falsity (such as Santa Claus), and children's everyday exposure to media images has been virtually ignored.

Children's relationship with the media is a major focus of interest in the field of media studies, but many scholars, particularly in the United States, are primarily concerned to demonstrate that the young are harmed by TV violence. Interest in children's understanding of fantasy and reality has focused on attempts to "inoculate" children against the harmful effects of TV by teaching them about the artificial "constructedness" of mass media.

As a psychologist it seems obvious to me that children's theories about other people's points of view must be influenced by television, to which they are exposed almost from birth. When I was awarded a fellowship to study media literacy at the Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia, I decided to examine children's understanding of reality and fantasy both in television and in life.

My study used junior school children because there is evidence that a qualitative shift occurs in children's thinking at around seven or eight. They learn to "think about thinking" and to use language reflexively, understanding irony, innuendo and metaphor. (Try telling a punning joke to a five-year-old, if you want to test this theory for yourself). This metalinguistic development is associated with increasingly sophisticated responses to the storytelling devices of television. Children in this age group are regular and discriminating media users, with very definite personal tastes. The taste for cartoons and fairy tales, for instance, fades by age seven or so, yielding to a taste for realistic drama and real-world events such as sport. What is happening here?

The study used two methods: first a questionnaire given to 82 boys and girls aged between six and eleven. This asked questions such as: "Superman and Batman aren't really flying in the movies; it's a trick" and "Santa Claus is a real person who brings us presents at Christmastime" - "True? Not true? Not sure?". The second stage was one-to-one interviews with a smaller group of 18 children. They were asked to watch video clips of TV shows -Sesame Street, Real News for Kids, The Cosby Show and the BBC children's drama Five Children and It - and to pause the tape whenever they saw something that "couldn't happen in real life". They then discussed their reasons with an interviewer.

The questionnaire results showed little difference between the youngest and oldest children on the TV reality questions - all without exception knew that Superman could not really fly. There was more confusion among younger children about whether The Cosby Show took place in "a real house". There was a pronounced difference between the oldest and youngest children on the question of Santa Claus, with over half the six and seven-year-olds saying that he was real, and about a third of eight and nine-year-olds hedging their bets and going for the "not sure" option. Virtually 100 per cent of the oldest group (10-11) said Santa was not real (one was "not sure"). Hence although the youngest children had few illusions about the artifice of television, their "media literacy" had not dented their faith in other mythical figures. Nor, indeed, as the interview material showed, was awareness of artifice an "inoculation" against appreciation of TV techniques. Repeatedly children would identify a programme element, such as animation, as "not real" - then they would justify it on the pragmatic grounds that, as in Sesame Street, "it helps little kids to understand it better".

The expected age differences were more apparent in the interviews. For example, an "overlay" effect, in Five Children and It, in which a baby seemed to be floating in mid-air, produced the following expressions of developing media awareness: Joe (6): "It's magic. The future has real good magic things." Lauren (9): "They have attached clear ropes that you can't see, or they have certain colours that can't be seen by film." Ben (11): "It's a technique called green screen. They put everything else in green and they put the baby there and they place the green in that film with the background, so it looks like it's floating, but it really isn't."

The children in my study were middle-class and had recieved no media education in school. Children from different backgrounds might have responded differently - we shall see. These questions will be explored further in a study I am about to carry out for the BBC about children's attitudes to TV drama. The Philadelphia study suggests that our understanding of both children's theories of mind and of their relationship to the media, needs to be expanded to take account of some sophisticated ideas about art and life and the complex relations between the two.

Maire Messenger Davies is principal lecturer in media and cultural studies at the London College of Printing and Distributive Trades.

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