Media and Cognitive Development

Barbara J Wilson. Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media. Volume 1. Sage Publication. 2007.

Parents are often surprised at the way in which their child responds to a particular television show or movie. A 6-year-old, for example, may focus more on a character’s pretty dress than on what the character is doing in a given scene. Or a 4-year-old may beg to watch the same movie on DVD for a third time in a row. These examples underscore how important it is to consider how children make sense of the media. As children mature, they develop different cognitive skills and strategies for understanding the world. Consequently, a preschooler is likely to have a very different reaction to the same program than an older sister or brother would. Since the early 1980s, media researchers have increasingly recognized the need to adopt a developmental perspective when studying young people’s responses to the media. In doing so, studies have used principles of cognitive development to explore age differences in how children interpret and react emotionally to media content.

Theories of Cognitive Development

In the most basic sense, cognitive development refers to what a child knows and thinks and to how those mental processes or cognitions develop over time. When a child encounters a media message, he or she must engage in a number of mental operations. For example, when watching a television program, the child must first allocate attention to the multiple auditory and visual cues on the screen. This process is made more complex by the need to simultaneously tune out distracting cues in the environment, such as a talkative sibling or friend. Next, the child must sequence the major events or pieces of information into a story. Most television programs have plots and subplots that must be disentangled and ordered. Third, the child needs to draw inferences from the implicit cues in the program. Television shows jump from location to location, activities occur in the plot but are not always depicted on screen, and characters have dreams and fantasies that require “reading between the lines” to fill in missing information. Fourth, the child must draw on prior experiences and acquired knowledge already stored in memory to help make sense of the program. For instance, a child who has visited New York City will have a better understanding of a news story featuring the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center than will a child who has never left the state of Wisconsin. Finally, the child will evaluate the television program in some way. All of these tasks require cognitive skills and energy.

Several influential theories of cognitive development have been used to predict and explain changes in how children process the media. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development posits that children progress through stages of cognitive growth that apply universally to all children. Piaget argued that each stage is a precursor to the next and that the stages reflect qualitative differences in cognitive structures. The sensorimotor stage (0-2 years) involves knowing the world through overt behaviors such as sucking or grasping. The preoperational stage (2-7 years) involves the first use of symbols, such as words and other simple representations, to signify objects and events. The concrete operational stage (7-11 years) involves the ability to use mental operations or routines to think about objects and events in the world. And the formal operational stage (11+ years) involves the ability to employ highly abstract mental operations, such as hypothetical and logical reasoning, to problem solving. Media researchers such as Patti Valkenburg and Joanne Cantor have used these stages to predict, for example, how a preoperational child might respond differently from a concrete operational child to advertising and to frightening programs.

Some developmental psychologists have criticized Piaget’s theory on the grounds that his stages are too rigid to account for the variation that often exists in a child’s abilities across different domains and topics. The information processing approach is a more recent perspective in developmental psychology that focuses more on the steps involved in cognitive processing than on cognitive structures per se. Information processing theories attempt to identify the precise mental processes that occur when a child encounters, transforms, and stores information in memory in response to the environment. Researchers using this framework examine how children encode information, what types of mnemonic strategies children use to store and retrieve information, how children develop mental scripts and schemas to represent information in memory, and how mental capacity to engage in such cognitive tasks develops over time. In the realm of media, researchers have used information processing to explore the impact of violent programming on the development of aggressive scripts in children’s memory, children’s comprehension of educational programs such as Sesame Street, and children’s recall of news stories in the media.

Whether children’s development is described by stages or by computer simulations, it is certainly complex and often uneven. One day, a child may appear unusually mature as he or she pours over websites about the planets, and the next day the same child may become engrossed in an animated cartoon like SpongeBob SquarePants. One way to conceptualize development, then, is to think about broad shifts in cognitive processing rather than abrupt and fixed stages at specific points in time. Some of these shifts occur during the transition from early (2-7 years) to middle childhood (8-12 years), and others occur during the transition from middle childhood to adolescence (13-17 years). The cognitive shifts described below are particularly relevant for understanding how children interact with media.

Early to Middle Childhood

From Perceptual to Conceptual Processing

Preschoolers pay very close attention to how things look and sound. This characteristic has been labeled perceptual boundedness by psychologist Jerome Bruner. For example, children below the age of 6 or 7 typically group objects by color or shape. As they grow older, they focus more on conceptual properties, such as the functions that objects share. Applying this idea to the media, research shows that younger children pay strong visual attention to salient features of a television program, such as animation, lively music, and sound effects. As children progress to middle childhood, they become more selective in their attention, searching for cues that are meaningful to the plot rather than those that are mesmerizing.

From Perceived Appearance to Reality

Another cognitive skill that develops during childhood is the ability to discriminate fantasy from reality. Very young children often attribute life to inanimate objects and have imaginary friends, reflecting their naïveté about what is real. In fact, preschoolers will readily talk to the television screen and wave to characters. In one study by John Flavell and his colleagues, many of the 3-year-olds reported that a bowl of popcorn depicted on television would spill if the set were turned upside down. By age 4 or 5, children begin to understand that what is on television is a representation of real life, but they tend to assume that what looks real is real. In other words, they look for striking violations of physical reality to make judgments. Therefore, cartoons are likely to be judged as unreal simply because the characters are animated. Yet, animated characters can still be potent role models for younger aged children, reflecting the fragile nature of reality judgments in early childhood.

By age 7 or 8, children begin to use multiple criteria for judging reality in the media. They are able to consider the genre of the program, production techniques, and even the source of the message. Older children are most likely to judge a program, a movie, or even a videogame as realistic if it depicts characters and events that are possible in the real world.

From Concrete to Inferential Thinking

A final cognitive trend that has implications for the media is the shift from concrete to inferential thinking. Younger children tend to focus on information that is fairly explicit and tangible. Therefore, they are more likely to focus on a character’s behaviors, which are fairly salient and concrete in nature, than on a character’s motives. Yet, full comprehension of most media messages requires an ability to extract information that is implied but not explicitly presented. For example, television series require viewers to track and connect multiple storylines in an episode, websites do not overtly reveal their commercial purposes, and even video games convey implicit information about space and time. By age 8 or 9, children show dramatic improvements in their ability to link scenes and subplots together and to infer causal and time-order connections from media content.

Middle Childhood to Adolescence

From the Real to the Plausible

As described above, older elementary school children use a variety of cues to judge reality, but in the end they tend to focus on whether an event or character is possible in real life. As children move toward the teenage years, they become even more discriminating, judging media content as realistic only if it is probable or likely to occur in real life. This trend is consistent with adolescents’ ability to engage in more abstract and probabilistic thinking, as outlined in Piaget’s stage theory. In support of this idea, one study by Barbara Wilson and her colleagues found that teens were less frightened by stories of child kidnapping featured in the news than were older elementary school children, presumably because adolescents are capable of discounting such events as unlikely to happen to them.

From Empirical to Hypothetical Reasoning

A related shift that occurs between middle childhood and adolescence is from empirical to hypothetical reasoning. Older children are capable of conceptual reasoning, but it is often tied closely to observable information. So, for example, they may be able to draw inferences from a plot, but they are likely to have difficulty imagining alternative scenarios. In contrast, adolescents are increasingly able to comprehend abstract concepts, use formal logic, and think about hypothetical outcomes. Thus, teens can think more flexibly about media stories, conjure up alternative interpretations, and critique media content in terms of its source and its intended target.

Metacognitive Thinking

Metacognition refers to the ability to understand and alter one’s own thought processes. Younger and even older children have difficulty considering their own cognitive processing, in part because it requires so much mental energy just to track the environment. But as they move toward adolescence, cognitive skills become more routinized, and higher-order thinking is possible. Teens and adults are often able to contemplate their own feelings and reactions to a situation at the same time that they are also processing what is happening in the environment. Thus, a teenager is more likely than a child to realize that loud music can interfere with the ability to read a complex novel. A teen will also be better able to monitor his or her emotional reactions to an upsetting movie or news story, and can even engage in “self talk” to reduce anxiety. Adolescents’ awareness of the demands of different media can affect the depth of processing they will use and in turn can increase their comprehension of complex material.

To summarize, cognitive shifts that occur during childhood and adolescence have important implications for how youth will respond to the media. When watching a violent TV program about a superhero, for example, a preschooler is likely to focus on the most striking perceptual features in the show, such as the way the hero looks and what he does. The preschooler also will perceive the program as fairly realistic, will mostly remember the violent actions displayed, and will have difficulty tracking the plot over time. An older child, in contrast, would appreciate more conceptual aspects of the program, such as the superhero’s motives, his feelings, and even how other characters respond to him. An older child would also be able to track the main plot and any subplots in the episode. And the older child would likely discount the program as unrealistic because of the superhero’s abnormal powers. Adolescents, on the other hand, would probably find such a program uninteresting. If they tuned in, they would be capable of criticizing the program at a more abstract level, looking at how gender or race is portrayed or how violence is reinforced as a problem-solving technique. They could also imagine alternative plot configurations. Clearly, developmental factors related to cognition are crucial in appreciating how a child will respond to a particular media experience.