1997 – Children’s Understanding of What is ‘Real’ on Television: A Review of the Literature

‘Children’s Understanding of What is ‘Real’ on Television: A Review of the Literature’.  Chandler, Daniel . University of Wales, Aberystwyth –
Journal of Educational Media 23(1) [1997]: 67-82.

  • Developmental frameworks
  • The recognition of Absence
  • The criterion of Constructedness
  • The criterion of Physical Actuality
  • The criterion of Possibility
  • The criterion of Probability or Plausibility
  • Formal features of the medium
  • Other factors
  • Methods and problems in investigating children’s understanding of TV
  • References

Without being taught to do so children make their own assessments of the reality status of television programmes. Based upon their growing knowledge of both the medium and the everyday world they make increasingly sophisticated judgements about what is ‘real’ on television using multiple criteria. My primary concern in this paper is to summarise and integrate key findings from the most widely-cited research studies which have investigated children’s understanding of what is ‘real’ on television, in particular concerning developmental patterns in young viewers’ use of various criteria for assessing the reality status of television programmes.

Referring to children in their study whose ages ranged from 6- to 12-years-old, Bob Hodge and David Tripp reported that ‘calibrating television against reality is a major concern for children throughout this age group’ (Hodge & Tripp, 1986, p. 126), and other studies (e.g. Flavell et al., 1990) suggest that this may well apply to even younger viewers. Hodge and Tripp have argued that watching television may play an important part in helping children to develop concepts of reality and fantasy. Cartoons, they suggest, may have a special function for young viewers. This was the favourite television genre of the 6- to 8-year-old children they studied in Australia, whilst most of the 9- to 12-year-olds in their study preferred TV dramas, so that the popularity of programmes amongst these children was ‘directly the opposite of the order of reality, going from most unrealistic (cartoons) to most realistic (real-life characters)’ (ibid., p. 119). After a detailed semiotic study of how children made sense of a television programme, these researchers argued that ‘far from the fantastic nature of cartoons causing confusion between fantasy and reality, the largeness of the gap is helpful to young children in building up precisely this capacity to discriminate’ (ibid., p. 9). Offering some explanation as to why children might be particularly concerned with making judgements about the reality status of television programmes, the psychologist Howard Gardner and his colleague Patricia Morison have plausibly suggested that ‘the frightening status of certain fantasy figures may motivate children early on to master their reality status’ (Morison & Gardner, 1978, p. 648). Learning to remind themselves of the constructedness of a television programme may help viewers to distance themselves from emotional responses to disturbing scenes.

In the research literature on this topic, children’s understanding of what is ‘real’ on television tends to be discussed either under the heading of ‘perceived reality’ or under that of ‘modality judgements’. Indeed the use of one of these terms rather than the other signals differing ideological stances amongst commentators. An objectivist leaning towards epistemological/ontological realism is flagged by the use of the term ‘perceived reality’, whilst a subjectivist leaning towards idealism – or at least a socially-inflected constructivist stance – is signalled by the term ‘modality judgements’. In the interests of declaring my own biases, I should inform readers that my personal slant is constructivist.

Bob Hodge and David Tripp have been closely associated with the study of children’s ‘modality judgements’. In a semiotic approach to studying children’s understanding of television in Australia (Hodge & Tripp, 1986) adopt the linguistic term ‘modality’ to refer to the reality status attributed to television programmes by viewers. Where there seems to be a great distance between a programme and everyday reality, television has ‘weak modality’; where television seems like a ‘window on the world’ it has ‘strong modality’. The point is that the modality of television varies, a dimension hardly allowed for in the approaches adopted by some researchers. Hodge and Tripp note that ‘judgements about “reality” are complex, fluid and subjective’ (ibid., p. 130), and that the modality judgements of young children ‘tend to be polarized, contradictory and unstable’ (ibid.).

Robert Hawkins (1977), in a very influential paper employing the more traditional term, nevertheless questioned its adequacy. There has often been a tendency to refer to perceived reality as if it were homogeneous, whilst at the same time researchers have sought to measure it by asking quite different arrays of questions. Hawkins stressed that it was misleading to regard ‘perceived reality’ as a unitary concept, arguing that it was more usefully seen as multidimensional. He applied factor analysis to 153 children’s questionnaire responses, and he discerned several apparent subdivisions within the concept. Relating this to developmental patterns, Hawkins noted, ‘given multiple perceived reality dimensions, developmental changes may take place along some dimensions but not others, or changes may occur at different rates or times on different dimensions. Second, to make things even more complex, it is quite possible that children’s dimensional structures themselves differ with age’ (Hawkins, 1977, pp. 305-6). Byron Reeves (1978) added that such dimensions ‘may differentially influence how television affects children’ (Reeves, 1978, p. 689).

Many commentators have subsequently adopted Hawkins’s references to ‘Magic Window’ and ‘Social Expectations’ dimensions, although often in misleading references to the factors which Hawkins had actually identified in his data. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that whilst the abstract of his paper refers only to the Magic Window dimension (defined as ‘the degree to which children believe they are viewing either ongoing life or drama’) and the Social Expectations dimension (defined as ‘the degree to which they believe television characters and events do or do not match their expectations about the world’) (Hawkins, 1977, p. 299), his subsequent analysis was by no means so clearcut, referring also to factors such as the perceived ‘usefulness’ to young viewers of particular programme events or characters (to which I will allude in due course).

Although theorists may differ slightly in defining the various criteria which they identify in children’s judgements about the reality status of television, all serious researchers in the field now treat ‘perceived reality’ as multidimensional. Researchers have referred to various criteria which seem to be involved in viewers’ judgements about whether an object, character, event or setting on television is ‘real’ and I will shortly discuss each of these criteria in turn.