Children's Attention to Television

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Understanding the nature of children's attention to television helps to clarify the fundamental nature of television viewing and its effect on children. As a practical matter, understanding when and how children pay attention to television has been useful in designing television programs for children (e.g., Blue's Clues and Sesame Street).

The term "attention" refers to selective perceptual and cognitive activities that are directed toward a restricted portion of a person's environment. Brain research shows that when a person pays attention to an object in the environment, brain activation associated with perception of that object is enhanced, whereas brain activation associated with perception of other objects in the environment is suppressed.

There is no direct way to measure attention to television; rather, attention must be inferred from behavior or from physiological measures. The indicator of attention to television that has been most commonly measured in research with children is looking at the television screen. A look begins when the viewer directs his or her gaze toward the screen and ends when the viewer looks away. In addition, a small scattering of studies have employed other measures, such as eye movements while looking at the screen, reaction times to a secondary task while watching television, changes in heart rate, and the time it takes to push a button to fix a disturbance in the audio portion of a television show.

The most basic observation is that looking at television is variable. Viewers may look at the screen and look away again many times in the course of a viewing session. When preschool children watch an age-appropriate television program in a room that contains toys with which they can play, other things to look at, or other children with whom they can interact, they look at and away from the screen approximately 150 times an hour, with looks averaging about 13 seconds in length (e.g., Anderson, Lorch, Smith, Bradford, and Levin, 1981). Similar patterns have been observed for older children and adults when they watch television in a setting that affords alternative activities besides television viewing (e.g., Burns and Anderson, 1993).

Looking at Television

Much of the research on attention to television has been directed at explaining why children initiate, sustain, and end looks at a television screen. The most straightforward factor that influences children's looking at a television program is the viewing environment. If children watch television in a quiet room that permits no other activities, then they look at the screen more than if there are toys available or other children present (e.g., Anderson, Lorch, Smith, Bradford, and Levin, 1981; Lorch, Anderson, and Levin, 1979).

Because children's homes afford a variety of activities in which viewers can engage while watching television, their looking at the screen is substantially less than 100 percent. Looking at television, moreover, varies with the age of the viewer. Infants under one year of age look at television less than 10 percent of the time they are within sight of a set that is in use. Thereafter, the level of looking steadily increases with age until it reaches a level of about 80 percent in late childhood, after which point it declines to about 60 percent during adulthood (Anderson, Lorch, Collins, Field, and Nathan, 1986).

What accounts for these age differences? For younger children, the comprehensibility of the programming is a central factor. For example, presenting attractive television content in a foreign language, or in backward English, or with the shots presented in random order dramatically reduces preschool children's looking (Anderson, Lorch, Field, and Sanders, 1981). Infants are able to understand little of what they see on television and, consequently, they pay little attention to the screen. What attention they do pay is probably elicited by movement and visual change (e.g., Richards and Gibson, 1997). Looking at television dramatically increases from one to three years of age as cognitive skills and receptive vocabulary grow.

As children mature, their increasing cognitive development and world knowledge allow more and more television programming to become understandable. Levels of looking at television therefore increase until late childhood, at which point most adult programs are fully comprehensible (Collins, 1983). The drop in levels of looking by adults is understandable because most of television is relatively simple for an adult to comprehend without paying full visual attention. Consequently, television is commonly timeshared by adults with chores, socializing, and reading (e.g., Anderson and Field, 1991).

When children watch a television program that is generally understandable to them, they tend to look more when the content is cognitively demanding or requires visual attention for full comprehension (e.g., Field and Anderson, 1985). It is not surprising that the personal relevance of the content itself is of the utmost importance in sustaining attention. For example, children look substantially more at children's programming than they do at adult programming, with the difference reaching a peak at about five years of age. From that point, the difference in favor of children's programming declines until about eleven years of age, after which there is a distinct attentional preference for adult programming (Schmitt, Anderson, and Collins, 1999). These changes, of course, correspond to children's changing interests as they approach adolescence. As another example of the importance of personal relevance, children of both sexes look more at female characters than they do at male characters (reflecting the influence of predominantly female caretakers of young children), until they achieve the concept of gender constancy (at about ages five to six years). Gender constancy is achieved when the child gains a substantial understanding that one's own and others' sex is permanent and immutable. After that time, they look more at characters of their own sex (Luecke-Aleksa, Anderson, Collins, and Schmitt, 1995).

Preschool children are highly similar to each other with respect to the points in television programs where they initiate looks at the screen. Children become even more similar as they get older. On the other hand, children are somewhat more idiosyncratic about the points at which they look away, and they become less similar to each other in this respect as they get older (Anderson, Lorch, Smith, Bradford, and Levin, 1981).

Studies of the formal features of television have clarified the reasons for these findings. Formal features are aspects of television that can be described without specific reference to the content of the programming. These include editing and camera techniques such as cuts, pans, zooms, and dollies, as well as production techniques such as animation. Also included within the general concept of formal features are audio features such as sound effects, voice type (such as adult male voice), music, and applause. Additionally, character types (e.g., man, woman, child, animal, puppet) are often included in studies of formal features.

When a child is visually inattentive to the television, audio variations, such as change of speaker, sound effects, applause, peculiar voices, children's voices, and the onset of music, consistently attract looking at the television screen. The fact that, with viewing experience, children become more similar in terms of the points at which they initiate looks at television programs reflects their learning that these auditory features are cues to changing content and content of particular interest.

Visual movement and cuts sustain looking, as do child characters and puppets. Adult men, men's voices, and long zoom shots are associated with child viewers looking away from the television screen (e.g., Alwitt, Anderson, Lorch, and Levin, 1980). It is likely that many of these relationships of the visual features to looking are strongly related to the content with which the features typically appear. For example, adult men are ubiquitous on television (appearing much more frequently than women) and tend to be associated with adult-oriented content. Consequently, children associate men with less comprehensible and less personally relevant content. Familiar adult men associated with popular children's programs (e.g., Fred Rogers on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ; Steve Burns on Blue's Clues), on the other hand, are less likely to produce the negative relationship to children's attention. It is interesting that when content is controlled, there is no evidence that children look at animation more than live-action video (Schmitt, Anderson, and Collins, 1999). Nevertheless, when content is controlled, children look more at programming that is produced with formal features that are typical of children's television (Campbell, Wright, and Huston, 1987). Across all types of content and all ages of viewers, the formal features that have the most consistent relationships to looking are cuts and movement (e.g., Schmitt, Anderson, and Collins, 1999).

Studies with adults have observed that attention can be deployed with greater or lesser intensity. This appears to be true in the case of attention to television, and particularly in the phenomenon of attentional inertia. Attentional inertia was first described when it was shown that the longer a look at television is sustained, the less probable it is, in each successive second, that the viewer will look away. One consequence of this attentional inertia is that while typical looks are relatively short (i.e., less than fifteen seconds in length), there are some very long looks at television that are many minutes in duration, thus producing a highly skewed lognormal statistical distribution of look lengths. Attentional inertia in looking at television is not limited to adult viewers; it has been found in infants and children as well (Burns and Anderson, 1993; Richards and Gibson, 1997). Investigations of attentional inertia reveal that as a look at television is sustained, viewers become progressively less distractible by stimuli that is external to the television, patterns of heart rate indicate progressively deepened attention, and memory for television content increases (e.g., Burns and Anderson, 1993; Richards and Gibson, 1997). It is likely that attentional inertia is not uniquely limited to television insofar as similar patterns of attention have been reported for children's toy play and reading. In any case, long periods of continuous looking at television indicate deeply engaged attention and increased information processing. Another consequence of attentional inertia during television viewing is that the viewer who has continuously looked at the screen for an extended period of time is more likely to keep looking at completely new content, such as a commercial (Burns and Anderson, 1993).

Listening to Television

Compared to looking, much less is known about auditory attention to television. Two studies have found that children better remembered dialogues if they were looking at the screen at the time when the dialogues occurred, suggesting that children tend to listen primarily when they are looking (Field and Anderson, 1985; Lorch, Anderson, and Levin, 1979). In addition, one study found that this link diminished from four to seven years of age, suggesting that older children are more likely to listen to the television even when they are not looking at it (Field and Anderson, 1985).

A study with adults found that they were progressively less likely to recognize snippets of audio from a program if they were not looking at the screen at the time the audio occurred. Moreover, the longer it had been since they had looked at the screen, the less likely they were to recognize the audio. This suggests that viewers progressively withdraw their auditory attention after withdrawing their visual attention (Burns and Anderson, 1993). Although the evidence suggests that viewers listen primarily when they look, there are some results that conflict with this interpretation. It is clear, as noted above, that young children are sensitive to auditory changes when they are not looking at the television. Additionally, in one study that required children to push a button to fix a distorted audio track, the researchers found that children were equally quick to fix the audio whether or not they were not looking at the television at the time when the distortion occurred (Rolandelli, Wright, Huston, and Eakins, 1991).

Basic Viewpoints about Attention

There are three main viewpoints on children's attention to television. The first, and simplest, is that children's attention is reflexively elicited by visual change and movement (Singer, 1980). While the evidence indicates that visual change and movement do help sustain attention, there are clearly many other factors that are as influential, if not more so.

The second viewpoint is that attention to television is primarily driven by the child's engagement with the content and that patterns of attention are largely in the service of comprehension (Anderson and Lorch, 1983). This perspective readily accounts for differing patterns of attention in relation to program comprehensibility and age. The theory falls short, however, in explaining the consistent effects of movement and visual change.

The third theory, which is more comprehensive, incorporates aspects of the other two perspectives (Huston and Wright, 1989). Taking into account the role of formal features in conveying content, this theory proposes that children learn how to watch television, gradually moving from a more reflexive form of attention to a more controlled and strategic form.


A number of writers who are concerned with children and education have argued that television produces mindlessly "mesmerized" children who become inattentive to language because of television's visual nature. The research, however, finds little to support these arguments. Children's attention to television is variable, cued by formal features, and sustained by engagement with the content, including language. To the degree that comparisons can be made, attention to television is comparable in many respects to the attention that children pay to other media and to their world in general.

See also:Children and Advertising; Children's Comprehension of Television; Children'S Preferences for Media Content; Parental Mediation of Media Effects; Sesame Street; Television, Educational.


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Daniel R. Anderson

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Children's Attention to Television

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