Children's Comprehension of Television

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Some critics of television have referred to the medium as a "plug-in drug" that causes children to become "zombie viewers" who take in information passively, rather than actively. However, research has shown that children actually are not passive while watching television. Rather, they are active viewers who engage in various forms of mental processing to construct an understanding of the programs they are watching.

Imagine, for instance, children watching a television program in which the detective hero investigates a mystery at a baseball stadium and (in a surprising twist ending) deduces that the pitcher's best friend is the one who stole his lucky cap. Numerous mental operations are necessary for viewers to make sense of and follow this story correctly. On the most basic level, they must comprehend the dialogue and visual action presented. They must access their prior knowledge of baseball to grasp the context in which the action takes place. They must isolate information that is central to moving the plot forward from the incidental information that accompanies it. They must infer the motivations of the characters and reconcile the culprit's deceptive behavior as a "best friend" with his ulterior motives and crime. And many other operations must occur as well.

In cognitive psychology terms, television programs are complex audiovisual stimuli. To understand them, viewers must integrate a range of visual and auditory information: visual action, dialogue, gestures, intonation, and so on. In addition, comprehension of stories on television requires viewers to perform a variety of cognitive tasks and metacognitive tasks (i.e., tasks that monitor or control the process of comprehension), such as distinguishing between information that is central and incidental to the plot, organizing objects and events within scenes, integrating information across separate scenes, and drawing inferences about events, characters, and their motivations. The demands of this mental processing are compounded by the fact that, unlike reading, broadcast television is not self-paced. Television viewers cannot control the speed of the incoming information or review material that is difficult for them to understand; instead, the processing that underlies comprehension must fit the pace of the television program.

In light of the complexity of the incoming information and the challenges involved in making sense of it, it is not surprising that many studies have found consistent age differences in children's comprehension of television programs. Children under two years of age have been found to comprehend and imitate simple actions they have seen on a television screen. Yet, even second-grade children (i.e., eight-year-olds)—and in some respects, fifth graders—do not understand television programs as well as older children and adults. Research by W. Andrew Collins (1983) and his colleagues has shown that the deficits in young children's understanding stem primarily from several factors. While viewers of all ages draw on prior knowledge to help them understand material on television (and everything else in life), the recall exhibited by second-graders with regard to televised stories has been found to be fairly limited to stereotyped common knowledge (e.g., that police officers wear uniforms). Older viewers, on the other hand, are better able to recognize deviations from common knowledge and rely on information specific to the individual program or story (e.g., that a character without a uniform is a plainclothes police officer). In contrast to older viewers, second-grade children also have difficulty understanding the links between aggression on television and either its consequences or the motives of the characters involved, particularly when the motives, actions, and consequences are presented in separate scenes. (Indeed, this lack of understanding could contribute to children's imitating the aggressive behavior, since they may not understand its roots or consequences.) Finally, older viewers are more skilled at drawing inferences about events and the motives of characters; these differences have been most pronounced for inferences that are relatively abstract or require a greater number of inferential steps (e.g., recognizing an undercover police officer from the person's actions rather than from seeing a badge).

Factors Affecting Comprehension

Broadly speaking, children's comprehension of television rests upon three classes of factors: (1) characteristics of the viewing situation, (2) characteristics of the child, and (3) characteristics of the program. The "viewing situation" refers to the settings in which children watch television. For example, there may be distractions in the children's environment that draw their attention away from important parts of the program and reduce comprehension. Conversely, children may be watching with a parent or someone else who can point out important information in the program, thus helping to increase comprehension.

"Characteristics of the child" refers to the knowledge and cognitive abilities that children bring to the viewing experience and that help them make sense of the programs they watch. One obvious type of knowledge that children apply is their knowledge of the world around them; for example, it is probably easier for a viewer who knows a great deal about baseball (e.g., the rules of the game, the typical sequence of events in a game) to understand a television drama about a baseball game than it is for a viewer who has never seen a baseball game before. Such knowledge includes social knowledge (i.e., knowledge about the ways in which people interact) as well as more strictly "cognitive" knowledge. A second type of knowledge is program-specific knowledge regarding the characters, settings, and events in the particular program that a child is watching. Because regular viewers of a television series are already familiar with its format, the setting in which it takes place, and the relationships among its characters, this knowledge provides a base upon which they can build their understanding of each new episode. This provides a clear advantage over first-time viewers, who would have to construct all of this background knowledge from scratch while watching that same episode.

On a more abstract level, comprehension has been shown to be aided by prior knowledge of story schemas (i.e., the prototypical ways in which stories are structured). Similarly, comprehension can also be aided by a prior understanding of standard television conventions or "formal features," such as cuts, fades, or montage. These conventions convey narrative information in and of themselves; for example, sophisticated television viewers understand that the brief series of images presented in a montage might actually represent a large number of events or a longer passage of time.

Apart from their prior knowledge, children also bring a variety of cognitive abilities to the screen. One of these, as discussed above, is their skill at drawing inferences. Inferences are essential in understanding dialogue, creating mental representations of the physical settings in which the action occurs (e.g., where the characters are standing when only one of them is on-screen), grasping the motives of characters, linking information across scenes, and so on. Other sets of abilities include the same kinds of linguistic, visual, and information-processing skills that allow children to decode and make sense of visual and verbal information in face-to-face interactions. Finally, Gavriel Salomon (1983) showed that comprehension is also affected by the amount of mental effort viewers devote to the program; when children invest more mental effort (i.e., "work harder") in understanding a television program, their comprehension of the program is enhanced.

"Characteristics of the program" refer to features of the television program itself that can make it easier or more difficult for viewers to comprehend. Following from the discussion of inferences above, one relevant program characteristic is the degree to which important information is made explicit or must be inferred; explicit information is easier to comprehend, particularly for younger children. Another characteristic is the degree to which formal features are used to emphasize and draw the attention of viewers toward (or away from) information that is central to the plot, as when a close-up is used to highlight an important object in a scene. A third, related characteristic concerns the kinds of formal features that are employed in the program, and the ways in which they are used. For example, children below the age of six have been found to have difficulty understanding formal features that violate reality (e.g., thinking that an instant replay is a new event, rather than a repeat of something that has already been shown). A fourth characteristic centers on the relationship between visual and verbal information in the program; research has shown comprehension to be strongest when the same information is presented both visually and verbally at the same time. When different information is presented visually and verbally, children tend to show better comprehension for the visual material (a phenomenon that is referred to as the "visual superiority hypothesis").

Comprehension of Educational Television

The above discussion pertains to comprehension of all television programs. However, additional issues arise when considering children's comprehension of educational television programs. As Shalom Fisch (2000) has pointed out, viewers of educational television programs face even greater processing demands, because these programs typically present narrative content (i.e., the kind of story content discussed above) and educational content simultaneously. Thus, Fisch's "capacity model" proposes that the degree to which children comprehend the educational content depends on the ease or difficulty of comprehending the narrative as well as the educational content itself. In addition, the model argues that comprehension is affected by the degree to which the educational content is integral to the narrative or tangential to it. For example, in the mystery story discussed above, if the detective hero suddenly stopped to give a lesson on mathematical rate-time-distance problems, the mathematical content would be tangential to the narrative. On the other hand, if the hero used the rate-time-distance concept to prove that the pitcher's best friend was the only one close enough to have stolen the lucky cap (i.e., if it provided the key clue that solved the mystery), then the mathematical content would be integral to the narrative.

According to the capacity model, if the narrative and educational content are tangential to each other, the mental processing necessary for comprehension is generally devoted primarily to the narrative; thus, less mental resources are available for processing the educational content. However, if the educational content is integral to the narrative, then the two complement, rather than compete with, each other; the same processing that permits comprehension of the narrative simultaneously contributes to comprehension of the educational content. Thus, comprehension of educational content typically would be stronger when the educational content is integral to the narrative than when it is tangential to it.

When educational television is executed well, it can hold significant and long-lasting benefits for its viewers. Numerous studies have shown that preschool and school-age children comprehend and learn from educational television programs in areas such as literacy, mathematics, science, civics and social studies, and (among preschool children) more general school readiness. Moreover, these effects can last for years; Daniel Anderson, Aletha Huston, John Wright, and Patricia Collins (1998) found that children who had watched educational television as preschoolers demonstrated better school performance than nonviewers as late as high school. Presumably, the data reflect not just preschool children's learning of specific information from television but also the potential of educational television to contribute to an enduring love of learning.

See also:Television, Educational; Violence in the Media, Attraction to.


Anderson, Daniel R.; Huston, Aletha C.; Wright, John C.; and Collins, Patricia A. (1998). "Sesame Street and Educational Television for Children." In A Communications Cornucopia: Markle Foundation

Essays on Information Policy, eds. Roger G. Noll and Monroe E. Price. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Collins, W. Andrew. (1983). "Interpretation and Inference in Children's Television Viewing." In Children's Understanding of Television: Research on Attention and Comprehension, eds. Jennings Bryant and Daniel R. Anderson. New York: Academic Press.

Fisch, Shalom M. (2000). "A Capacity Model of Children's Comprehension of Educational Content on Television." Media Psychology 2(1):63-91.

Salomon, Gavriel. (1983). "Television Watching and Mental Effort: A Social Psychological View." In Children's Understanding of Television: Research on Attention and Comprehension, eds. Jennings Bryant and Daniel R. Anderson. New York: Academic Press.

Shalom M. Fisch

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Children's Comprehension of Television

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