Children's Preferences for Media Content

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Traditionally, research on the effects of television has assumed that children are passive recipients on whom television has a powerful influence. Since the mid-1970s, however, media-effects research has increasingly recognized the child viewer as an active and motivated explorer, rather than a passive receiver. Research now suggests that children are critical evaluators of what they see in the media. Even very young children have been shown to actively screen television offerings for attractiveness and understandability and to make an effort to interpret television images in their own terms.

Children might enjoy media content for a variety of reasons, including differences in experiences, differences in temperament, and differences in cognitive and emotional development. According to the research that has been conducted, two factors that have been shown to be important predictors of children's media preferences are their age, or developmental level, and their gender.

Early Childhood

Many theories of cognitive development distinguish the preschool and early elementary schoolyears from the later elementary school years. Jean Piaget (1954) refers to the period between two and seven years of age as "preoperational," although many other researchers attribute specific characteristics to this age group without using Piaget's label. Although a two-year-old differs from a seven-year-old in many respects, preschoolers and young elementary school children do share certain cognitive-developmental characteristics that justify segmenting them in this way.

Unclear Fantasy-Reality Distinction

For preschoolers and young elementary school children, there is an unclear demarcation between fantasy and reality. Virtually anything is possible in the imagination of a child in this age range; a sponge can become a rock, bears can talk, and the wind can pick the child up and take him or her away. Research by Patricia Morrison and Howard Gardner (1978) has demonstrated that between the ages of three and ten years, children gradually become more accurate in distinguishing fantasy from reality on television. At first, children believe that everything on television is real. Young preschoolers sometimes even think the characters reside inside the television set. Leona Jaglom and Howard Garder (1981), for example, observed that two-and three-year-olds ran to get a paper towel to clean up an egg they saw break on television. In addition, most four-year-olds who participated in a study by Sue Howard (1998) were convinced that Big Bird and Bugs Bunny were real.

Children's failure to distinguish fantasy and reality can affect their preferences for media content in important ways. First, because fantasy and cartoon animals and characters are perceived as real, they can be just as engaging for young children as real-life characters. Second, some special effects or stunts, such as a character vanishing in a puff of smoke, can have a great effect. Because young children cannot put these events in perspective by understanding that they are cinematic tricks, they are more strongly affected by them.

Perceptional Boundedness and Centration

Another quality of thinking exhibited by preschoolers is the tendency to center attention on an individual, striking feature of an object or image, to the exclusion of other, less-striking features. Piaget (1954) and Jerome Bruner (1966) referred to this tendency as "centration" or "perceptual boundedness." A study reported by Dan Acuff (1997) is illustrative of this tendency of young children. In this study, girls were presented with three dolls. Two of the dolls were very expensive, had beautiful and realistic faces, and came with sophisticated mechanical effects. The third doll was cheaply made, but this doll had a big red sequined heart on her dress. To the surprise of the researchers, the majority of the girls preferred the cheap doll with the sequined heart. This choice is typical of children in this age group. When judging a product or media content, they focus their attention on one striking characteristic, and they therefore have little eye for detail. Similarly, their descriptions of television characters tend to fix on single, physical attributes, without integrating them into an overall picture. According to Jaglom and Gardner (1981), young children pay less attention to what characters are doing or saying and pay the most attention to simple, brightly colored visuals and colorful, uncomplicated, non-threatening characters.

Responsiveness to Language, Rhymes, and Music

Children seem to have an innate tendency to respond to language. Long before infants talk, they are very responsive to human speech, and according to Robert Siegler (1991), they are especially attentive to a form of speech that is referred to as "motherese." Motherese is characterized by a slower cadence, a higher pitch, and exaggerated intonations. This preference lasts for several years. According to Patti Valkenburg and Joanne Cantor (2000), many audiovisual stories and programs for young children use motherese.

Young children also enjoy listening to songs, rhymes, and music. In a study by Margaret Cupitt and her colleagues (1998), almost half of the mothers of children who were two and one-half years of age reported that their children had imitated music, rhymes, or songs from television. This study also showed that nearly all of these children had interacted with television programs while watching—for example, by singing, dancing, or clapping hands. It is no surprise, therefore, that songs, rhymes, and music are often used successfully in educational and entertainment programs for young children.

Limited Cognitive Capacities

Because of their immature cognitive capacity, children in this age group need more time than adults to interpret and make sense of information and television images. This is the reason why preschoolers often respond best to programs with a slow pace and with lots of repetition, for example Barney and Friends and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. For the same reason, preschoolers often prefer familiar contexts and visuals and objects and animals that they can label, such as a cat, a dog, or a horse. According to Dafna Lemish (1987), they like to watch programs that show babies and young children, and they adore non-threatening real or animated animals, such as kind birds, friendly dinosaurs, and babyish creatures like the Teletubbies.

By the time they are five or six years of age, children begin to develop a preference for more fast-paced programs. They also become more responsive to verbally oriented shows with more sophisticated forms of humor, such as the animated situation comedy The Simpsons. In addition, they often find slower-paced programs with friendly characters boring or childish, and they begin to prefer more adventurous themes located in foreign countries or in outer space and more complicated characters.

Middle Childhood

In contrast to preschoolers, the fantasies of children between eight and twelve years of age more often entail realistic and plausible themes. In this period, children develop a sincere, sometimes even exaggerated, interest in real-world phenomena. They can be highly critical of entertainment and commercials that lack realism. According to Keith Mielke (1983), children in middle childhood continue to like animals, but they are mainly interested in real-life animals. Because most fantasy characters have been demystified, children in this age group tend to become attached to real-life heroes, such as sports heroes, movie stars, and action heroes.

During middle childhood, children come to appreciate details. As explained above, a pre-schooler may focus on only one striking detail of a toy—a doll's clothing, for example. For the eight-to twelve-year-old child, many characteristics of a toy may be carefully observed, from the face and body to details of the doll's clothing to how it moves. At this age, children become progressively critical of television programs of low quality, such as those that are poorly produced or repetitious. They are no longer content with simple, salient characteristics, such as a colorful cartoon character. Unlike younger children, who are greatly impressed by special effects and characters with special powers, older children seem to agree that special effects by themselves are not enough.

Influence of the Peer Group

During middle childhood, peer interactions become increasingly sophisticated. Because children in this age group develop a strong sense of commitment and loyalty to the norms of their peer group, they are increasingly sensitive to the thoughts, opinions, judgments, and evaluations of other children, and they become very sensitive to what is "cool" and what is "in." They therefore become alert to how to behave in public and how to avoid being ridiculed with respect to what they wear or prefer to watch on television. For example, older children feel the need to demonstrate firmly their aversion to programs designed for younger children or for shows that feature characters younger than they are.

Gender Differences in Children's Media Preferences

Despite the fact that what it means to "be a girl" has changed considerably since the 1950s (and even the 1960s), there are still important differences in the way boys and girls typically think, what they value, and how they express themselves. Many researchers have observed that in the first two years of life, there does not appear to be any significant gender difference in play style and toy preference. Boys and girls in this age group also do not seem to differ in their liking for television characters, such as Barney versus the Teletubbies.

Significant gender differences in toy preference have been observed as early as two years of age, however. By the time they are three years old, boys and girls frequently participate in different activities, avoid toys that are perceived to belong to the opposite sex, and play primarily in same-sex groups. According to Eleanor Maccoby (1994), this so-called process of gender segregation is found in a variety of cultures and settings.

The emerging differences between boys and girls during the preschool years are clearly reflected in their preferences for media content. In comparison to preschool girls, preschool boys have a strong preference for action and violence in books and entertainment programs. They tend to prefer themes and content in entertainment, such as sports, violent fantasy themes, and more dangerous scenarios, involving, for example, dinosaurs and aliens. They also are attracted to heroic male characters, including superhumans (e.g., the Power Rangers, Hercules), sports stars, knights, soldiers, doctors, and policemen. Preschool girls are more interested in relationship-centered and nurturing themes. They prefer themes and contexts such as castles, dance studios, school, the circus, and farmyards. According to Acuff (1997), preschool girls generally focus on characters such as fashion models, ballerinas, dancers, good fairies, queens, and princesses.

Children's awareness of societal stereotypes for gender roles continues to increase with age, and in spite of the fact that cognitive flexibility increases in middle childhood and adolescence, the preferences of boys and girls diverge over time. Because children become increasingly involved with peers, there is greater pressure to conform to "gender-appropriate" behavior. It is not surprising, therefore, that differences in taste between boys and girls become stronger with age.

Elementary school boys and adolescent males still have a comparatively strong preference for action-oriented and violent programs. They become strongly attached to male action heroes and power figures, although the heroes are now more realistic (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis). Elementary school girls are in general more likely to react negatively to program scenarios that involve action, violence, horror, and swearing, possibly because girls report being frightened by violent media depictions more often than boys do.

What do girls like? Research on the preferences of girls for computer games suggests that girls are less object-oriented than males. They are less interested than boys in devices, such as lasers, buttons, and futuristic weapons. For girls, it is not so much about winning or killing the enemy. According to Jack Sanger and his colleagues (1997), girls like a story line; they like real-life situations; and they are more often interested in the development of relationships between characters. They also more often have a preference for family situations, and they enjoy serial dramas with realistic themes.

Finally, research by Patti Valkenburg and Sabine Janssen (1999) has found that girls attach more value than boys do to the comprehensibility of an entertainment program. This could be because girls are more interested than boys are in dramatic story lines. According to a study by Carrie Heeter (1985), teenage females are more eager than boys are to look for actors or actresses they recognize, invest more time in searching for information about shows and characters, and prefer to watch an entertainment show from start to finish.


Current media theories assume that children purposely select and expose themselves to television content to satisfy specific needs. They also assume that any effect of media content on children is enhanced or mitigated by how the child perceives it. Research has shown, for example, that the effect of television violence on aggressive behavior is mediated by the extent to which a child likes to watch violent programs. To understand media effects on children, then, it is crucial to gain insight into children's preferences for media content. While much research has already addressed how age and gender affect children's preferences, future research needs to focus on how other child characteristics, such as personality characteristics and emotional development, may affect children's media preferences and selective exposure to television content.

See also:Children's Comprehension of Television; Fear and the Media; Gender and the Media; Sesame Street; Television, Educational; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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Patti M. Valkenburg

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Children's Preferences for Media Content

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