Parental Mediation of Media Effects

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There is much concern over the negative effects of television viewing on children. Children who watch more television are at a greater risk of experiencing a host of negative outcomes compared to children who watch less television. The good news is that parents can modify or even prevent television-related effects by engaging in a variety of practices known as "mediation."

What Is Mediation?

Mediation has not been defined consistently. As a result, many different definitions of this term exist. However, researchers endorsing the various conceptualizations agree that mediation refers to interactions with children about television. Although a number of individuals can provide mediation, such as siblings, peers, and adults, the term is commonly used to signal parent-child interaction. The focus of this entry, therefore, is on parental mediation.

Parental mediation can take several different forms. Amy Nathanson (1999) has distinguished these forms as active mediation, restrictive mediation, and coviewing. Active mediation refers to the conversations that parents can have with their children about television. Sometimes these conversations are generally negative in tone, such as when parents tell their children that what they are seeing on television is not real or that they disapprove of the behaviors of the television characters or the program in general. In this case, the parent-child communication is called "negative active mediation." However, parents can also say positive things about what their children watch on television. For example, parents can communicate their approval of certain programs or depicted behaviors or point out how certain portrayals are realistic. This kind of interaction is called "positive active mediation." Parent-child communication about television that is neither negative nor positive would likely fall into the "neutral active mediation" category. This type of active mediation includes providing the child with additional information or instruction regarding television content. For example, while watching an educational program, parents might extend the lessons that television introduces. Active mediation—whether negative, positive, or neutral—can take place at any time. In other words, parents can discuss television with their children during viewing or after programs have ended and the television is no longer on.

Restrictive mediation includes the rules and regulations that parents institute regarding the television viewing of their children. Parents can create rules about the kinds of programs that their children are allowed to watch, how much they can watch, and when they can watch it. Parents can also vary in how strict they are in enforcing the rules. That is, some parents may have a lot of television-viewing rules, but may not enforce all of them. Others may have just a few rules that they ensure are never violated. The combination of the kinds of rules and how strictly they are adhered to constitutes the level of restrictive mediation.

Coviewing occurs when parents watch television with their children. Although parents may discuss the television content with their children while viewing with them, it is important to note that coviewing occurs regardless of whether active mediation occurs. As a result, coviewing describes a much more passive form of behavior in which the parent simply watches television with the child. The distinction between active mediation and coviewing is an important one to make, as the two concepts reflect unique forms of behavior that are associated with very different kinds of effects.

Who Gives and Receives Mediation?

Unfortunately, Erica Austin reported in her 1993 article that not all parents use mediation. In fact, it may be increasingly difficult for parents to provide mediation given a number of factors, including the limited amount of time that working parents have to mediate and the easy access of children to television (in fact, many children have television sets in their own rooms). Those parents who do mediate appear to fit a particular profile. In other words, there are certain types of parents who use the various forms of mediation with certain types of children. To begin, active mediation is most often used by mothers as opposed to fathers. It is unclear whether users of active mediation are more educated or not—a 1992 survey by Tom van der Voort and his colleagues suggests that this is the case while research conducted by Patti Valkenburg and her colleagues in 1999 indicates that active mediation is used by parents of all educational levels. It is not surprising that parents who generally like and approve of television are more likely to use positive active mediation while parents who dislike television are more inclined to use negative active mediation. Both boys and girls of all ages are equally likely to receive active mediation.

Parents who use restrictive mediation are also usually mothers. These parents are typically well educated and believe that television can have a detrimental effect on their children. Parents are more likely to restrict the viewing of their younger children as opposed to their older children, who are allowed more viewing freedom. For the most part, it appears that parents are equally likely to use restrictive mediation with their sons as with their daughters.

Research suggests that coviewing is used most frequently by mothers and parents with less education (Austin, Bolls, Fujioka, and Engelbertson, 1999; van der Voort, Nikken, and van Lil, 1992). Like positive active mediation, coviewing occurs more frequently among parents who like and approve of television. Although both boys and girls are likely to receive coviewing, there is some disagreement in the literature regarding whether coviewing is mostly used with younger or older children. That is, a 1999 survey by Austin and her colleagues indicates that parents are more likely to coview television programs with their younger children. If parents believe that coviewing will help prevent negative effects from occurring, then it makes sense that they would use it more with younger children who are often perceived to be more susceptible to experiencing negative effects from viewing television. On the other hand, a 1982 survey by Carl Bybee and his colleagues showed that coviewing occurs more frequently with older children. This could be because of the similarities in the viewing preferences of the parents and the viewing preferences of the children that emerge as children mature. Hence, coviewing that occurs between parents and older children may reflect shared interests rather than conscious attempts at mediation.

Overall, then, mothers use all forms of mediation more than fathers. When they use negative active mediation or restrictive mediation, it is likely that they are trying to protect their children (probably their younger children) from perceived harmful effects of television. In the minds of the parents, making negative statements about television or restricting the access of their children to it should reduce the negative effects of television. However, it is possible that the use of positive active mediation and coviewing by parents is simply the outcome of parents enjoying television with their children.

How Successful Is Mediation?

Researchers have tried to determine whether active mediation, restrictive mediation, and coviewing affect children in a positive way. Given that there is so much concern over the effects of television on children, it certainly would be reassuring to know whether parents can prevent or reduce undesirable effects.

Much of the work on the effects of active mediation has explored whether parents who use it have children who are more sophisticated consumers of television. For example, research has shown that children who receive active parental mediation are better able to understand the plots of television programs, are more skeptical of televised news, and are less likely to believe that what they see on television is real (Austin, 1993; Desmond, Singer, Singer, Calam, and Colimore, 1985; Messaris and Kerr, 1984). However, some forms of active mediation can produce the opposite effects. A 2000 survey by Austin and her colleagues showed that children become less critical of television when their parents make positive comments about it. It certainly seems that what parents say to their children about television is very important in shaping the children's perceptions of the content.

Other research indicates that children whose parents employ active mediation are less likely to be negatively affected by television. Although there exists less research exploring this kind of relationship, the results are promising. A 1997 survey by Nathanson found that children whose parents use negative active mediation are less aggressive than other children. In fact, these children are not only less aggressive in general, but they are also less likely to learn aggression from violent programs they see even when their parents are not present. It could be, then, that negative active mediation "inoculates" children from harmful television-related effects that could occur outside of the home.

Research on the effects of restrictive mediation is less abundant. However, there is some indication that children whose access is restricted to television are less likely to be negatively affected by it, even when they do view it. A 1987 survey by Nancy Rothschild and Michael Morgan found that children whose parents restrict viewing are less likely to be unnecessarily fearful of the outside world (one outcome that is often associated with television viewing). In addition, it has been found that children who receive restrictive mediation are less aggressive—both in general and after viewing violent content on television. It should be noted, however, that there is some evidence that very extreme levels of restrictive mediation will backfire. In other words, children whose parents severely limit access to television may actually become more aggressive, perhaps due to the frustration that results from the deprivation of privileges.

When parents coview television with children, it seems that children are more likely to experience positive feelings and learn from what they see on television. It is possible that the mere presence of parents while viewing makes children feel happy and that this positive emotional state enhances children's learning. Although this appears to be a generally positive effect, negative outcomes may result when parents coview harmful television content. In fact, there is evidence that children whose parents coview are more likely to believe that television is realistic, to uphold gender stereotypes, and to learn aggression from television (Messaris and Kerr, 1984; Nathanson, 1999; Rothschild and Morgan, 1987). The effects of coviewing may depend, then, on what kind of television content the parents and children share.

One reason why the various forms of parental mediation are associated with the outcomes reviewed above could be that mediation teaches children to have a certain attitude toward television that will make effects either more or less likely to occur. In the case of negative active mediation, it is possible that children who consistently hear negative messages about television adopt a disapproving attitude toward it. Armed with this kind of attitude, these children may be less likely to take what they see on television very seriously and, therefore, be less likely to learn from it. This kind of reasoning could also apply to restrictive mediation: When their television is consistently restricted, children may learn that television is undesirable. Once they adopt this perspective, they may be less vulnerable to experiencing television-related effects when they do watch television. However, when children receive positive active mediation, they may learn that television is good and should be taken seriously. This kind of attitude may make effects more likely. And, if children interpret parental coviewing to mean that their parents like the content that is shared, they may develop a very accepting attitude toward television that may enhance effects.

In fact, a 1999 survey by Nathanson showed that the explanation provided above is accurate. It seems that children who receive negative active mediation or restrictive mediation of violent television have more negative attitudes toward violent television than other children. It also appears that these negative attitudes that children develop make it less likely that children will learn aggression from television. It is unclear, however, whether coviewing effects are also attributable to changes in attitudes toward television.

Mediation, then, provides parents with some options for dealing with the television viewing of their children. Depending on the kind of mediation provided and the kind of programs that are mediated, parents can influence how their children are affected by television. However, parents need to be educated about what options exist and the relative effectiveness of these options so that the most successful strategies will be implemented with more children.

See also:Antiviolence Interventions; Fear and the Media; Ratings for Movies; Ratings for Television Programs; Ratings for Video Games, Software, and the Internet; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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Amy I. Nathanson

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Parental Mediation of Media Effects

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