Consuming media, it seems, has far outstripped reading storybooks or playing dress-up as the average American child's favorite pastime. Overall, children between the ages of two and 18 spend an average of almost five-and-a-half hours a day at home watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web or using some other form of media, revealed a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation report called "Kids & Media @ The New Millennium." Often children multitask, engaging in more than one media-related activity at the same time.

How does all this media use affect children's cognitive, emotional and social development? Researchers are only beginning to search for answers, now that society is taking the question seriously.

"For years, psychologists interested in answering that question had their funding proposals turned down at the National Science Foundation [NSF] and the National Institutes of Health," says Jeff McIntyre, senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Policy Office. "Funders would say, 'We're not going to pay for someone to study kids' video games. That's silly.'"

Thanks to pressure from APA and researchers themselves, such attitudes are now changing. The NSF recently gave a group of psychologists a $2.45 million, five-year grant to study how interactive media affect children's learning, for example. Other psychologists are tackling the question of how more traditional media such as television affect children. Although there are still many more questions than answers, one thing is becoming clearer as psychologists continue their research: No electronic medium's effects are all good or all bad; it's the content that makes all the difference.

Digital children

Among the research groups working to fill gaps in the knowledge base is the NSF-funded Children's Digital Media Center project. Based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the center also has locations at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "We have a whole new media world," says the project's principal investigator, Sandra L. Calvert, PhD, a Georgetown University psychology professor and author of "Children in the Digital Age: The Role of Entertainment Technologies in Children's Development" (Praeger, 2002). "We're at the beginning stages of sorting out what its impact on children will be."

Building on what is known about older media, the center's research focuses on two major questions: How does the interactivity that is a hallmark of the new technologies affect children's ability to learn? And how do the new technologies help children create their identities?

Researchers at all the center's sites are tackling various aspects of those questions. Projects range from studying how "chat room" interaction relates to children's real-world social lives to finding ways to put the hero/villain archetypes popular in violent video games to use in engaging, educational programs.

"I consider myself a stealth educator," says Calvert. "What I want to do is foster a quality media environment for kids."

One of the projects at the Georgetown site features a multi-user domain called TVTOWN. Children participating in the project create "avatars," or alternative identities for themselves, and then use emotion and action menus to interact with other children online. The goal is to see how children build their identities and present themselves to each other.

Educational television

When it comes to television, much of the research so far has focused on the negative impact it has on children's development. Brian L. Wilcox, PhD, chair of APA's Task Force on Advertising and Children and director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has summarized the literature about the effects that televised violence, sexuality and advertising have on children.

The news isn't good. Take violence, for example. While not unanimous, says Wilcox, the consensus is that exposure to violent content has generally negative effects on children's attitudes and behaviors.

"Probably the clearest evidence we have that television influences children's thinking and behavior is the fact that advertisers invest literally billions of dollars trying to influence the perceptions, choices and behaviors of children through advertising," says Wilcox. "We know very well that they wouldn't be investing the amount of money they do without clear evidence that those messages are influencing kids."

Of course, television's effects can also be positive. Plenty of psychologists have been trying to harness television's power to help educate children. For example, Daniel R. Anderson, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, has served as a consultant to the producers of such children's programs as "Sesame Street," "Captain Kangaroo" and "Dora the Explorer."

Much of the commonly accepted thought about television and children is wrong, says Anderson. For example, there's no evidence for the popular assumption that television's rapid-fire editing style has shortened children's attention spans. Anderson also finds himself having to convince producers that they should focus less attention on how a show looks and more on making its content understandable.

Now Anderson has an NSF grant to challenge another common idea--that having the television on in the background doesn't affect very young children.

"Most exposure to television by infants and toddlers is actually exposure to programs being watched by someone else," says Anderson, noting that in many homes the television is on so much it becomes part of the home environment. "We don't know what that noise and potential distraction are doing to children."

To find out, Anderson is putting children under 3-years old in a lab and watching how they play with toys and interact with their parents with and without a television on in the background. The results could form the basis of an educational campaign for parents.

Anderson's own daughter has helped with his research. The fact that she watched a "Blue's Clues" pilot 17 times before losing interest prompted Anderson's research on the effect of repetition. His discovery that repetition reinforces learning resulted in Nickelodeon's strategy of repeating episodes on five consecutive days.

However, Anderson says his research interest hasn't made his daughter a television addict. Now 10, Emma prefers to read.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further reading

  • Anderson, D.R., & Evans, M.K. (2001). Perils and potential of media for toddlers. Zero To Three, 22(2), 10-16.

  • Calvert, S.L., & Jordan, A.B. (Eds.). (2001). Children in the digital age. [Special issue.] Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 22(1).

  • Kaiser Family Foundation. (1999). Kids & media @ the new millennium. Menlo Park, CA. Available at www.kff.org/topics.cgi?year=1999.

  • Wilcox, B.L., & Kunkel, D. (1996). Taking television seriously: Children and television policy. In E.F. Sigler, S.L. Kagan, & N.W. Hall (Eds.), Children, families, and government: Preparing for the twenty-first century. Cambridge University Press.