Chapter 4
Methodological Questions, Challenges, and Opportunities

The overview of current research methods generated a variety of ideas about ongoing challenges in media research, at both a practical and a theoretical level. To start, participants pointed out, at a time when new forms of media are proliferating, the field lacks operational definitions both of what constitutes a medium of interest from a public health perspective and of what counts as media exposure. Current distinctions among media are platform-based; that is, they are based on the kind of technology that determines the way they operate. Yet the rapid arrival of new technologies is blurring the uses of electronic devices, now that computers and handheld devices can be used for activities traditionally available only with a television or radio, and so on. Electronic toys and other new gadgets are likely to further complicate the question until the field can develop a functional, comprehensive definition.

The definition of media use is complicated by the fact that different media require different kinds of processing and yield different kinds of interactions. For example, the nature of a child’s experience with ambient media (such as music, which may be prevalent in multiple settings) may be substantially different from the experience with media that is confined to certain times of the day or certain locations. Questions of attention, of what else is taking place in the vicinity of the media user, and of new roles that media experiences may play in people’s lives are not generally taken into account conceptually or methodologically, yet they may be critical to understanding how this powerful influence really affects people.

On a practical level, the field lacks baseline information about some of the fundamental processes of concern in this kind of research, Anderson and others noted. Such processes may include information retrieval patterns, attention, memory, pattern recognition, and the ways in which children interpret narratives. To understand the ways in which users interact with media, for example, it would be useful to have a clear taxonomy of the technical design features used in many media, such as cuts, zooms, screen sizes, and the like. Similarly, existing descriptive research about eye-tracking patterns and other physiological processes as they relate to media exposure is not sufficient. For example, Anderson noted, thousands of EEG (electroencephalogram) and ERP studies have been done in other clinical and psychological studies, but their potential for improving understanding of media effects has not been fully explored. A far more detailed understanding of how the brain responds to media stimuli, as well as how cognition and behavior are affected in turn, would be possible if a stronger taxonomy to classify media technologies based on their design features was available.

Concerns such as these are linked to broader issues and to research questions in related fields. In order to understand how media exposure might affect children’s attention spans, for example, one must begin with a theory of how certain internal



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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary Chapter 4 Methodological Questions, Challenges, and Opportunities The overview of current research methods generated a variety of ideas about ongoing challenges in media research, at both a practical and a theoretical level. To start, participants pointed out, at a time when new forms of media are proliferating, the field lacks operational definitions both of what constitutes a medium of interest from a public health perspective and of what counts as media exposure. Current distinctions among media are platform-based; that is, they are based on the kind of technology that determines the way they operate. Yet the rapid arrival of new technologies is blurring the uses of electronic devices, now that computers and handheld devices can be used for activities traditionally available only with a television or radio, and so on. Electronic toys and other new gadgets are likely to further complicate the question until the field can develop a functional, comprehensive definition. The definition of media use is complicated by the fact that different media require different kinds of processing and yield different kinds of interactions. For example, the nature of a child’s experience with ambient media (such as music, which may be prevalent in multiple settings) may be substantially different from the experience with media that is confined to certain times of the day or certain locations. Questions of attention, of what else is taking place in the vicinity of the media user, and of new roles that media experiences may play in people’s lives are not generally taken into account conceptually or methodologically, yet they may be critical to understanding how this powerful influence really affects people. On a practical level, the field lacks baseline information about some of the fundamental processes of concern in this kind of research, Anderson and others noted. Such processes may include information retrieval patterns, attention, memory, pattern recognition, and the ways in which children interpret narratives. To understand the ways in which users interact with media, for example, it would be useful to have a clear taxonomy of the technical design features used in many media, such as cuts, zooms, screen sizes, and the like. Similarly, existing descriptive research about eye-tracking patterns and other physiological processes as they relate to media exposure is not sufficient. For example, Anderson noted, thousands of EEG (electroencephalogram) and ERP studies have been done in other clinical and psychological studies, but their potential for improving understanding of media effects has not been fully explored. A far more detailed understanding of how the brain responds to media stimuli, as well as how cognition and behavior are affected in turn, would be possible if a stronger taxonomy to classify media technologies based on their design features was available. Concerns such as these are linked to broader issues and to research questions in related fields. In order to understand how media exposure might affect children’s attention spans, for example, one must begin with a theory of how certain internal

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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary processes and ecological interactions contribute to the development of attention. Without that understanding, it is difficult to identify the effects of rapid scene changes or other specific aspects of media exposure on natural or unusual developmental processes. This kind of investigation is truly interdisciplinary, Anderson pointed out. The lack of a disciplinary “home” for this type of research has contributed to its marginal status in many research centers and the lack of systematic training and the development of rigorous theoretical frameworks, causing its importance to be often overlooked. A number of participants stressed the point that, although available research methods may be unsatisfying in some respects, existing methods and levels of precision are sufficient to begin to address important questions. For example, differences in the exposure of socioeconomic subgroups to various media—and possible differences in the resulting effects on groups—can be identified using large-scale surveillance studies. The degree of accuracy typical of current studies would be sufficient for exploring potentially significant differences in the overall media diets of different groups, but relatively little has been done in this area. AN ECOLOGICAL APPROACH TO THE STUDY OF YOUTH AND THE MEDIA Susan McHale brought the perspective of a researcher in human development and family studies to bear on the analysis of media influences on developmental processes and family interactions. She began with a reference to the theory of the ecology of children’s development, a model developed by Uri Bronfenbrenner in the late 1970s. In this “onion” model, the child is seen as nested within successively more distal layers of environmental influences, the impact of each of which is mediated by the impact of the others. In this model, media are placed in the outermost layer, along with cultural attitudes and values, influencing children from some distance. In Bronfenbrenner’s view, each of these influences can affect a child’s interactions, and the focus of attention should be “molar activities”—those the child chooses in a particular setting and that therefore reflect his or her predilections, opportunities, and constraints. The ecological approach calls attention to who is participating in an activity, how it is carried out, and why it is undertaken. With regard to television viewing, for example, the important questions are, Who turns on the TV in this kind of family? Who decides what will be watched? What kinds of conversations accompany TV viewing? An ecological perspective is not a theory but a perspective from which processes—or they might be termed mechanisms or mediators—work. Much of the research on children’s time use has focused on links between activities and outcomes, but this approach does not directly address the ways in which selected activities produce outcomes. Using an ecological approach, a researcher would dig much deeper into the patterns of social interactions and relationships that influence development. For example, if a family watches television during dinner time, the nature and form of exposure may be affected by the conversation among family members. Conversely, the timing or setting of the dinner event itself may be affected by certain media features or programs. Daily activities, such as media consumption, are viewed as both the causes and consequences of development. The focus is on the social and psychological processes that link the activities to development and on identifying discrete interactions in these processes that may be influenced by variations in the characteristics that children,

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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary adolescents, or families bring to the activities or the contexts in which they live. By improving understanding of the mediating processes that link activities (media consumption) to outcomes of interest, researchers can assess the strength of hypotheses about the causes of particular outcomes.