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.
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,