Chapter 3
The Current State of Media Research

Research on children’s media exposure frequently begins with three basic questions: How much media do children use? What kinds of media messages are they exposed to? What are the effects of this exposure? Elizabeth Vandewater provided an overview of the principal methods used to explore these questions, which, she explained, have proved generally unsatisfying, even before consideration of the complexities of multitasking in a digital era (Vandewater and Lee, 2006).

MEASURING USE

Current methods for measuring the amount of time spent with media include global time estimates, time diaries, media diaries, experience sampling methods, video or direct observation, and electronic monitoring systems.

Global time estimates are obtained by asking subjects to answer such questions as how many hours they spent watching television the previous day or in a typical week, or how frequently they do a particular activity (e.g., on a Likert scale that ranges from “never” to “very frequently”). Such questions are frequently included in large-scale surveys and are an inexpensive, easy way to collect data. However, the simplicity of the design yields imprecision. The respondent is expected within 10–20 seconds to recall all relevant experiences, determine whether they should “count” as a primary activity, and estimate the time spent—and to not shape the answer to fit perceived social expectations.

Time use diaries were first developed by economists interested in the ways Americans spend their paid work time. They differ from global time estimates in that the answer format is open-ended, allowing respondents to record their activities, usually for 24-hour stretches. Questions typically include the principal and secondary activity, duration of the activity, other participants, and location. This method is less frequently used in media research, in part because it is expensive, but it allows for a more accurate and complete picture of the activity being investigated. This technique easily captures routine or daily activities, but it usually misses sporadic activities or those that occur only on days that are not monitored. It also can easily miss activities that are so automatic they escape notice, are considered private, or occur simultaneously with more than one other activity. Television watching that occurs while a meal is being prepared or eaten, for example, may be hidden, as might brief but frequent Internet use, such as using a computer to check the weather, movie reviews, or e-mail.

Media diaries are targeted time use diaries, focused on a single activity. Participants are asked to highlight the shows they watched on a program grid or to record whether the TV was on, who was watching, what channel, etc., by hour of the day. This method is less burdensome than a diary of all daily activities and thus allows data to be collected over longer time periods. It also allows for the collection of supplementary information, such as the participants’ reasons for doing the activity at a particular time.



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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary Chapter 3 The Current State of Media Research Research on children’s media exposure frequently begins with three basic questions: How much media do children use? What kinds of media messages are they exposed to? What are the effects of this exposure? Elizabeth Vandewater provided an overview of the principal methods used to explore these questions, which, she explained, have proved generally unsatisfying, even before consideration of the complexities of multitasking in a digital era (Vandewater and Lee, 2006). MEASURING USE Current methods for measuring the amount of time spent with media include global time estimates, time diaries, media diaries, experience sampling methods, video or direct observation, and electronic monitoring systems. Global time estimates are obtained by asking subjects to answer such questions as how many hours they spent watching television the previous day or in a typical week, or how frequently they do a particular activity (e.g., on a Likert scale that ranges from “never” to “very frequently”). Such questions are frequently included in large-scale surveys and are an inexpensive, easy way to collect data. However, the simplicity of the design yields imprecision. The respondent is expected within 10–20 seconds to recall all relevant experiences, determine whether they should “count” as a primary activity, and estimate the time spent—and to not shape the answer to fit perceived social expectations. Time use diaries were first developed by economists interested in the ways Americans spend their paid work time. They differ from global time estimates in that the answer format is open-ended, allowing respondents to record their activities, usually for 24-hour stretches. Questions typically include the principal and secondary activity, duration of the activity, other participants, and location. This method is less frequently used in media research, in part because it is expensive, but it allows for a more accurate and complete picture of the activity being investigated. This technique easily captures routine or daily activities, but it usually misses sporadic activities or those that occur only on days that are not monitored. It also can easily miss activities that are so automatic they escape notice, are considered private, or occur simultaneously with more than one other activity. Television watching that occurs while a meal is being prepared or eaten, for example, may be hidden, as might brief but frequent Internet use, such as using a computer to check the weather, movie reviews, or e-mail. Media diaries are targeted time use diaries, focused on a single activity. Participants are asked to highlight the shows they watched on a program grid or to record whether the TV was on, who was watching, what channel, etc., by hour of the day. This method is less burdensome than a diary of all daily activities and thus allows data to be collected over longer time periods. It also allows for the collection of supplementary information, such as the participants’ reasons for doing the activity at a particular time.

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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary Media diaries do not generally allow for the collection of data regarding context, such as other activities done at the same time. Experience sampling methods provide a look at typical activities by sampling at random times of the day, often by paging participants and asking them to fill in particular information in a booklet of self-report forms. This method can capture internal aspects of the experience (motivation, mood, cognition), as well as external information (location, context, etc.). It is somewhat less burdensome than other methods, but it is useful only with participants who can write coherently about their experiences (i.e., not most children under 10—a key target for media research). It also does not allow researchers to determine the total amount of time spent on activities of interest. Direct observation (or video observation) is an ethnographic technique for investigating social phenomena in natural settings. It provides very accurate and rich information about such issues as television viewing habits, but it is extremely time- and labor-intensive and consequently expensive—which limits the sampling that is possible. Moreover, although observation eliminates bias in answering questions, the presence of the observer or camera may have significant influence on participants’ media choices and behaviors. Electronic monitoring is a commercial method designed to collect the data that are used to generate ratings for television programming. Two somewhat different technologies for this purpose are owned by two companies, Nielson and Arbitron, which have occasionally made them available to researchers for a fee. In the Nielson method, each viewer in the household is assigned a button on a device supplied by the company and is asked to push it when they begin and end a viewing session. Thus all programming played on that channel before the button is pushed off is counted as “viewed” by that family member, although he or she may have wandered off or begun a different activity. The Arbitron company uses a device called the Portable People Meter, which can detect codes that are embedded in video and audio programming and thus record the viewing and listening patterns of the people carrying them. Both these methods produce the same kind of data that a media diary yields; that is, they do not provide information about the context in which the media use occurs or its relation to other activities in which the participant engages. Having called attention to the limitations of each of these methods of measuring the quantity of media consumption, Vandewater raised the question of how much precision is really needed to answer important questions about media exposure. The reliability and validity of these measures vary. Diary estimates, for example, are highly correlated with observational measures (.80 to .85), whereas global time estimates show only moderate correlation with observational data (.20) or diary data (.40). However, despite the variation, the big picture result from all of these sources is that the average level of television viewing for adolescents is 2.5 to 3 hours per day. This figure may be sufficiently precise for many purposes, while a much greater degree of detail may be needed for predictive research, or for exploring error variance. What is of greater concern is the introduction of imprecise measures as an independent variable in another study, such as the effect of parenting restrictions on media habits. In such cases, low reliability of the media measures can bias the estimate of the main effect. Dimitri Christakis commented that no more studies demonstrating how much TV children watch are needed. Instead, he argued, the focus should be on studies that

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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary illuminate how and what they watch and that suggest opportunities to improve viewing and other media habits. A related question for Vandewater is what, precisely, is meant by a “user” of a given type of media—and this question is critical to the validity of a measurement. The influence a given media stimulus may have is clearly dependent on the degree of attention the user is paying to it and the context in which it is being used, which are more difficult to measure than the amount of time a device is in use, for example. MEASURING EXPOSURE TO CONTENT The content of media exposure may be at least as important as the quantity of exposure, but existing research methods lack precision in measuring or capturing important dimensions of content, and many measures have serious validity problems. Moreover, they do not capture incidental messages, such as those contained in advertisements, movie trailers, or product placements, Vandewater explained. Asking viewers is the most direct way to determine at least the general nature of what is being consumed. Children might be asked to list their favorite shows or to include the names of the programs they watch in diaries or other records of their viewing. Coding the content of television programs or video games is also possible, although current coding schemes have yielded only general programming information in designated categories, such as educational (e.g., children’s programming on public broadcasting), drama, comedy, etc. Some efforts have been made to code the content and to capture more specificity of sample episodes of popular children’s programs. This method allows for greater precision, but it does not readily allow researchers to connect particular viewing experiences to particular children, which would be necessary to examine possible effects. Sandra Calvert described some work she has done on coding content on the Internet using categories similar to those used to code television programming (Calvert, Alvy, and Strong, 2006). However, site content, links, and advertising change frequently on the Internet; moreover, each of the links on an Internet site can be considered an independent part of the site and thus needs to be sampled and scored as well. As a result, the results are not stable. Other participants mentioned recent efforts to analyze the content of computer games and to describe the ways in which users interact with them. Participants agreed that, given the increasing time children and adolescents spend on these activities, more information and consistent classification codes are necessary for describing the content of and modes of interaction with different sources of electronic and interactive media technologies. MEASURING DEVELOPMENTAL EFFECTS ON YOUNG CHILDREN In addition to the public health effects of media as described in Chapter 2, the meeting participants discussed research on the potential effects of media exposure on very young children, who are the fastest growing segment of media audiences. Dimitri Christakis and Judy DeLoache provided close looks at significant potential risks and benefits of media exposure to babies and young children. Christakis began with the observation that young children have only recently become heavy consumers of media

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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary and that, consequently, comparatively little research has been done on effects for this age group (Christakis, 2006; Zimmerman and Christakis, 2005). Yet the developmental significance of the first three years of life has been well documented (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000), and exposure during these years has been increasing dramatically. Moreover, because young children are still sleeping 12 or more hours a day, even a modest amount of exposure can occupy a significant percentage of their waking hours. Television exposure in the early years is also highly predictive of later viewing patterns—and once established, viewing patterns are very difficult to change. Christakis’s research has shown that children under age 3 watch television an average of 2.2 hours per day, and that 3- to 5-year-olds watch 3.3 hours per day. Yet each hour of daily viewing by children in this age group is associated with measurable detriments to their cognitive development. Benefits have been identified as well, although because much of the research is somewhat dated, it does not reflect changes in viewing patterns, such as the increase in the number of minutes of commercial time per hour, increases in sexual and violent content, and the increasing likelihood that children will watch alone. Television programming and media or screen-based electronic products for very young children are an increasing business—although, as Christakis noted, their quality and content vary. Christakis argued that media exposure is one of the most profound influences on children in the United States and that it intersects with many public health concerns: violence, obesity, tobacco and alcohol use, and risky sexual behaviors. The public health question for him is to find ways to mediate the influences of this exposure on young children, to optimize their exposure in terms of time spent, age of exposure, and content—rather than hoping to eliminate it. Other participants called attention to the importance of social context in heightening or diminishing certain types of media exposures. DeLoache raised questions about media influences on the development of very young children in terms of the perspective that all media, because they are symbolic representations of some kind, offer more cognitive complexity than does direct experience. Thus, media experiences may have profound impacts on very young children because they do not bring to these experiences the same context and background understanding of basic properties of reality (such as solidity, continuity, and support) that adults and older children have. Her research has focused on five questions about media and early development. Her answer to the first, whether infants can learn from media, is yes. The remaining questions—what and how well they can learn, and what the benefits and risks might be—follow from that conclusion. Her research suggests that certain developmental pathways offer potential risks that could present challenges and opportunities for parental, policy, and practice interventions. DeLoache observed that the key developmental risks for infants and very young children of exposure to media are (1) interference with the acquisition of crucial developmental skills—time spent with media is time taken from such activities as motor skill development and learning through playing with objects; (2) deprivation of social interaction—time spent viewing media would decrease infants’ opportunity for crucial social interaction with other people; and (3) interference with learning about reality— because infants can be confused about the basic nature of media, substantial media viewing could interfere with learning fundamental facts about the nature of reality (e.g.,

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Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures - Workshop Summary the fact that objects cannot pass through other objects or disappear into thin air). A fourth risk, which may not rise to the level of a public health concern, is that products purporting to educate infants may not only waste parents’ time and money, but also the existence and advertising of such products may generate unrealistic concerns and goals with respect to their infants’ development. These analyses of media effects on very young children involve both studies of longitudinal data as well as experimental observations. Christakis described research studies in which he and his colleagues used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 to investigate the effects of frequent television viewing on cognitive development. Measures of cognitive development in children at ages 6 and 7 were regressed on television viewing at younger ages. The conclusion was that modest adverse effects can result from viewing at young ages, when potential confounding variables, such as parental characteristics, were controlled. In contrast, other participants observed that certain educational programs for young children are associated with improvements in their cognitive developments. These differences suggest that media influences may differ by developmental stage as well as across social and cultural groups. DeLoache described experimental research that has explored the effects of symbolic representations and media exposure on the development of very young children, noting that the potential for both beneficial learning and harm needs to be further investigated (DeLoache, Pirroutsakos, and Uttal, 2003; DeLoache, 2005). The experimental research she described was mainly based on the premise that the best way to determine what infants and toddlers can learn or be taught is to try to teach them, for example, to imitate a series of actions or problem-solving exercises. In addition, simple observations of the length of time that infants look at particular displays can be used to assess what kinds of visual stimuli they prefer. Such research can help identify what kinds of media might have beneficial effects on infant learning and development. Participants were intrigued with the research on young children, but many commented on how much remains to be understood. Socioeconomic differences and many other contextual factors, for example, have not been thoroughly investigated. At the same time, the mechanisms by which many influences—from early literacy experiences, to family placement, to the nature of their media exposure—affect children are also not yet fully understood. Such mechanisms may include the content or exposure of certain forms of media, the social context and relationships surrounding the child’s experience with different types of media, and the displacement effects of media on other behaviors and exposures.