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How Children Respond to Media

An opportunity for you and your children to better understand the workings of the mass media of entertainment together.


by Ted Baehr

Our perspectives shape the way we look at and understand a media product. By viewing the media through these various perspectives or filters, we are better able to comprehend and analyze its message and how the message influences those who have a particular perspective.

Our children continue to develop different perspectives of critical viewing that reflect their cognitive levels as they grow and mature. A young child in the imagination stage perceives and extracts a different message from mass media than older children in the concrete stage and even teenagers growing into adulthood.

Try to picture what they are seeing through their eyes at the various cognitive levels and introduce them to other perspectives appropriate to each child's cognitive level. You can use these methods of critical viewing with your children to understand how they examine media messages and teach them to dissect the message. This is an opportunity for you and your children to better understand the workings of the mass media of entertainment together.

Role model

The first stage of cognitive development as we have discussed, is the sensation stage (approximately ages birth to two years old). During this time the child's sole means of processing reality is his senses. Children in this stage think that they are the center of the universe and that everything around them serves them.

Most younger children in the sensation stage of cognitive development look at the entertainment media:

Aesthetically—in terms of how interesting and attractive it is to watch or hear.

Young children may not pick up on the emotional elements in a movie or television program and certainly will miss the message of the lyrics of a song. They will quite often toddle around while a very emotive scene is occurring in a television program much to the chagrin of their parents. However, they will note and respond to the emotional state of their parents.

Though not cognizant of the various aspects of a particular media product, they do absorb what they see and hear and can repeat songs and remember images, so they need to be protected from those mass media products that will leave negative images in their minds. Furthermore, the mass media will model behavior for them, and they will copy that behavior, so the parent has a responsibility to be careful about the mass media to which they are exposed.

If you are watching or listening with a very young child during this stage who can talk, ask him or her: What do you see? What do you hear? Then, help them understand what they are seeing and/or what they are hearing.

For parents, this is often an easier stage than the next stage because it is clear to the parent that a child at this stage sees the world differently, so most parents are attuned to being careful in their guidance of the cognitive development of these young children. Regrettably, when the child starts to talk fluently, the parent can often forget that the child perceives the world differently, so the parent starts to treat the child like an adult.

Imagine

The next stage of cognitive development is the imagination or preoperational stage, which spans the period from two to seven years of age. In this stage, the child's cognition is dedicated to the acquisition of representational skills such as language, mental imagery, drawing, and symbolic play—and limited by being serial and one-dimensional. During this stage, the child has a very active imagination, often confusing fact and fiction.

Younger children in the imagination stage of cognitive development look at the media aesthetically and:

Syntactically—in terms of the characters, the action and the special effects.

Emotively—in terms of how it excites and amuses them.

At this cognitive stage the child is not integrating the images to create a dramatic story with a moral and a happy ending. They are viewing the movie syntactically by looking at each element such as action, then special effects, then camera angles. The picture tells the story, much like an advertisement page in a magazine. Therefore, most documentaries and lectures do not hold their attention no matter how amusing or interesting the topic.

Since younger children actively view a movie or program for its presentation, encourage them to look at the film for its aesthetic value as well. You can ask them to describe the different camera angles and lighting in a scene.

Just the facts

The next stage is the concrete operational stage, which spans ages seven to eleven. In this stage the child acquires the ability to simultaneous perception of two points of view so he or she can master quantities, relations, and classes of objects. At this stage there is such a strong correspondence between the child's thoughts and reality that he or she assumes these thoughts about reality are accurate and distorts the facts to fit what he or she thinks.

Children in the concrete stage of cognitive development look at the entertainment media:

Conceptually—in terms of the storyline, character motivations, and basic concepts

Emotionally—in terms of the emotional response of the characters in the entertainment product

Realistically—in terms of the realism of the events portrayed

Legalistically—in terms of whether the perpetrator is rewarded or punished

In this stage, the child is starting to appreciate the nonvisual threat. In this regard, younger children are likely to be frightened by visually frightening creatures like witches and monsters, while older children will focus more on conceptual qualities, such as the motives of a character. Indeed, older children are likely to be more upset by an evil, normal-looking character or by an unseen threat than by a benign but grotesque character.

Children in this stage need to be helped to compare what they see with the biblical model. Therefore, ask questions of them that will cause them to make these comparisons, such as:

How does the character relate to what God teaches is right and wrong to do?

Older children in the reflection stage

In the reflection stage, which spans ages twelve to fifteen, abstract thought gains strength. Since the adolescent still has difficulty conceptualizing the consequences of his actions he will often take risks without regard to consequences.

In this stage, the adolescent will perceive the media product:

Semantically—by looking at the individual elements such as words, nudity, and violence and their meanings

Propositionally—by looking at what the program or movie is communicating as summarized in the premise

Thematically—by looking at the themes that are present

Sociologically—by looking at how it relates to culture and society

Systemically—by looking at how it relates to other productions in a similar genre

In the reflection stage, the child desires deeply to make decisions and solve problems but wants approval from his or her parents in the process. As a parent, you have a prime opportunity to help lay a valuable foundation for your children to rely on as they grow.

Adults tend to overlook some elements of a story because they know this story has a happy ending. Although this is a challenging task for many children, you can use a video box to help. Have your children read the description of the movie on the video cover before they view. What do you already know about the story? The characters? What is the conflict that needs to be solved? How will the conflict be solved? Here is a way to quiz your children and yourself about the nature of the movies you bring into your home. Does the solution to the conflict have a biblical answer or secular, ungodly answer?

Teenagers in the reflection stage

In the reflection stage the adolescent grows into a mature adult and there is progress toward complete differentiation. As a result the adult understands that others are different and accepts those differences by learning to relate to others. Furthermore, the adult is able to conceptualize the consequences of his actions and take the necessary steps to reduce his risks.

Teenagers and adults can view the media product:

Ontologically—by looking at how the media product deals with the nature of being

Epistemologically—by looking at how it deals with the nature of knowing

Morally—by looking at its moral perspective and content

Philosophically—by looking at the philosophical perspective and the worldview

As children grow older, their cognitive powers of reasoning and thinking grow tremendously and they become capable of using the concept of not. The teenager should have the maturity of thought processes to be able to identify with certain characters in a work of fiction, and to want to become more like them, and to want to become less like other characters. This is the stage at which all our previous questions come into play and when full media literacy and discernment can be achieved.

However, because teenagers are still immature in many ways other than cognitive development, they are still susceptible to the appeal of today's movie theaters, rental VCR tapes, and multiple cable channels. Teenagers hate to be manipulated and need to understand that Satan is trying to manipulate them in his quest for their minds and hearts. He is constantly endeavoring to get them to think his thoughts and act his ways. From gratuitous profanity in otherwise innocuous story scripts, to rock and roll radio, to spicy and even steamy scenes in dramatic films, to vulgar comedy, it is a humanistic philosophy that is presented. Christian young people need to recognize it and shun it.

While the rest of society is making TV and movies the standard against which they measure and make moral choices, Christians should not. Because someone else tries to legitimize an action or practice by positively presenting it in an attractive package does not lessen the Christian's responsibility to make the Word of God the main source of his values.

God's standards have not changed. His expectation for us is that we will try to bring each thought into captivity and be good stewards of the time He has given us on this earth. Remember, the goal is to bring every thought into captivity. It is a lifelong challenge and an eternal command.

By ourselves, we can't resist the devil's schemes. However, God, who is far greater than Satan, has already won the war. When we know and follow Him, He makes us "more than conquerors" in Christ.

Copyright © 1998 by Ted Baehr. The Media-Wise Family, to order. Used by permission. Visit David C. Cook online. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.



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