Thalia R. Goldstein Ph.D.

The Mind On Stage

Is Children's Media as Fantasy-Filled as We Believe?

Children's books, movies and television are filled with magic.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

This blog was co-written by Thalia R. Goldstein and Brittany Thompson (posted on her blog here).  This blog describes an academic paper, recently published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture, and posted here.

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Child in front of television
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Adults perceive early childhood as being filled with fantasy, magic, and wonder. Children’s books, television, and movies are also thought of as fantastical, magical, and wondrous.  From a research perspective, developmental psychology focused on children’s understanding of fantasy often simply assumes that children’s media is filled with the supernatural (e.g., Hopkins & Weisberg, 2017; Li, Boguszewski, & Lillard, 2015). But, is the media children consume in their everyday lives truly full of magical or supernatural content? Which types of fantasy are most prevalent? Are there differences between different types of media, like books versus movies? These questions have yet to be answered, despite a large body of research focused on children’s understanding of fantasy.

In a recent study by Kayla Alperson and me, published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, researchers examined popular children’s media for supernatural content, describing the quantity and type present in books, television, and movies, and exploring differences between each of these types of media. Interactive apps on tablets or video games were not included, although this is an area of media exposure for children aged 3-6 that is increasing in prevalence and importance and could be a focus of future research.

It is important to understand the supernatural content prevalent in the media with which children engage because such media is often used as an educational tool for facilitating cognitive development (Rideout, 2007). Parents and caretakers assume that children can learn about the world from media, regardless of the type and amount of supernatural content it contains or how unlike reality it is (Fisch, 2014; Rideout, 2007; Troseth, 2003). Currently, much of the research on children’s learning from fantastical stories uses materials developed specifically for research, not popular children’s media sources that children may encounter in everyday life (e.g., Ganea, Pickard, & DeLoache, 2008; Walker, Gopnik, & Ganea, 2015). Therefore, researchers need to investigate the actual prevalence of fantasy in children’s media to further understand how children learn about the real-world from their everyday engagement with books, TV shows, and movies.

The content of the most popular books, television shows, and movies (identified via lists of top-selling books, television ratings, movie ticket sales, and movies and television shows streamed in 2016) for preschool-aged children was coded for the level, type, and valence of supernatural/ fantasy/ nonrealistic elements present. The researchers attempted to code for the full range of nonrealistic / nonreal elements that existed in media for children. These included anthropomorphized animals or objects, magical objects or characters, curses, aliens, a magical creature, or a portal to another world. Media was also coded for how far from reality each supernatural element was, the valence of that supernatural element, and whether the supernatural element was presented as weird or normal within the world. Notably, line drawings and animation were not coded as supernatural or unreal because the goal was to code for content that was not real, rather than forms or representations that were not real.

Just as parents, teachers, caregivers, and researchers assume, supernatural content was seen in 91.6% of the coded children’s media. There were some differences across media types, with fewer books (78.8%) containing at least one supernatural element than television shows (100%) or movies (97.8%). On average, children’s media contained 3.42 supernatural elements, with the number of included elements ranging from 0-10. Just as fewer books contained supernatural elements than television shows and movies, books also included fewer distinct fantastical elements. Anthropomorphized animals, or animals who acted in a human way (with realized emotions, the ability to talk, or human facial expressions), were the most prevalent supernatural element, evident in 69.5% of the coded media. The next most common nonrealistic element was a magical protagonist, in 38.3% of the coded media. Humans with magical powers were more common in movies than books or TV shows and a magical creature that interacts with the protagonist was more likely to appear in both movies and TV shows than in books. All other fantastical/nonrealistic elements did not show differences in their prevalence across the types of media.

Researchers then looked at how realistic (or nonrealistic) these elements were presented in the media. For example, you could have a magical protagonist that was relatively normal, with some powers to move small objects, or change appearance, compared to one who could control the entire worlds’ weather and the minds of all humans. Overall, the supernatural elements were scored as being relatively, but not extremely, unrealistic. Books were rated as more realistic than movies and TV.

This fantastical unrealistic content was also coded for whether it was presented positively or negatively, as weird or normal. For the most part, these elements are being presented in children’s media in a positive and “normal” way. Television shows portrayed supernatural content more positively and with more celebration than movies and books, but there was no difference between media types in the presentation of this content as normal versus weird.

Taken all together, the books, television shows, and movies with which children engage is full of supernatural elements, with most popular pieces of media for 3-6-year-olds including multiple elements of supernatural content. This content is far from the reality children experience as part of their everyday lives, and is viewed positively, celebrated, and presented as normal within the world portrayed in the media. Generally, movies and television shows have more supernatural content, and more diverse types of supernatural content, than books. This could be due to the utility of books for education and schooling or due to the longer narrative and increased options for visual display present in television shows and movies. However, the majority of selected pieces across all media types included supernatural elements, so the issue of understanding how children consume this supernatural content is relevant across all media types.

One important caveat to this work is that it looked at media listed as popular through online rating systems and best seller lists. The researchers did not measure actual children’s engagement with media, nor what children were thinking or taking from the media. We cannot determine whether children’s interest in supernatural elements drives media to include such content or if the presence of this content in the media drives children to prefer and seek out supernatural elements, or if parents or caregivers play a role in the choice of media that children consume.

Some previous research has started to suggest that, at least for stories, children prefer realistic content (Weisberg, Sobel, Goodstein, & Bloom, 2013). We know children learn from their engagement with media (Hopkins & Weisberg, 2017), whether or not supernatural content is included. The way children interpret such media and how they use supernatural content to understand the real world is critical to examine, and is a potential focus of future research. Parents and educators can engage in this media with children, helping them process the realistic versus fantastical elements and apply those elements to the real world. This research is a first step in understanding if supernatural content is as prevalent in children’s media as many assume it is. Now that it is confirmed that fantastical, magical, and unreal content is involved in a majority of children’s media, future research must determine how this content influences children’s learning from the media they are exposed to in their everyday experiences and how parents or educators can be intermediaries in this learning. After understanding how children learn from supernatural content in their everyday media consumption, further research can examine how this content may contribute to other aspects of children cognitive, social, and emotional development

References

Fisch, S. M. (2014). Children’s Learning From Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond. Routledge.

Ganea, P. A., Pickard, M. B., & DeLoache, J. S. (2008). Transfer between Picture Books and the Real World by Very Young Children. Journal of Cognition and Development, 9(1), 46–66. https://doi.org/10.1080/15248370701836592

Goldstein, T.R. & Alperson, K. (in press). Dancing bears and talking toasters: A content analysis of supernatural elements in children’s media. Psychology of Popular Media

Hopkins, E. J., & Weisberg, D. S. (2017). The youngest readers’ dilemma: A review of children’s learning from fictional sources. Developmental Review, 43, 48–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.11.001

Li, H., Boguszewski, K., & Lillard, A. S. (2015). Can that really happen? Children’s knowledge about the reality status of fantastical events in television. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 139, 99-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.05.007

Rideout, V. (2007). Parents, Children & Media: A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Troseth, G. L. (2003). TV guide: two-year-old children learn to use video as a source of information. Developmental Psychology, 39(1), 140.

Walker, C. M., Gopnik, A., & Ganea, P. A. (2015). Learning to learn from stories: Children’s developing sensitivity to the causal structure of fictional worlds. Child Development, 86(1), 310–318.

Weisberg, D. S., Sobel, D. M., Goodstein, J., & Bloom, P. (2013). Young children are reality-prone when thinking about stories. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 13(3–4), 383–407