Communication Currents

Parental mediation

How Did Parents Criticize, Restrict, and Co-view News Coverage During the 2016 Presidential Election Campaign?

October 30, 2018
Mass Communication, Political Communication

During the 2016 presidential election cycle, did parents actively engage their children in consuming news about the election and candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, or did they restrict their children’s news exposure? Ohio State University scholars Amy I. Nathanson and William P. Eveland Jr. explore this question in a recently published article in NCA’s journal, Communication Monographs.

The authors point out a wealth of research about how parents politically socialize their children, but also note that such research has mainly focused on the positive benefits of how news media can produce informed and engaged citizens. “Rarely, if ever, do political socialization scholars explicitly consider that some parents may actively discourage their children from using news, disparage news, or question its value,” they write. Further, research on parental mediation has largely examined how television content may be harmful to children; in this study, the authors attempt to understand “what happens when political news is accused of being biased or ‘fake,’ or when the subjects of political news are considered to be questionable role models.”

“The 2016 election campaign seems to have been unprecedented in its inclusion of foul language, allusions to sexual acts and genitalia, and endorsements of violent acts,” Nathanson and Eveland assert. Thus, many parents felt conflicted about exposing their children to news about the campaign, especially given the growing partisan leanings of major news sources and the prevalence of “fake news.” So how did parents handle this dilemma?

Breaking Down Parental Mediation

The authors explored three categories of parental mediation in their study:

  • Co-viewing: parents and children using media together, for various reasons. Generally viewed by scholars as “implicit endorsement of media content by parents.”
  • Active mediation: parents talking with their children about media, including negative, neutral, and positive comments and responses.
  • Restrictive mediation: rules parents institute for children’s media use, including time, what type, when, and where. “The notion of restricting or discouraging child news use is anathema to the political socialization approach,” the authors note.

Given that political socialization generally focuses on empowerment and encouragement, most parental mediation work focuses on protection methods. But Nathanson and Eveland say that little work has been done on how parental mediation intersects with news consumption since the advent of 24-hour news, partisan news channels, and the rise of fake news on social media.

The authors outline various factors that contribute to parental mediation of the news, and that informed their hypotheses and the questions they prepared for respondents. These factors include:

  • Parent characteristics:
    • Political interest
    • Partisan identification
    • Reflective functioning (recognition of their child’s needs and perspectives)
  • Child characteristics:
    • Age
    • Behavioral and emotional tendencies
  • Media environment (i.e. partisanship, fake news, etc.)

Based on the above factors, the authors hypothesized that parents with strong political interest and partisan identification would be more likely to participate in co-viewing of the news with their children. Further, these parents would be more likely to tell their children they should question some news sources, and less likely to restrict child news use. Additionally, the authors predicted that parents high in reflective functioning would be less likely to engage in co-viewing, and more likely to engage in active mediation and restrictive mediation. They also predicted that as children get older, parents are more likely to encourage co-viewing, and less likely to restrict news consumption.

Overall, Nathanson and Eveland suggest that “parents will adapt their mediation behaviors based on the characteristics of their child as well as based on the parent’s own proclivities.”

The Results

The authors conducted a survey of 600 respondents between October 28 and November 7, 2016. All parents had at least one child aged 6-17. Fifty-six percent of respondents were female; 26 percent identified or leaned Republican and 45 percent identified or leaned Democrat. Parents answered questions about how often they watched news events relating to the campaign with their children, the frequency with which they made negative comments about news coverage, and how often they restricted their children from news coverage about the election and presidential candidates. They also responded to questions about parents’ reflective functioning, their children’s behavior, and their concern about the impact of exposure to the candidates on their children.

The authors found:

  • 79 percent of parents reported at least some level of co-viewing of news and political events during the campaign
  • 85 percent of parents reported engaging in some active mediation
  • 53 percent of parents reported placing some level of restriction on their children’s news media use

Additionally, the results showed that political interest and strength of partisanship is associated with higher levels of co-viewing; that active mediation is more commonly used by parents who are interested in their child’s mental states; and that co-viewing and restrictive mediation are more typically used by parents with lower levels of reflective functioning.

Opportunities for Further Research

Ultimately, Nathanson and Eveland believe that the results of their study show that news co-viewing appears to be less about protecting children from harmful influence and more about sharing material that parents enjoy – which is where the parents’ political orientations can come into play.

Nathanson and Eveland recommend that their findings “should prompt political socialization scholars to expand their conceptualization of political socialization behaviors to acknowledge that news media exposure is not uniformly regarded by parents as a positive influence on children.” Further, they suggest more exploration into motivations for different types of parental mediation. They conclude that “Restrictive mediation of news has less to do with news and more to do with general family rule-making regarding media.”  

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Nathanson, Amy I., and Eveland Jr., William P. (2018). “Parental mediation during the U.S. 2016 presidential election campaign: How parents criticized, restricted, and co-viewed news coverage.” Communication Monographs. doi: 10.1080.03637751.2018.1527035.

About the author (s)

William P. Eveland Jr.

The Ohio State University


William Eveland Jr.

Amy I. Nathanson

The Ohio State University