Just as media content can influence children, so can media characters. However, media characters do not compete with real identification characters and role models, but complement them. They complete:
- the range of social behaviours and actions
- and can compensate for possible deficits in the children’s immediate social environment.
Children aged 3-6 find it difficult to assess the characteristics of fictional characters. Above all, children have difficulty in recognising which features are imaginary or real when the plot of the story presents them so realistically. Even exaggerations in size, speed and strength are hardly recognizable as fictional by preschool children. This has also to do with the notion that, from the perspective of children, almost all people are faster, bigger and stronger than them.
Behavioural patterns and characteristics that are entirely made up can, in turn, be categorised by younger children as not real or imaginary. These include, for example, people with magical powers or animals who can speak.
If ECEC professionals and parents monitor children’s media use, they can help children evaluate media characters and their characteristics as fictional or real.
Due to their presence in the media, celebrities can also be important for children between the ages of three and six (e.g. football players or presenters of children's programmes).
These people usually show a great deal of passion and enthusiasm for their work. In the sense of a role model function, this can have a motivating effect on children. They may be able to learn about a variety of hobbies and talents, or they may want to try out certain artistic or sporting activities for themselves. In addition, norms, values, physical appearance and qualities are communicated to the children through the prominent person.
It is important to know that the character and often the appearance of celebrities are just as artificially created and marketed as the image of a cartoon character.
The aim here is usually to achieve a one-dimensional character (e.g. "the strong", "the social", "the nice"), which, however, the respective prominent person can hardly identify with. The worlds of fictional characters are presented in a narrative way, while real people are not always one-dimensional, but more complex in their personality traits. This multidimensionality can make these characters difficult for children to handle, especially in the case of "taboo breaks" that are spread across the media.
There is a multitude of media heroes who can enrich the children's everyday lives and give them good ideas. However, it is important to consider that, in addition to the media heroes, there are also tangible and real identification characters and role models in their environment, such as the humorous ECEC professional, the elder sister, the understanding father or the courageous friend. In order to promote this balance, it is advisable to deal with heroes from real life in connection with strengthening children's media literacy. There are hardly any limits to the accompanying and creative activities in everyday ECEC life.
You can invite to the ECEC facility heroes from everyday life, such as police officers, nurses or your own grandpa, who then talk to the children about their lives and tell them about their own role models. Afterwards, with your support, children can, for example, create collages about what has been discussed or conduct interviews with the "everyday heroes" and record them.
In order to make children aware that they can be heroes themselves, I recommend that you discuss with the children about events in which themselves or their friends have shown heroic behaviour. This may follow after great fears have been overcome, someone selflessly has helped someone else, or something very difficult has been accomplished. For the discussion I recommend conversations, but painting pictures or role plays are also suitable.
For orientation in the world, positive and healthy development of children, a balanced coexistence of real and media heroes is essential.
Design a family poster with family heroes. Collect pictures and think about why the person is so fascinating. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles – the list can be extended. A sample poster can be found here:
1. What features distinguish real people from media heroes?
2. How can tangible and real characters and role models affect the children in their own environment?
3. What do children learn from real people presented in the media, for example from a favourite sportsman?
4. How can you make children realise that they can be heroes themselves?