Tele[re]vision

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Society gives parents plenty of reasons to feel guilty about the time their children spend in front of the television.

Nicknames for the medium – boob tube or idiot box, for example – do little to help alleviate their worries.

For years, researchers have shown the negative effects of TV violence and, more recently, they have found links between childhood obesity and too much viewing. President Obama implored parents to “turn off the TV” during a campaign ad pitching his education policy. Still, the average child in the United States spends nearly four hours watching television each day, even though pediatricians recommend no more than two hours of educational programming for kids two years and older.

TV viewing is a given in the average household, but in many cases, parents have no idea what programs their children are watching or whether they understand them at all.

“What we seldom get – and need – is solid, research-based advice about when to turn the TV on,” noted Lisa Guernsey, an author and journalist who covers media effects on children, in a column she wrote for the Washington Post.

Researchers, including UW-Madison faculty and an alumnus who is behind some groundbreaking work in the field, are working to fill that void, showing that some TV can actually be good for kids.

Their efforts have improved educational programming for children, pinpointing what engages their developing brains and how they learn as they watch. Now the researchers are exploring whether children are really getting the lessons from programs that adults think they are, and how exposure to television might affect children as young as babies and toddlers.

Spoonful of Sugar

Well-crafted shows for children can teach them the alphabet, math, and basic science concepts, as well as manners and social skills. But what really makes for good television when it comes to younger viewers? That’s a key question Marie-Louise Mares MA’90, PhD’94, a UW-Madison associate professor of communication arts, is trying to answer.

Much of the educational programming aimed at children falls into the category of “prosocial” – meaning that it’s intended to teach lessons, such as healthy eating habits, self-esteem, or how to treat others. The classic example of a prosocial program is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mares has shown that a prosocial program’s positive influence can be just as strong as a violent program’s negative influence.

But good messages can get lost.

“Children’s interpretations of what a show is about are very different from what an adult thinks,” Mares says. “Some kids take away the completely wrong message.”

Mares began studying children’s comprehension of prosocial messages after watching the movie Mary Poppins with a four-year-old fan. Although the child predicted each scene before it appeared on screen, she had difficulty doing what Mares calls “making sense of the story.” The girl did not know why the character Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, was on the roof dancing or that the “spoonful of sugar” Julie Andrews sings about was a metaphor. As they continued to watch the movie together, Mares learned that what is obvious to an adult doesn’t necessarily sink in with children.

She demonstrated that confusion in a study involving a TV episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog, in which the cartoon character and friends meet a three-legged dog named K.C. The intent of the program was to teach children to be accepting of those with disabilities. But throughout much of the episode, Clifford and his friends behave badly toward the dog. At one point, one of the dogs expresses fear of catching three-legged dog disease. Sure enough, in follow-up interviews, one-third of the children thought the dogs could catch the disease, and many of them interpreted the lesson of the episode along the lines of this child’s comment: “You should be careful … not to get sick, not to get germs.”

“Showing the fear can actually be more conflicting and more frightening to kids,” Mares says.

Her findings are important because much of kids’ programming attempts to teach lessons by showing characters behaving badly in some way and then having them learn better behavior. That’s confusing for children, Mares says, and could even lead them to focus on the bad behavior.

In the end, 80 percent of the kids in the study said the lesson of the Clifford episode was to be nice to dogs with three legs. Although that’s a nice sentiment, Mares says, “You don’t encounter many [three-legged dogs].”

The producers of prosocial programs also should consider the methods they use to portray the behaviors they’re trying to teach kids, Mares says, as well as ensure that the content is relevant and realistic to young viewers. That might be one of the reasons why stories involving dogs or other animal characters don’t seem to get the message across to children. One group of youngsters in Mares’ study watched a Clifford episode that had been edited to remove the dogs showing fear of K.C. – yet the children still interpreted the story as being about dogs, not about inclusiveness and tolerance.

Mares is in new territory; virtually no research has been conducted to identify programming that would effectively foster inclusiveness in children. She has experimented, with mixed results, by embedding some kind of prompt within children’s programs that could help young viewers comprehend the intended message, especially since most parents aren’t watching along with their kids. Attempts include having the main character start off the show or interrupt mid-lesson to say, “Hey kids, in this story we’re going to learn that we shouldn’t be afraid of people who are different.”

She’s still looking for answers on how that practice – which she calls scaffolding – could work effectively. But balance is essential, Mares says, noting that she could create the “ideal” show, but then kids wouldn’t want to watch.

Making over Sesame Street

The end of the 1960s saw the debut of two landmark educational programs for young people: Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Not long after, Daniel Anderson ’66 began trying to discover what exactly was going on with children while they watched TV.

Anderson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has advised the producers of children’s shows including Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo, dispelled one of the central myths on the subject – that when the TV is turned on, children’s brains turn off. In fact, parents are more likely than their children to become couch potatoes while watching television, says Anderson, who holds a UW bachelor’s degree in psychology.

He observed children watching television and witnessed them turning away from the screen several times during a broadcast to play with toys, fight with siblings, or talk to their parents. After they were done watching, he tested their understanding of what they had just seen. Anderson’s findings were the exact opposite of what most people thought.
“It was very clear that children were mentally active, that they were constantly posing questions for themselves, [asking], ‘What’s going to happen next, why are they doing that … is this real?’ ” he says. “And it was also clear that when television invited participation, that kids would become very active – pointing at the screen or talking to the characters on the TV.”

This finding ushered in a new era of children’s programming, with the cable channel Nickelodeon enlisting Anderson’s help to develop a new generation of shows in the late 1990s, most notably Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, that were centered on the concept that children would dance, sing, and follow along with programs they enjoyed rather than sit and stare vacantly at the screen.

Blue’s Clues features a mix of animated characters – including a cute blue puppy – and backgrounds, with a live host who invites children who are watching to look for and decipher clues to solve a puzzle, such as, “What does Blue want for her birthday?” Along the way, the show focuses on information such as colors or shapes or numbers.

Anderson pushed producers to make the show visually simple, with very little editing or transitions that require viewers to process jumps in time or location – something young children have a hard time doing, his research showed.

While most researchers “focus on the negative contributions of media,” experts such as Anderson and Mares have been “at the forefront of recognizing that television that is designed to be educational really can be beneficial for children,” says Amy Jordan, who oversees research on children’s media policy for The Annenberg Public Policy Center.

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, which examines how ideas and trends spread, author Malcolm Gladwell labeled Blue’s Clues as one of the “stickiest” – meaning the most irresistible and involving – television shows ever aired, and noted that its creators “borrowed those parts of Sesame Street that did work.”

In turn, the success of Blue’s Clues prompted the producers of Sesame Street to seek Anderson’s help in giving the long-running staple a makeover. With the new millennium approaching, the show needed to catch up with the way kids watch TV. Rather than the repetitive narrative format children delighted in following as they watched Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street featured a series of about forty short segments, ranging in length from ten seconds to four minutes.

“The original conception was that you needed a lot of novelty and change to hold a preschooler’s attention. And so they quite explicitly would put things together in unpredictable orders,” Anderson says. “A story that was
happening on the street with Big Bird and the human characters might be followed by a film about buffalos, which in turn might be followed by a Muppet piece about the letter H.”

Sesame Street offered children no connection or context among the concepts and segments, and, not surprisingly, it lost viewers when shows like Blue’s Clues began airing. At Anderson’s suggestion, producers made the
show more storylike and predictable, reducing the number of characters
and sets, and connecting more concepts. Now the typical episode features around ten segments per hour.

“You’re dealing with children who don’t need complexity,” Anderson says. “In a sense, a lot of what they were doing was almost for the adults and not so much for their audience.”

Research Gap

The notion of children and television as a research prospect first confronted Anderson when he was a young assistant professor. He had just given an undergraduate lecture on child development, in which he said younger children tend to have more trouble sustaining attention than older children, when one of his students asked, “Well, if those things are true, how come my four-year-old brother can just sit and stare [at Sesame Street]?”

“I kind of glibly answered him,” Anderson recalls, “that ‘Oh, it’s because television is just being a distractor. It just looks like your brother’s sustaining attention, but the picture is constantly changing and so on.’ I just made that up – I had no idea.”

Feeling guilty, Anderson sent a
graduate student to the library with orders to find out everything he could about children’s attention to television.

“He kept coming back and saying he couldn’t find anything, and that’s what got me started,” Anderson says.

Beginning in the 1980s, Anderson and his colleagues followed 570 children from preschool until high school graduation to see what effect watching Sesame Street had on their school performance, behavior, and attitudes. They found that children who had watched when they were young earned better grades in high school, read more books, placed more value on achievement, and showed less aggression. Anderson’s study included controls for many other factors, including family size, exposure to media in adolescence, and parents’ socioeconomic status.

“We think that the effects are really traceable and cumulative all the way, at least, through high school. So television, I think, can be a powerful educator,” Anderson says.

Jordan says those findings hold up in other research. “Television that has a clear curriculum in mind – that studiously avoids problematic content like violence – has been shown in dozens of studies to really enhance the way children think, the kinds of things that they know, and even how they get along with one another,” she says.

An Uncontrolled Experiment

So where does that leave guilt-ridden parents looking for answers about television? It seems it comes down to what and how much kids are watching, and at what age.

Anderson, who has been working in the field for decades, thinks that despite educational programming, children are growing up within a vast, uncontrolled experiment. And he draws a sharp distinction about TV’s potential value for children over age two.

His recent research focuses on how very young children are affected by simply playing or spending time in a room where adult programming, such as news programs or talk shows, is on the television. Anderson’s latest study observed what happened when fifty children ages one to three played in a room for an hour. Half of the time, there was no TV in the room; for the last thirty minutes, the game show Jeopardy! – not exactly a toddler favorite – was showing.

The conventional wisdom, based on previous research, was that very young children don’t pay attention to programs that they can’t understand. But Anderson’s study found clear signs that when the television was on, children had trouble concentrating, shortened and decreased the intensity of their play, and cut in half the time they focused on a particular toy.

When the TV was on, the children played about ninety seconds less overall. The concern is whether those effects could add up and harm children’s playtime in the long term, impairing their ability to develop sustained attention and other key cognitive skills.

The Annenberg center’s Jordan says more studies looking at the effects of TV on younger children are essential, in part because surveys have found that as many as two-thirds of children six years and under live in homes where the TV is on at least half the time, regardless of whether anyone is watching.

“Babies today are spending hours in front of screens … and we don’t really understand how it’s affecting their development,” she says. “We can no longer assume children are first exposed to TV when they’re two years old because it’s happening at a much younger age.”

Jenny Price ’96 is a writer for On Wisconsin.

Published in the Summer 2009 issue

Tags: Research, Social sciences

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