A Good Thing Gone Wrong: A Problem with Educational Media  

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Imagine a show which depicts children are fighting over a toy. An adult steps in and the importance of sharing is discussed. The children generate a solution to play with the toy together, during which each gets time holding the prized object. The children then happily play together. It seems like this could be a positive show to watch with your young child. The problem is the take-away message from your little viewers is often mixed.

Sometimes Educational Media Results in Prosocial Behavior

Some research shows that educational, prosocial media consumption is associated with increases in prosocial behavior, such as helping others and increasing tolerance for others. A meta-analysis (a large study of other studies) demonstrated effects between prosocial media content and prosocial behavior. A recent study of the popular television series for the preschool set, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, showed a positive impact on children’s social skills (empathy, self-efficacy and emotional recognition). In order to see the positive effect, the TV show-watching had to be accompanied by parent-child conversations about the lessons on screen. While this is in line with the current American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on screen-time, it often doesn’t happen. Let’s look at the research that suggests educational media may have a dark side.

Sometimes Educational Media Results in Aggressive Behavior

Some other studies demonstrate that prosocial messages may result in increased aggression or antisocial behavior, the opposite of the intended effect. In a study of 78 preschoolers, researchers  found that exposure to educational media was predictive of relational aggression. Upon examining the programs viewed by the preschoolers, the researchers interpret the findings, “ It is likely that young children do not attend to the overall ‘lesson’ in the manner an older child or adult can, but instead learn from each of the behaviors shown, including the explicit relationally aggressive behaviors.”

One research study on a popular children’s program, Clifford the Big Red Dog, demonstrates the importance of developmentally appropriate programming. Researchers showed a 10-minute clip to kindergarteners, during which a three-legged dog was discriminated against. The other characters expressed concern that they would get sick from being near the dog or were not inclusive of the dog. The final minute of the program contained the lesson of inclusiveness towards those with disabilities. However, the majority of children who watched the program did not get this message. In fact, many of them got the opposite message: that disabilities can be scary and should be avoided. This finding was supported by a meta-analysis that found when children’s programming showed a prosocial message in combination with aggressive behavior or conflict, it was associated with negative behavior in the children.

It appears that children attend to the most salient (and threatening) aspects of the program; remembering, for example, that there was a conflict about sharing an object but failing to remember the solution that was shown as well. Young children may not be capable of following even a short narrative on a television program, thus not seeing the connection between the conflict and pro-social lesson. Additionally, the conflict is usually given more airspace than the solution.

Another study showed a longitudinal relationship such that educational media exposure was related to increased incidents of relational aggression in preschool-aged children. The study followed forty children over the course of two years. Information was gathered about the nature of programs watched. Several measures of children’s aggression were collected including playground observations, teacher reports and parent reports. Some common shows that were rated as educational within this study included Arthur, Caillou, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Curious George, Franklin and Reading Rainbow.

What’s a Parent to Do?

All this conflicting and complicated research findings can cause a parent to throw up their hands (or their tablet). However, there are some key actionable steps parent can take to promote prosocial behavior in their children when it comes to technology.

1.      Wait until Your Child is Ready

One option is to wait until your children are old enough to follow plots rather than pay attention to simple actions.  Older children do this more consistently than preschool-aged kids. The effects of relational aggression may be due to the fact that preschool aged children are not connecting the earlier aggression in the show with the solution that comes at the end of show. School aged children (6-10) are much better at this than preschool children. We obviously think this is the easiest option (hence our domain name).

2.      Choose Programs that are Only Prosocial

If you would like to watch some programming with your preschooler while avoiding the increases in relational aggression, choose programs that are only prosocial. In their meta-analysis, Mares and Woodward labeled shows like the Clifford episode above as “aggressive prosocial,” meaning there was aggression followed by a prosocial conclusion. For young children, they are better able to understand prosocial messages when they are not preceded by physical or relational aggression.

3.      Co-watch with Your Child

Several studies, including the recent one on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, demonstrate the importance of parents co-viewing with their child. If you are hoping your preschooler will learn from a prosocial television, it is necessary to involve yourself in the process.

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