“It Depends”

“It Depends” – The Most Annoying and Honest Response that I Give

“Does media violence harm young people?”

It depends.

“Do apps that are labelled educational actually help children learn better?”

It depends.

“Is multitasking problematic for teens?”

It depends.

“Can social media, like Facebook, really support social wellbeing?”

It depends.

As the director of one of the world’s largest centres for the study of young people and the media, and as the chair of the Children, Adolescents, and Media division of the International Communication Association, I get asked to talk about this field – A LOT.  Phone calls from journalists are the norm. Invitations to speak globally flood my inbox. Parents and caregivers send messages. Creators send me pitches. Even family parties are flooded with questions.  The topic of children and media is a topic that quickly sends everyone on high alert. Everyone has a perspective – and one they are ready to defend.

Some argue passionately that media has robust and meaningful effects that must be understood and capitalized upon. Others argue just as passionately that media has little effects in the grand scheme of things, and that media panics of our day are ‘much ado about nothing’. Some are convinced that today’s smartphone generation is dumbing itself down, others are convinced that the same generation will be far more equipped for the years to come thanks to their digital literacy and flexible thinking.

Everyone has a perspective.

So do I.

Except my perspective is not the popular one. My perspective often elicits a few eye rolls followed by the push to ‘pick a team’. (PS: I have picked a team … it’s the Philadelphia Eagles!)

Just as others passionately argue for their perspective, I passionately argue for mine – which is ‘It Depends’.  You see, after more than a decade in this field, and after having a bird’s eye perspective of the field and its (enormous) growth for some time now – I know one thing for sure: Effects are not that simple.

Time and time again, we see that WHO a young person is dramatically influences the extent to which they select, experience, and are affected by media content. Age matters – this we know. But so too does a host of personality traits and range of background variables. Some children love sensation and they seek out fast-paced content, experience deep physiological reactions to it, and then experience intense effects. Other children with comparably lower need for sensation are uninterested or relatively unaffected by the content altogether. Same thing goes for differences in intelligence, or personality traits like degree of extroversion, trait empathy, curiosity, and more.  And let’s not forget the larger context with which the child is growing up. My own research with colleagues at CcaM has shown remarkable differences in the extent to which media has any effects based on how parents mediate the home media environment, as well as based on the peer environment that surrounds young people.

Naysayers of media effects tend to suggest that the statistical media effects found in research studies are quite small, and as a result, are relatively meaningless. Proponents of media effects like to hold up these effects and highlight how many effects are similar in strength to those found in investigations on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer.

But I am not taking a side on this.

I don’t see these effect sizes as anything else than what they are – an aggregate of the relationship between media exposure and media effects. And while statistical effect sizes help us understand what is going on for most people, they can easily mask the messier truth: specifically, that a minority of children may be particularly influenced by (certain kinds) of media, while others may be less or unaffected altogether.

This perspective doesn’t make me popular. My response doesn’t lend itself to soundbites or so-called “chocolate headlines”. It frustrates people. How can we, after so many years of research, still say “it depends”?  Well, think about it. The media space is changing fast and furiously. So fast that I find myself texting my godson to tell me about the newest social media space I should know, and have him help me decipher what teens mean when they write #OOTD (… in case you were wondering, it’s Outfit Of the Day…). We are barely keeping pace with a media space that is increasingly on-demand, increasingly portable, and increasingly personalized. At the same time, our context of use is ever more complicated … the so-called ‘family hearth’ is a thing of the past. And, our ability to understand and study what young people bring to the media experience is more advanced than ever before. If you had told me 15 years ago that I could look at patterns of brain activity with fMRI to understand how Instagram use impacts teens’ neural processing, I would have looked at you with a blank stare. I am not saying our lessons of old aren’t valuable – they are, immensely so. But … we are in a new space that is increasingly complicated and I believe we do a disservice to our community if we make bold un-nuanced claims to effects.

Life is messy. It’s not that surprising that our research findings are messy as well. Rather than fight the mess, I am trying to embrace it. Sure, some days it makes me want to pull my hair out as I battle another manuscript or try to find a clear answer for a journalist.  Some days I find it frustrating that I cannot put everything into a neat and organized list for parents as they ask for tips about how to best manage their home media environment. Sometimes I wish I had a chocolate headline to share. It would be easier, that’s for sure.

But easy is overrated, right?

It depends.

Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam

Director, Centre for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media (CcaM)

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers


Dr. Jessica Taylor Piotrowski is the Director of the Centre for research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media at the University of Amsterdam. She is the co-author of the book “Plugged In: How Media Attract and Affect Youth”. You can download an open-access copy of the book from the publisher’s website (https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300218879/plugged). A Philadelphia native, Jessica traded cheesesteaks, cars, and the Liberty Bell for stroopwafel, running routes, and windmills in 2012 – and hasn’t looked back since. You can find her on the web at www.jessicataylorpiotrowski.com… or running her next marathon somewhere in Europe.

Movie Review: Monsters and Men


I had the privilege of attending the premiere of the new feature film, Monsters and Men, at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 6th. Set in Brooklyn, Monsters and Men almost feels like three short films merged together, each following a separate protagonist’s storyline, woven together by a far too common scenario that has shaken us to our core the past few years — the unnecessary fatal shooting of a black man by a police officer.

All three protagonists are African-American. The first is a young dad who witnesses the shooting and captures it on tape, and subsequently experiences the unjust consequences of releasing the tape. The second is a police officer in the same division as the officer who shot the man, put in the position of having to defend his loyalty to his police community to his clearly hurting black community. And finally, the third is a teenager with a promising future with a baseball scholarship, who risks it all by getting involved with protest groups against police brutality, mirroring timely race issues within the NFL. All three storylines lack resolution, an unsettling yet realistic scenario for these characters and those in similar situations.

This thought-provoking film is a quintessential example of how media coupled with impactful storytelling can used to transport the viewer into not just another world, but someone else’s shoes. In Monsters and Men, this was achieved through director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s inclusion of first-person perspectives, and his brilliant script which imparts empathy for all three protagonists’ storylines.

Movies can undoubtedly influence and shape viewers perspectives, but this is particularly true for young audiences, due to their developing minds, worldviews, and morals. This is one reason why movies that perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes are particularly problematic. Therefore, when it comes to race, content creators should strive for responsibly embedded realistic portrayals and counter-stereotypical depictions.

Fictional movies that are inspired by current events, such as Monsters and Men, offer an ideal entrypoint for introducing your teenager to these sensitive topics which are both timely and important. The fictional storyline also removes part of the taboo nature that can prevent people from talking about race relations, and slightly cushions the topic for particularly sensitive young viewers.

As a content creator, imagine a teen and parents co-viewing this film . What a fantastic launching pad for families to discuss the movie’s content and its relation to real-world events. It’s good to make content that is great, but when it’s great and impactful… even better!

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD; Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

For more information on Monsters and Men, which comes out September 28th, see TIFF’s Synopsis:https://www.tiff.net/tiff/monsters-and-men/

From In Front to Behind the Camera


If you wander through Sinking Ship Entertainment during the summer months, you might think you’ve entered into an episode of Odd Squad, where the characters from multiple children’s TV show posters lining the walls have come to life in young adult form, working entry-level jobs right in front of your eyes.

But your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. The unmistakable redhead sitting in the accounting office with laser focus is indeed the grown-up version of Daniel Cook, whom the world fell in love with over a decade ago when he starred in Sinking Ship’s very first show, “This is Daniel Cook”.

And the teenager with impeccable fashion that you see working away in the editing department is indeed the star of the show that took home the Daytime Emmy Award for best preschool program – Trek Buccino from Dino Dan: Trek’s Adventure.

The most convincing clue that you’re in an episode of Odd Squad, however, would be “Agent Oscar” (or Sean Kyer) sitting in the middle of the production department, working away with the same zest he had as the quirky scientist at Odd Squad’s headquarters.

But there’s more – if you were to step onto the set of Dino Dana, you might catch the sight of Annedroids star “Anne” (Addison Holley) shadowing various directors, or Annedroids’ “Nick” (Jadiel Dowlin) checking in on episodes he wrote (yes, you read that correctly, a teenage scriptwriter!).  

Daniel was the first to return to Sinking Ship, and partner J.J. Johnson could not have been more thrilled that the little boy who inspired the start of the company was now “coming home” to work there as a young adult. Since then, J.J. has delighted in welcoming back several former cast members and helping them discover their passion. These talented young adults could be doing anything (including acting; in fact, 3 of the 5 mentioned are Emmy-nominated actors!), yet they have chosen to lend their talents behind the scenes, where they have a unique perspective and expertise to share. J.J. is not unconvinced that they’ll all be running the place some day!

See below for insight from 4 of these individuals on what surprised them from going in front to behind the camera, and some of their thoughts on children’s TV content!

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD; Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

*In addition to her role as co-director of CSS, Colleen Russo Johnson is also the Director of Research at Sinking Ship Entertainment and married to Sinking Ship partner J.J. Johnson.