Multimedia Design with an Eye toward Emotions: Why Emotional Design is Central to Creating Better Learning Environments

Are you ever aware of your emotions while learning new information? Have you ever noticed or wondered why it seems easier to learn new information when you’re in a good mood compared to when you’re in a bad mood?

Emotions are thought to be important for learning in any context, but particularly in the context of multimedia environments. In fact, emotional design of multimedia environments aim to evoke emotions for better learning by tapping into emotional and motivational processes. Specifically, individuals who are highly engaged and motivated to complete an educational activity are also more likely to learn from it. This suggests that that the joy learners experience from interacting with a digital learning environment, likely influences a learner’s feelings about the experience, even outside of the digital environment. Thus, highly emotional contexts may be better support for learning. 

One type of learning context that is highly engaging and motivating is game-based learning environments. The research team at the CREATE Lab of New York University examined emotions in game-based digital learning environments. They examined how color, shape, expression, and dimensionality of game characters could be used to induce emotions in a digital game-based learning environment among adolescent learners. After being shown a pair of game characters, participants reported their emotions by selecting the character that best matched the target emotion word (e.g., happy or sad). It was found that the game character’s facial expression (e.g., smiling, neutral, frowning) affected participants’ choices the most. By contrast, dimensionality (e.g., 2D or 3D visual appearance) appeared to affect participants' the most in immersive virtual reality settings. The color of the character (e.g., warm or grayscale pigments) and the shape of the character (e.g., round or square)  influenced decisions to a lesser extent. These findings demonstrate how visual features of a game character could influence how a user feels. More importantly, the findings may suggest that in order to make users feel positively and to promote their learning, designers only need to change a very specific and simple aspect of the digital game environment: character expressions.

In another study, researchers at the CREATE Lab examined whether playing a version of  game-based training with emotional design was associated with improvements in cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to flexibly shift between different mental sets and is often measured by how well an individual can learn a new rule for sorting objects by the object’s shape, color, etc. The results indicated that older adolescents improved most on mental set shifting when they played the emotionally designed version (e.g., expressive game characters, warm colors, responsive features) of the game compared with those who played a neutral-looking version (e.g., non-expressive game characters, neutral and grayscale pigments, non-responsive features) of the same game. Taken together, these findings highlight the possibilities for educators and developers to consciously and strategically integrate foundations of emotional design into digital environments to improve learning outcomes. 

There are many possibilities for incorporating elements of emotional design into digital learning environments. While research in this area points to fruitful opportunities, there is evidence that emotional design is associated with increased enjoyment, engagement, and performance. By better applying principles of emotional design to multimedia, we can improve learning outcomes. Both developers and consumers could benefit from understanding emotional design, and how it can be used to sustain engagement for optimal learning through moderate use in digital learning environments that possess educational rigor.

Actionable insights for content creators: 

  • Begin with the user in mind. What appeals to the target audience? Considering what personalization, choice, themes, etc. might appeal to the idealized user is important. Particularly for children and adolescents, consciously designing such that the product is not only attractive but also developmentally appropriate is crucial. 

  • Align emotional design choices with the goals of learning. To understand this recommendation, it may be helpful to understand the distinction between game mechanics and learning mechanics. Game mechanics refer to the methods employed by users that invoke interaction within a game state. Learning mechanics, by contrast, refer to the methods users engage in while performing a learning task within the game. Incorporating emotional design that is not connected with task-specific learning objectives may confuse the user and detract from the effectiveness of task engagement. Ultimately, if integrated properly, emotional design can serve to bypass this confusion and improve associated outcomes.

  • Test, evaluate, and design. In the course of designing or evaluating a multimedia learning environment, it is important to understand the users’ actual experience with it. Sometimes “idealized users” (i.e., those imagined by game designers or researchers) don’t reflect the interests and needs of the real users or the target population. Thus, determining how a real life user would interact within the learning environment and using this information to re-design and adjust the environment accordingly can help enhance the users’ learning. 

  • Check your emotions when evaluating “educational” learning environments. Not all multimedia digital learning environments are designed for learning, even the ones carrying the label “educational.” These labels are often not applied with any clear or rigorous standards for accountability. A recent developmental science policy report indicated children are spending a considerable amount of time immersed in digital media, and the long-term consequences for development are still not entirely understood. While we may not fully understand the developmental consequences, it should be recognized that emotional design can also lead users down a garden path of intense engagement without substantive learning, even though it contains so many positive applications.

Teresa M. Ober & Maya C. Rose

The Graduate Center CUNY

There’s More to the Picture”: What the adults of Foster Care want content creators to know

“There’s More to the Picture”:

What the adults of Foster Care want content creators to know

Media content has the power to shape perceptions and views on a mass scale. Unfortunately, media portrayals of youth in foster care are often negative and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. In this special blog series, The Center for Scholars and Storytellers is exploring this topic from multiple perspectives to inform and inspire the creation of accurate, empowering, and socially responsible media portrayals of youth in foster care. 

“I think most people don't really understand why someone would want to be a foster parent. They don't understand the positive effects a foster parent can have on a child and their birth family, and what they get back (emotionally) in return.” 

When we think of foster care, we immediately picture children and teens. But for every youth in care, there are many adults directly attached, including birth parents, foster parents, and  social care workers. So when we look at foster care portrayals in fictional media, it is critical to take a holistic look that includes how the adults within the system are depicted. To do so, we sought feedback from two foster parents (one male, one female) and two foster care professionals (both females in leadership roles at foster care agencies). 

Can fictional media persuade (or dissuade) adults from becoming foster parents?

According to all four respondents, the answer is a resounding yes. But, it does go in both directions. One respondent stated that they believe the negative images in the media have contributed to the difficulty of recruiting foster parents, whereas the foster Dad said it was actually a positive portrayal of foster care in fictional media that initially inspired him to become a foster parent (he specifically noted the CBC special “A Home for the Holidays” and ABC’s “The Fosters”.)

It is difficult for people not involved with the foster care system to understand the motivations for becoming a foster parent. As one respondent stated, “There are some that think foster parents are doing it just for the money. I think most people don't really understand why someone would want to be a foster parent. They don't understand the positive effects a foster parent can have on a child and their birth family, and what they get back (emotionally) in return.” 

The two men featured in our previous blog who were formerly in foster care noted additional motivations they perceived for adults wanting to become foster parents, including: feeling bad about the large number of children in care, wanting to help nurture a child while in retirement, a desire for children but an inability to have biological kids, or because they themselves were in foster care. To that point, one of the former foster youth said he would absolutely consider being a foster parent one day, saying “I was blessed to have been adopted to a loving family and I know the feeling of lost hope. Returning the favor or more importantly having the power to change someone’s life for the better is the ultimate dream”. 

Unfortunately, misunderstandings regarding the type of people who become foster parents seep into media content, and can dissuade people from wanting to explore fostering.  Indeed, another respondent noted how foster care parents are often represented as either “perfect people” or “system milkers”, which just further drives inaccurate stereotypes and prevents viewers from seeing themselves in those roles. Instead, foster care parents want to be “portrayed as multidimensional, from varied backgrounds and economic classes, motivated by caring for kids in care”, and “regular people who desire to help a child in need”. 

When media gets it right. The movie “Instant Family” does a terrific job of showcasing “regular people” who decide to foster for a variety of reasons. The film honestly depicts the rollercoaster of emotions, including realistic doubt in their decision to foster. By portraying a relatable, imperfect, but well-intentioned couple, viewers are more likely to see themselves in that situation and consider becoming foster parents. 

Overcoming the “evil child snatcher” trope of social workers            

Social care workers have one of the most difficult jobs. One respondent mentioned how they are unfortunately part of an overall “failed system”, making their job seemingly impossible at times. Indeed, they are working within a confusing system, in rapidly changing and high-intensity situations. But our respondents noted that the general public really lacks an understanding of what foster care social workers actually do, other than “remove children from their homes”, and simply classify it as a “very difficult job that they themselves would not want to do”. This does not encourage people to enter the job, and media portrayals certainly do not help. Social care workers are often depicted as evil child snatchers or overly do-gooders that few can relate to. The reality is that they are well-intentioned, trained professionals who care about the well-being of children. It’s important that content creators capture this difficulty while still portraying social workers that have a good relationship with the foster youth in their care. 

When media gets it right. The social care worker depicted in season three of the television drama “This Is Us” impressively captures the highs and lows of the job, and showcases the benefit of trust built between a worker and child in care. 

Working towards a more compassionate lens on birth parents 

Media portrayals of birth parents rarely stray from the stereotypes of, as one respondent explained, “bad people who have done horrible things to their children and don’t deserve the chance to make things right or parent their children ever again”, or simply put by another respondent, “awful people”. 

The truth is, more often or not, these are people who have had a hard life and a spout of bad luck. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and could also easily fall into a difficult situation. Furthermore, the disease of addiction can become so overpowering that it consumes them and prevents them from being the parent they want to be at that time. They are flawed people, just like everyone. 

Our respondents all expressed a desire to see birth parents shown in a more compassionate light. One respondent noted wanting to see them as less pathologized and caricatured. Another said “birth parents are often people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, who come from their own dysfunctional families, and did not set out to hurt their children. They may not be able to parent them, but they do love them. And it is possible for people to change.” Another mentioned that “most birth parents do not intend to hurt or neglect their children, they over discipline for a myriad of reasons, they are addicted to drugs or homeless because they were barely making it to begin with and had an event that tipped the scales.” 

When media gets it right. Season three of “This Is Us” depicts this nuanced role of a birth mother perfectly, showing the desire to be the mom both she (and her daughter) wanted her to be, but doomed by many factors including her own rough upbringing, addictions, and bad partners. Through it all, however, you could see that the love and admiration she had for her daughter was genuine. 

Actionable insights for content creators: 

  • Foster parent portrayal: Show relatable characters from a variety of backgrounds (including race, economic, sexual orientation, and cultural). Don’t shy away from them asking taboo questions that potential foster parents might have. Show a realistic experience of the foster parent experience-- the ups and the downs-- but strive for an overall positive outlook. 

  • Social worker portrayal: Make an effort to show individuals who truly care about the child’s well being, and are doing their absolute best working in an extremely complex and sometimes failed system. 

  • Birth parent portrayal: Avoid falling into stereotypes. Give the character the depth and compassion deserved that explains why he or she ended up in this position. 

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD

Co-Director for the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

This blog series is supported in part by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.

Upcoming foster care blog posts in this special series to explore:

  • Foster parent perspective, and how to encourage more

  • Features on media that “gets it right”

Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

You walk into a classroom and you notice every fourth grader sitting at their desk holding an iPad and tilting it back and forth as if attempting to balance an invisible ball on it. You hear sounds coming from the children that signify their intense captivation: “Oh I almost got that one.” “Aw, how could I have missed that?” “Yes, got it!” You look over a student’s shoulder and notice a ball, with a fraction written inside it, bouncing on top of a thick line at the bottom of the screen in a forest-like setting. The student is tilting the iPad until the ball falls onto the line. When the ball fails to land on the correct spot, tiny marks appear on the line, which seem to serve as hints. Their teacher walks over to you and says, “Can you believe that this game Motion Math is teaching them fractions?” 

Motion Math and other commercially available educational games have entered classrooms across the country, with research demonstrating benefits of digital game play for K-16 students across a variety of academic subjects, including mathematics, science, and social studies. For example, a study showed that fourth graders who played Motion Mathfor 20 minutes a day for just 5 days outperformed a control group on a fractions test and expressed more favorable attitudes and confidence towards learning fractions. Another study found that third graders who played digital math games such as Motion Math, performed similarly on math tests compared to a control group that had completed digital worksheets. However, the former was associated with higher levels of enjoyment and engagement and children were more likely to play with math games when given several other options during free time. 

Game-based learning is not only limited to educational games, but can also be extended to commercial simulation games such as SimCity and Minecraft. For example, one controlled study found that adolescents demonstrated an increased understanding of urban and civic issues after several weeks of building residential, commercial, public, and industrial city structures in SimCity. Similarly, Minecraft, has been used in schools across the world to support visualization in a wide range of academic content areas including spatial geometry and ancient history. Although there are relatively few controlled studies examining the benefits of Minecraft, a study of college students found that there are several social benefits to the digital game (and other multiplayer digital games) such as improved collaboration and adaptability skills and resourcefulness. Recent case studies suggest that Minecraft and associated forums may also provide supportive contexts for children with autism to engage with peers and for learners of English as a second language to develop communication skills. Such findings are not unexpected, as game play has long served as a social lubricant and tool for building relationships among people of all ages. 

For commercial digital games to contribute effectively to student learning in school settings, professional development may be needed where teachers learn game mechanics and about the participatory culture of game play. Indeed a recent report suggested that K-8 teachers who self-identified as “gamers” were more likely to include digital games for learning in their classes, whereas teachers who did not use games often reported being unsure how to integrate games into the curriculum. Although 74% of teachers reported using digital games in their classroom, only 5% indicated use of commercial video games.  For the most part, teachers tended to use traditional drill-and-practice educational games in their classes as opposed to immersive games designed for entertainment. 

Despite children’s nearly continuous access to digital games via the Internet and their popularity, there remains a paucity of research on the cognitive effects of digital game play for preadolescent youth. As emphasized in a recent Society for Research in Child Development policy report, more research is needed to identify the specific features of digital games that foster cognitive skills development and motivation. Value-added research, comparing minimally different versions of the same game to determine if specific features enhance learning outcomes, needs to be extended to children, as most studies to date have involved college students. As an example, research on game-based multimedia lessons for plant biology, conducted with both seventh graders and college students, demonstrated advantages for inclusion of an animated pedagogical agent who spoke to the game-player as they engaged in the science activity. In a similar vein, research with toddlers has shown that familiarizing them with the featured character of an instructional math video enhanced concept learning as compared to children who did not have prior exposure to the character in the video. Such findings suggest that forming parasocial relationships with on-screen characters while engaging in game play or other multimedia instruction may foster children’s learning and retention of information. 

Overall, digital game play offers a multitude of opportunities for children to learn, but it is necessary for content creators to create appropriate content that is based on empirical research. Building a strong evidence base for optimizing digital games for learning can only be accomplished through dedicated funding. In February 2019, the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act was introduced to Congress with the aim of providing federal funding for scientific investigations of the impact of technology on children’s socio-emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Unfortunately, passage of this bill has stalled. Funding CAMRA is a first step in recognizing at a national level the importance of digital games as a critical context for children’s development and for building partnerships between content creators and researchers aimed at establishing best practices for digital game play in schools and extra-curricular programs. 

Patricia J. Brooks & Maya C. Rose

College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

“We’re Not Broken” - What two former foster youth want content creators to know

“We’re Not Broken”

What two former foster youth want content creators to know

Media content has the power to shape perceptions and views on a mass scale. Unfortunately, media portrayals of youth in foster care are often negative and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. In this special blog series, The Center for Scholars and Storytellers is exploring this topic from multiple perspectives to inform and inspire the creation of accurate, empowering, and socially responsible media portrayals of youth in foster care.

“People would judge me based off of my situation of being in foster care and not based on who I was as a person. A lot of times it’s other children around you that are the most cruel. You are never given a fair chance to show your true colors.” -- Former foster youth

Children and teens in foster care constantly face judgments from others, solely based on their connection to foster care. How foster youth are portrayed in TV shows and movies impacts this perception-- both positively and negatively. The Center for Scholars and Storytellers is in the process of gathering insight from young adults who were previously in foster care. The following features two former foster youth, both men who are now in their early 20s and 30s.

Both men felt that the general public has negative impressions of youth in foster care, which mirror the unhelpful stereotypes they see perpetuated in TV shows and movies. When describing how they think people view foster youth, they used words such as:





Heavily Traumatized

They felt that media portrayals of foster youth are overall negative, one-dimensional, and rife with damaging stereotypes.

“Most of the times foster children are portrayed in a negative way, as if they are problematic and troubled. In rare cases do you see them shown in a positive light.”

“A lot of stereotypes of what a foster youth is persists in mainstream media and for myself it becomes hard to watch popular shows or movies.”

One man mentioned that in his experience, white or lighter skinned foster children are more likely to be portrayed as ending up with a positive situation, whereas Latinos and African Americans are more often shown as aggressive and/or as criminals. It was also mentioned how the lack of diversity in portrayed foster youth has made it hard for him to relate to the characters.

One of the best ways to tackle this problem is to encourage former foster youth to get involved in the media content creation process. Not just as consultants informing the process, but as creators, writers, producers, directors, and more. One of the men even called this out, saying, “I don't think there's enough foster youth involved behind the scenes in creating and producing media content.”

Regarding one-dimensionality, it was mentioned how there isn’t enough nuance in the conflicting emotions foster youth have with the foster care system itself, let alone everything else happening in their life. The system is often portrayed negatively, which can deter people from getting involved in social work or as foster parents. There are many good things about the foster care system and people working in it that could be highlighted in media content.

“At its core, the foster care program starts from a good place with good intentions for mankind. It allows different people in need of love to unite. Whether you are an adult looking for a child to love, or a child or teen who is often heartbroken and at a loss of love.”

Foster youth have a lot to overcome. For instance, they lack a financial and emotional safety net due to constant moving between foster homes, schools, and sometimes states. This is something that other children often take for granted. When asked who they turn to when they need to talk to someone, both men said they rarely turn to anyone; “Unfortunately, a lot of times you subconsciously adopt the lifestyle of a lone wolf”. Feared consequences for even the smallest of venting, and continued worries of displacement contribute to this lack of trust in others.

But foster youth also learn to be extremely resilient, and both of these men have developed extremely positive outlooks. When asked to reflect on what he would tell his younger self, one man responded: “Great job followed your heart you looked towards a better day and everything worked out.... I would not change anything.”
We also asked them what they would want to tell their future self, and the answers were truly beautiful and inspiring:

“I would say thank you for investing in your dream and not giving up when everyone told you the system is too big to question.”

“I would tell my future self always stay true to yourself and never forget where you came from nor the journey you took to reach the place you are now. If you are ever in a position to change someone’s life or even influence someone’s life for the better, give it your all even if its a complete stranger. I was once a complete stranger to the family I now love and the woman of my life I now call Mom!”

Seeing more positive depictions of youth in foster care can go a long way in changing the narrative around what it means to be a youth in foster care. Indeed both men spoke of their desire for a “better picture to be painted” when it comes to foster youth portrayal in media.

“Instead of broken, youth in foster care should be portrayed as survivors: strong, successful, and rejuvenated.”

Actionable Insights for Content Creators:

  • Avoid playing into negative stereotypes about foster care youth and instead focus on their strengths.

  • Portray realistic stories and representation by including those who have experienced the foster care system throughout the writing and production process.

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD

Co-Director for the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

This blog series is supported in part by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.

Upcoming foster care blog posts in this special series to explore:

  • Foster parent perspective, and how to encourage more

  • Features on media that “gets it right”

How to Detox Masculinity

How to Detox Masculinity

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed

Growing up as a sensitive youth who attended a conservative all-boys school, I have often felt out of place amongst my fellow men. Popular television shows like Entourage and movies like The Hangover showed me the ways in which guys were supposed to connect with each other and interact with women, but I struggled to relate to the misogynistic behaviors depicted on the screen and echoed by the men around me. Today, as a writer of films and television, I see the power that popular culture has in shaping our conceptions of manhood; and I believe it’s our responsibility as content creators to detoxify the destructive messaging that has pervaded mainstream media for far too long. 

The term “toxic masculinity” is being used more and more these days, but few are defining exactly what it means and why it must be challenged. So let’s take a look at the startling facts of some recent psychological studies to help shed light on the damaging expectations ingrained by historical patriarchy.

Just this year, the American Psychological Association released new guidelines for practice with men and boys, with more than 40 years of research showing that “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.”

For the inward echoes, we need only look to a 2018 CDC report, which revealed that suicide rates among American men are over three times that of women. This imbalance was largely attributed to internalized standards that men shouldn’t express emotions or show vulnerability, thus leading to self-destructive behaviors in lieu of seeking help.

The outward echoes of toxic masculinity can be seen in a 2018 United Nations study on global homicide patterns, which revealed that “intimate partner violence against women and girls is rooted in widely-accepted gender norms about men’s authority… and men’s use of violence to exert control over women. Research shows that men and boys who adhere to rigid views of gender roles and masculinity… are more likely to use violence against a partner.”

 These timely studies amount to a harsh reality that toxic masculinity is killing men and women alike; and that its deadly inheritance is deeply rooted in cultural norms. In order for society to evolve past these damaging traditional viewpoints, we need to look at how portrayals of men in the media have perpetuated harmful behaviors and offer positive alternatives to content creators.

To combat toxic masculinity in popular culture and beyond, here are a few actionable insights for writers:

  1. Show men crying, expressing vulnerability, and seeking help for emotional distress.

  2. Model male characters who are not controlling with their partners, but rather supportive of women’s freedom and independence.

  3. Depict men offering emotional support to each other and holding a safe space for vulnerability.

  4. Avoid glorifying “boys clubs” that encourage traditional masculine repression and misogynistic exclusion. 

  5. Offer representations of equal partnerships where men are not the assumed authority.

  6. Demonstrate how men can stand up to other men who are engaged in toxic rhetoric or behavior against women.

  7. Portray male-female friendships that are not rooted in sexual prospects.

  8. Highlight vulnerability as a male character’s strength, rather than portraying it as an emasculating weakness or the butt of a joke.


It’s time to detox masculinity. Starting with the screen.


Brian McAuley, MFA

CSS Collaborator

WGA Screenwriter

Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of the Arts

More Realistic Physical Representations in Media Will Support Youth Mental Health

More Realistic Physical Representations in Media Will Support Youth Mental Health

For many years, parents, child advocates, and mental health professionals have expressed their concerns about the influence of mass media on children and adolescents’ perceptions of body image, body satisfaction, and self-esteem. Over the past decade, with the rise of digital media and young people’s nearly constant engagement with media and technology, there has been an increasing alarm. Sadly, the media is filled with unrealistic representations of what our bodies should look like and do not accurately reflect the range of body shapes we see within our society—female characters and models often have bodies that are smaller and thinner than average, and males are often shown as physically strong and muscular. On top of this, these characters are often portrayed as being successful, accepted, sexually desirable, and happy while overweight characters are commonly used as comic relief, are often ridiculed in social situations and regarded as unattractive. 

recent report looking at children’s television in both the US and Canada showed that the majority of human characters in children’s television, especially females, were portrayed as thin or very thin. In addition, female characters were nearly twice as likely to be sexualized in the US based on factors such as revealing or flattering clothing, long eyelashes, and sensual lips. 

While many things can contribute to one’s body satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and self-esteem, several research studies have established that children and youth are indeedvulnerable to mass media images and messages that encourage and reinforce distorted body images and unhealthy perceptions about dietary health. 

In one striking example, a landmark study over the period that television was introduced to a community in Fiji demonstrated the dramatic effect these images had on young adolescent girls, showing how they internalized the Western images of beauty, resulting in disordered eating habits and patterns. Moreover, a meta-analysis of 25 experimental studies examined the immediate effect of exposure to a variety of images and found that body image, especially for females younger than 19, was significantly more negative after seeing thin media characters than after seeing average or plus-size media characters or inanimate objects. 

Exposure to hundreds and thousands of these inaccurate and unrealistic images over time sends the message that they are common and normal within society, when in fact, they are difficult if not impossible for most people to achieve. In fact, these images are almost always digitally manipulated, modified and enhanced to achieve this ‘ideal’ body image, creating an even larger gap between reality and what we see in the media. The impact of not being able to look like these characters in the media is associated with decreased self-esteem, body satisfaction, depression, and eating disorders.

Moreover, exposure to sexualizing media leads to self-objectification in both men and women – which feeds a destructive cycle of measuring self-esteem by physical appearance. At a time when rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are on a steep rise, especially among young women and girls, putting a stop to these distorted media representations is long overdue and more important than ever.

While the problem remains significant, we have seen some positive improvements in advertising and marketing campaigns in recent years. For example, Aerie, the lingerie retailer, created a campaign, #AerieREAL, which intends to promote body positivity by using raw, unretouched images that feature models of different racial backgrounds and body types and more recently, models with disabilities and other medical issues. Similarly, Dove’s Girls Self Esteem campaign has a similar mission. Many popular retail brands, such as Target, Old Navy, Nike, and Forever 21, have followed suit by incorporating a diversity of body types and/or scaling back on re-touching photos in their advertising. 

In TV and film, avoiding these distorted physical stereotypes is still the exception, not the rule. There are a handful of shows making a solid effort to promote more “body positivity” through inclusion of a variety of body types and characters, but they are unfortunately few and far between. We need to see much more of this – and urgently – especially for any hope of stemming the tide of rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among our youth. 

Inclusive and realistic portrayals can promote body acceptance and reinforce self-esteem – and wellness should be prioritized over ratings. If done well, the ensuing culture shift should open the door for a new era of creative, representative content that viewers can relate to and embrace. 

To contribute to positive body diversity in media, here are some actionable insights for content creators:

  1. Offer more realistic cultural standards of beauty through a diversity of body types and experiences.

  2. Avoid characters fixating on weight loss and beauty. 

  3. Create characters who model body positivity and acceptance. 

  4. Deviate from cultural norms of women needing to be slender and men, strong and muscular.

  5. Offer an alternative narrative to one featuring women and girls as sexual objects and men as fixated on female physical characteristics above all others.

  6. Show characters who deviate from the cultural norms of beauty as romantically desirable and socially accepted, not just as sidekicks or comic relief. 

Vicki Harrison, MSW

Program Director, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing

Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing

Adrianna Ruggiero

Senior Research Coordinator for CSS

Flip the Script: Ways to combat gender stereotypes - For Boys

Flip the Script: Ways to combat gender stereotypes - For Boys

"I'm glad we've begun to raise our daughters more like our sons but it will never work unless we start to raise our sons more like our daughters." Gloria Steinhem

Did you know that 63% of men believe they are encouraged to seize sex whenever they can? The messages we send our boys are confusing and can result in grave misunderstandings, even among the best intentioned. The heterosexual script, a concept established in social science, plays out in real life AND plays out on screen, even in 2018.

  • Men want sex/ Women set limits

  • Men attract women through power/ Women attract men through sexiness

  • Men avoid commitment/ Women seek it

We pass on these gender stereotypes without recognizing our unconscious contribution to the formulaic scripts. And media outranks schools and parents as being sources of sex for young people.

By showing characters that don't play into the stereotypes, our boys can embrace all sides of themselves.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:

  1. Show boys and girls playing together because boys who have female friends are less likely to think of girls as sexual conquests.

  2. Show "tough" male characters being sensitive because role models are important, particularly for boys.

  3. Show boys doing housework. Girls still do 2 hours more than boys a week.

  4. Show girls making the first move, romantically and sexually, boys talking about love and girls buying flowers for boys.

It's time to flip the script.

Yalda T. Uhls

Founder & Executive Director of CSS.

Flip the Script: Reducing Unconscious Race Bias

Flip the Script: Reducing Unconscious Race Bias

You can’t solve a problem unless you talk about.” Beverly Daniel Tatum

Unconscious biases develop our first year of life. These biases affect how we act in ways we may not always understand and recognize. Until we start acknowledging these biases and discussing them without blame, shame OR guilt, they will persist and shape our behavior and culture.

surprising study found that black boys as young as 10 are seen as less innocent than white boys. Race identification, and the pride or shame associated with it, begins as young as 4-5 years of age. Representation affects our biases and also our own self-concepts in positive and negative ways. For example,

  • A study of nearly 400 children found that the more TV white boys watch, the higher their self esteem. The opposite was true for white and black girls and black boys.

In fact, just watching a racist scene on video increases blood pressure, long after the scene is over. Fortunately, storytellers can do something about this.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers: 

  1. Show characters that identify discrimination and talk about it openly.

  2. Portray positive role models from a variety of backgrounds.

  3. Showing a narrative that is the opposite of what is expected (for example, black heroes and white villains) has been shown to decrease unconscious bias by 40%.

It’s time to flip the script.

Directed by Eliza Rocco

Interviewer Connor Thomas

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D. 

Founder & Executive Director of CSS.

Avoiding Mental Health Stigmatizations & Encouraging Help Seeking Through Entertainment Media

Avoiding Mental Health Stigmatizations & Encouraging Help Seeking Through Entertainment Media

Mass media have the power to shape our perceptions, attitudes and beliefs toward certain groups, issues and individuals. For better or worse, most forms of media, including entertainment media, serve as primary sources of information for many viewers, influencing our understanding of those around us and in turn, our future behaviors and actions.

Unfortunately, for those struggling with mental illness, the depictions of characters with mental health issues often focus on negative and extreme stereotypical traits that portray these individuals as a danger to society and themselves. These depictions are not only inaccurate and unrepresentative of the millions of people worldwide who face mental health challenges, but they also reinforce preconceived stigmatizations which can lead to diminished self-esteem and social exclusion

Mental health professionals are often portrayed as odd, unhelpful, unrelatable and/or unavailable, which can have major consequences on those affected by mental illness. These negative portrayals can interfere with help seeking behaviors and prevent individuals from receiving treatment due to factors such as fear, shame, embarrassment and discrimination. A startling two-thirds of individuals with a mental health disorder never seek professional help.

Too often, entertainment programs portray mental illness as something that destroys lives and fail to show viewers that mental illness is common and treatable. By depicting treatment and recovery, the media can help normalize mental health issues, fight stigma, offer hope, and connect viewers with resources for themselves or loved ones.

In a survey commissioned by the mental health organization Mind, based in the UK, findings showed that after seeing a news report or drama involving a character with mental health challenges, more than half of the respondents expressed that it had improved their understanding of mental health issues and a quarter said it had inspired them to start a conversation about mental health. Furthermore, out of the respondents affected by mental health issues, one third were encouraged to seek professional help and get assistance. 

Several other studies have highlighted the power of the media to reduce stigma, increase understanding of mental health and increase help-seeking behaviors. For example, one study found that participants who watched a film depicting an accurate portrayal of an individual with schizophrenia, were less likely to endorse stigmatizing attitudes toward individuals with the illness compared to participants who saw an inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia. Another study found that having a strong relationship to the main character of a television series who had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) was associated with lower OCD stereotypes and greater willingness to seek and disclose mental health treatment specifically among participants with a mental illness. 

It is clear that the media have the power to influence our perceptions, attitudes and beliefs about individuals living with mental illness and also to help those affected. Therefore, it is in the best interest of millions of viewers and their loved ones for content creators to portray characters with a mental illness accurately and positively.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers: 

  1. Avoid perpetuating stereotypes about mental illness that may be stigmatizing and harmful. 

  2. Avoid including stigmatizing language in scripts, such as “crazy,” “psycho,” “looney,” “wacko,” etc.

  3. Avoid making mental illness the defining feature of a character’s personality. 

  4. Introduce likeable and relatable characters who also might happen to encounter mental health challenges. 

  5. Portray doctors and therapists as helpful and supportive rather than incompetent or unavailable.  

  6. Model help-seeking behaviors such as talking to therapists, talking to trusted friends/adults and calling/texting helplines. 

  7. Model help-seeking behaviors not only for serious or diagnosable problems but also for common challenges such as stress, divorce and death. 

  8. Show supporting cast characters modeling supportive behaviors and describing options for seeking help. 

  9. Insert message of mental health treatment, hope and recovery. 

Vicki Harrison, MSW

Program Director, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing

Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing

Adrianna Ruggiero

Senior Research Coordinator for CSS

How Can we Improve Media Representations of Autism?

How Can we Improve Media Representations of Autism?

Collaborate with Autistic People

Have you ever seen an autistic character on TV? Chances are, you answered yes. Since Rain Man introduced autism to the general public in 1988, autistic characters have become increasingly common on TV [1] and in movies. Learning about autism from autistic characters can help people understand and accept autism. Indeed, high quality contact is linked to more positive attitudes toward diversity [2]. However, media representations also have the potential to decrease autism acceptance by promoting stereotypes [3]. So, how can we improve media representations of autism? Hint: You would get the same general answer if you asked other types of minorities how to represent their identities more accurately.

Shows with autistic characters are often developed with substantial input from clinicians and family members of autistic people. For example, the puppeteer behind Julia, an autistic character who is wholeheartedly accepted by her peers on Sesame Street, uses her experiences as the mother of an autistic child to create a believable character. Yet autistic people themselves are generally NOT part of the process of developing autistic TV characters. This lack of involvement is surprising given that autistic people are often more knowledgeable about autism than others [4] and bloom socially through engagement in theatre [5].

By leaving autistic people out of the process of developing autistic characters, we risk creating one dimensional characters that represent only limited aspects of the autism spectrum. Indeed, most autistic TV characters are highly gifted and eloquent, albeit with social difficulties. Not only are savant-like characters overrepresented in media representations of autism, the gifts autistic characters exhibit show repetitive tendencies on the part of content creators. For example, the autistic characters in two separate TV shows (Touch, one of the few shows to portray a non-speaking autistic character, and Waterloo Road, one of many shows with verbally precocious autistic characters) demonstrated savant skills by reflecting on the Fibonacci sequence. Repetitive representations of autism may reinforce stereotypes while also depriving the large population of autistic young people of role models they can identify with.

We, 3 autistic college students, 1 autistic college graduate and a professor, would like to share personal reflections from the autistic members of our team about how media representations of autism get it right, get it wrong, and can get it better.

What do you like about how autism is represented in the media?

Billy: I would say in the past 10 years alone, we’ve come pretty far in the way autism is shown in the media. 10 years ago, the characters you saw on TV shows who had autism were side characters whose only defining characteristic was their disability. Today, you see characters on the spectrum who are stars of their own show like Atypical (2017) and the Good Doctor (2018) and are portrayed as complex characters in their own right. On the Good Doctor, Shaun is shown to be going through personal struggles of his own unrelated to autism such as him having not fully recovered from the trauma of his older brother’s death when they were kids.

Jin: I think Adam (2009) was a good portrayal if you consider the fact that the titular character is not only autistic. He’s depressed (his father died shortly before the film’s start) and that exacerbates the classic withdrawn symptoms that might present in someone who’s autistic. I heard complaints from someone that he didn’t end up “getting the girl” at the end and that this reflects negatively on autistic people and their ability to get into relationships, but personally it felt clear that they weren’t right for each other at the time (I didn’t like Beth anyway). It’s not like they made Adam void of sexual attraction (an issue with disability representation in general), because he very clearly voices it. I think Adam is a good look into someone who has to navigate depression and anxiety along with functioning differently in general.


What do you NOT like about how autism is represented in the media?

Nick: One of the biggest problems with characters with disabilities, not just autism, in media is that when writing a character with a disability, one can fall into the trap of writing a disabled character before one writes a character with a disability. In layman’s terms, the disability becomes the character instead of informing it. However, I’d argue a bigger problem is a hesitancy to portray people with autism who can be unpleasant on purpose. One example of this is The Good Doctor, where all of the ideas the autistic doctor has worked. It would have been a lot more interesting if something that he thought of didn’t work and he would have to take the responsibility of having made a decision that caused a patient’s death.

Billy: One of the biggest problems with how autism is represented in the media is that when a character with autism is portrayed on television, they’re presented as one dimensional characters whose depth is the stereotypical symptoms of their disability. Like Nick said, their disability becomes their character. In Atypical, the main character Sam, who has ASD, is portrayed as hopelessly naive with no idea how to approach social, and by extension romantic situations. We’re also presented as savants with total brilliance in one area, but disabled in all other areas. This goes back to Rainman (1988), in which Dustin Hoffman’s character is portrayed as a math genius, but is unable to take care of himself and lives in an institution.

Bella: Unfortunately, the media doesn’t include everyone on the autism spectrum. While the Good Doctor has an autistic character named Shaun who works as a surgeon in a hospital, there are not a lot of TV shows that show how autistic people struggle to get jobs. Sheldon, a scientist that shows autistic symptoms on the show Big Bang Theory, lived with his friends before he got married which is in contrast to stereotypes about how autistic people live in society as people who can’t have jobs or get married.

How can media content creators better involve autistic people in the process of developing media?

Nick: The best way to write a character with autism is to have it inform their character instead of being their entire character. For example, in Mary & Max (2009), Max is a man who is a social outcast because of the way the world has treated him. This is not always obviously reflective of autism.

Bella: Directors could research what life is like for autistic people. Although some shows illustrate how autistic people deal with their lives, they need to include autistic characters who display diverse symptoms. Autistic people can exhibit great strengths in technology, so directors could hire them to work at their companies. People can interview autistic people so that viewers can understand what life is like for autistic people. If TV shows could show how autistic people struggle to live in society, then society would understand more.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:

  • Media creators should employ autistic people as writers, actors, technicians and in other roles helping to create autistic characters. Rather than just having one isolated autistic character in each show, thus magnifying the sense that autistic people are different from “the norm,” diverse communities of people should be represented.

  • Greater representation of non-speaking autistic people is needed. Autistic characters should be as complex as any other character, with autism one aspect of their multifaceted identities. Autistic characters should have opportunities to succeed and to fail, to help and to be helped, and autistic people should play a central role in helping to create them.

Kristen Gillespie-Lynch

The graduate Center; City University of New York

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Nicholas Tricarico

The College of Staten Island; City University of New York

Billy Pinkava

The College of Staten Island; City University of New York

Bella Kofner

The College of Staten Island; City University of New York

Jin Delos Santos

Hunter College; City University of New York


1Morgan, J. (2019). Has autism found a place in mainstream TV?. The Lancet Neurology, 18(2), 143-144.

2Corrigan, P. W., Larson, J., Sells, M., Niessen, N., & Watson, A. C. (2007). Will filmed presentations of education and contact diminish mental illness stigma?. Community mental health journal, 43(2), 171-181.

3Draaisma, D. (2009). Stereotypes of autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1475-1480.

4Gillespie-Lynch, K., Kapp, S. K., Brooks, P. J., Pickens, J., & Schwartzman, B. (2017). Whose expertise is it? Evidence for autistic adults as critical autism experts. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 438.

5Corbett, B. A., Gunther, J. R., Comins, D., Price, J., Ryan, N., Simon, D., ... & Rios, T. (2011). Brief report: theatre as therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 41(4), 505-511.

The Power of Talking to Kids

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

-Maya Angelou

I have spent a lot of years as an executive in children’s content at public broadcasters. I’ve interviewed lots of young girls, and talked to them about many topics. Recently-with the Dream Gap research from Barbie- I wanted to chat with more girls. Such interesting research! Mostly, I talked to young girls I know, to see what they thought of the results of this research: that by the age of 5, girls begin to lose self-confidence in their intelligence and abilities. This was more than for my job, it was for me, other women, and girls for the future! A lot at stake.

As always, the girls had a lot to say, and I loved how quickly they came up with reasons for the results. Two young girls said that boys see boys when they watch TV...that most lead characters on shows are boys, making boys seem like they are smarter, because they are leaders. The girls are right. In North America, 65% of protagonists in kid’s shows are boys, with girls only being the main character about 35% of the time.

I spent last weekend with one of my best friends, her young daughter and her daughter’s bestie. The girls spent almost the whole time choreographing dance routines, so I wasn’t sure if they would be interested in this research. But it only took them a moment to talk about how they mostly hear about men in school. The historical leaders, presidents, prime ministers, heroes, astronauts and other people they are told about. They don’t hear about famous women nearly as much. They said they want to hear more about women leaders!

On my way home from the weekend away, I chatted with two 10 year old girls on my street about The Dream Gap Project. They agreed that girls would feel smarter if they saw more role models, and felt strongly about changing the names of all the schools. “They are all named after men,” one said. “That’s why we have to fight for girl power, ” said the other.

I felt so girl powered up after the weekend that I just wanted to say “Thanks, Barbie” for doing the research that can get lots of girls talking. All good movements start from the ground up, so we need our girls to feel empowered. Now we just have to find ways to make girls more present on tv shows, in school, and at the forefront of the world around them. I’m totally in and feel like I have to do my part. Girl power, indeed!

Because we love talking to kids, here’s a video we shot at the Center for Scholars and Storytellers with boys and girls reacting to the Dream Gap research.

Directed by Eliza Rocco

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

To learn more about Barbie's work to close the Dream Gap click here.

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

As I greeted my fourth grader off the bus the other day, we began our regular after-school chat between mouthfuls of his afternoon snack.

“What happened at school today?” I ask. “Madison got in trouble with the teacher for being mean to Emily,” he says.

“Oh. What was Madison doing?”

“Well, we were playing this game at recess, but Madison kept changing the rules so that Emily would always lose, or would not know how to play. Emily started to cry and then the teachers came and sent Madison inside.”

It sounds like my son has a mean girl in his class. These types of “mean girl” behaviors—social exclusion, and name calling---are known as relational aggression. I’ve spent the last decade researching this type of behavior among young people and despite the reputation for relational aggression being something that “girls do,” research shows that boys can be just as mean with their friends as girls.

So where do children learn these kinds of relationally aggressive behaviors?

As one might expect, children learn from behaviors modeled to them (e.g. at home or at school). But this also includes behaviors modeled via media content. Indeed, my research demonstrates that exposure to televised relational aggression is related to children’s use of relational aggression at school.

Unfortunately, relational aggression is quite prevalent in children’s television programs. A study I conducted with Dr. Barbara Wilson, found that 92% of 150 shows that are popular among elementary school children included some form of relational aggression.  

Moreover, the ways in which the relational aggression was portrayed increased the chances that children would imitate it. For example, relational aggression was often enacted by attractive perpetrators, who were rarely punished for the actions, and a majority of the relationally aggressive interactions were meant to be funny, which further minimized any potential consequences to the victims.

This is particularly problematic because follow-up studies have shown that relationally aggressive characters tend to be well-liked by children viewers because they are attractive and funny. When children like characters who do antisocial things, they are more likely to excuse the aggression, and as a result, more likely to report they would imitate the behaviors in the future. 

Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to how we feature relationally aggressive conflicts in children’s media representations.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:

  • When using a relationally aggressive plot point, show the consequences to the victim. Perhaps the victim can verbalize hurt feelings, or the consequences of a false rumor can be shown.

  • The perpetrator of the relational aggression should be punished in some way. An added bonus: there is research to show that viewers like seeing a disliked perpetrator getting what they deserve.

  • Avoid rewarding relationally aggressive behavior. For example, a verbal ‘put-down’ should not be used to get a laugh. These kinds of actions are easily imitated by young children, but they are not yet able to understand how and when such a joke should be used.

If storytellers could take some of these steps to avoid portraying relational aggression in an appealing light, it could go a long way in shaping how the millions of impressionable young viewers perceive relational aggression and their subsequent behavior. 


Nicole Martins, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Media at Indiana University

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers


What scared you as a child?

Have you ever been afraid in front of the screen as a child?

We asked this question to 631 university students in eight different countries around the world. We found that universally, the vast majority of them could recall in great detail a childhood experience that scared them so deeply that it was burned in their memory – including the sight, sound, and emotions it aroused. Many of them related stories of how, till today, they will be wary of swimming in the ocean, sleep with a light on, and are petrified of clowns...

  • So what is it about TV and films that scare children? In this study we discovered the seven elements of fear: The threatening appearance of a character (remember the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz?)

  • A character behaving threateningly (like the profoundly evil character in A Nightmare on Elm Street)

  • A character children identify with being under threat and helpless (so many stories of participants recalling being traumatized by poor Bambi alone in the cold, dark forest after his mother was shot by the hunter...)

  • Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience, or the possibility of these (“who would want to hurt the USA?” thought a shocked child after viewing the 9/11 news coverage) 

  • Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached (Chucky the doll cuddled in bed turns to be sadistic) 

  • Music and sound that signify danger (remember the dum dum, dum dum dum in Jaws?)

  • Scenes depicting injury and homicide (a T.Rex chewing on a bleeding human in Jurassic Park)

About 70% of the programs inducing fear that children were exposed to were not age-appropriate (e.g., thrillers, science fiction, violent action-adventures). But many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic, induce fear reactions as well – from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic Wizard of Ozthat included the Witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.

Many of our participants shared impacts of a traumatic experience that haunts them in adulthood as well.  Even as grown-ups, they check under their bed before going to sleep, they struggle emotionally with images of bodily harm that are stuck in their minds, they experience reoccurring nightmares, and they even confessed to discussing these issues currently with their therapist...

How does a child cope with such negative experiences? Just like older viewers, they avoid programs that scare them, they look for support of those around them, and they creatively develop mental strategies such as thinking about something happy before falling asleep.

What, then, should creators of content for children consider in trying to avoid traumatizing children? 

  • Avoid severe fear experiences such as inflicting bodily harm or undermining children’s trusts in cuddling toys, and the safety of their home and family – they do not promote a positive relationship with oneself, others, and the environment.  

  • Do not avoid dramatic tension altogether – children need to build resilience to threat and anxiety, but at the level that is appropriate for their level of development.

  • Encourage a thrill experience, rather than a fear one, an experience where the child feels safe being scared by offering predictable happy endings, employ humor to break the tension, avoid presenting bodily harm. Movies such as Toy Story,The Lion King or Harry Potter could be a thrill experience but just if the child is ready for it – and for most children that is after 7 – 8 years.

Parents, on their part, should –

  • Avoid exposing children to age-inappropriate content. They are not ready emotionally to watch thrillers as preschoolers!

  • Develop media literacy competencies in children: e.g., explain to them that the hero/ine of the series will be back next episode, that the music is meant to make you feel scared for fun, etc.

  • Be there with them when they experience tension and exhibit anxiety – reassure them of your support and protection, explain to them the difference between fantasy and reality, offer a favorite stuffed animal or blanket.

  • Stay away from potentially scary content before bedtime.

  • Do not leave any lingering fear to settle and become a phobia – help them process it, seek help if needed. 

Want to learn more about…

fear experiences and also learn what 510 children from 5 countries told us about their nightmares from screen - Click here to check our book.

Maya Götz, Ph.D., 

Head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) and Head of the PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation.

Dafna Lemish, Ph.D., 

Professor and Associate Dean, The School of Communication and Information, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey.

What Teens Really Think About Their Social Media Lives: Tips for Storytellers

Social Media and Teens

© Photo by Jen Siska

© Photo by Jen Siska

In Common Sense Media’s latest research, teens share their experiences on everything from digital distraction to how social media makes them feel.

What teenagers look like they’re doing and what they’re actually doing can be two totally different things — especially when it comes to social media. A bored-looking ninth-grader could be majorly bonding with her new BFF on Snapchat. A 10th-grade gamer may complain loudly when you cut off his internet but be secretly relieved. An awkward eighth-grader may be YouTube’s hottest star. To find out what’s really going on in teens’ social media lives, Common Sense Media polled more than 1,100 13- to 17-year-olds in its latest nationally-representative research, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences. The new study updates our 2012 study on teens and social media with surprising new findings that address many of parents’ most pressing concerns about issues such as cyberbullying,depression, and even the popularity of Facebook (spoiler alert: It’s not).

Why now? Today, 89 percent of teens have their own smartphones (compared with 41 percent in 2012). They grew up right alongside Instagram and Snapchat. They do research papers on Google Classroom, find emotional support on teen forums, share poetry on Tumblr, and may text “I love you” before they’d ever say it to your face. But concerns over the negative consequences of social media have grown in tandem with its popularity among teens. Grim reports on teen suicide, addiction,cyberbullying, and eroding social skills have caused many people, from parents to teachers to the tech industry itself, to look at social media as a potential contributor — if not the cause — of these issues. This survey clarifies some of those concerns and draws attention to the reasons some kids are deeply affected by — and connected to — their digital worlds.

Key Findings of Social Media Report & Actionable Insights:

  • Thumbs mostly up. Only a very few teens say that using social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves; many more say it has a positive effect. Twenty-five percent say social media makes them feel less lonely (compared to 3 percent who say more); eighteen percent say it makes them feel better about themselves (compared to 4 percent who say worse); and 16 percent say it makes them feel less depressed (compared to 3 percent who say more).

  • Managing devices is hit or miss. Many turn off, silence, or put away their phones at key times such as when going to sleep, having meals with people, visiting family, or doing homework. But many others do not: A significant number of teens say they “hardly ever” or “never” silence or put away their devices.

  • Less talking, more texting. In 2012, about half of all teens still said their favorite way to communicate with friends was in person; today less than a third say so. But more than half of all teens say that social media takes them away from personal relationships and distracts them from paying attention to the people they’re with.  

  • Vulnerable teens need extra support. Social media is significantly more important in the lives of vulnerable teens (those who rate themselves low on a social-emotional well-being scale). This group is more likely to say they’ve had a variety of negative responses to social media (such as feeling bad about themselves when nobody comments on or likes their posts). But they’re also more likely to say that social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on them.

Tips for Storytellers:

  • Show kids (and their parents) putting phones away or on “do not disturb” at key times, such as mealtimes or bedtime. Kids know social media can get in the way of important things, but they have a hard time regulating their own use. Modeling mindful and intentional use can help to normalize behaviors. It’s also worthwhile to depict kids who take phone breaks for a day or more to feel less distracted, or to avoid digital drama.

  • Highlight the teens who need the most help. An honest depiction of teen social media use for a depressed teen might include a teen feeling unusually happy after receiving online validation (through likes or replies), but also deeply affected by comparing themselves negatively to others online (like on Instagram), or not getting likes or feedback after posting something.

  • Show the creative side of media to inspire teens to use media to learn and grow. Teens express themselves in a variety of ways on social media: creating and sharing art, photography, poetry and other writing, and music. Take care to show kids creating with their mobile devices, and not just consuming or mindlessly scrolling.

To find out the latest on what teens are doing on social media, check out Common Sense Media.

Michael Robb, Ph.D.

Senior Director of Research, Common Sense

Caroline Knorr

Senior Parenting Editor, Common Sense

The Fun of Empowering Girls

For over 20 years, I worked in public broadcasting making shows for young people. We made television and digital content and even hosted events in communities across the country. As a public broadcaster, I was keenly aware of what we needed to work hard on, including empowering children…especially girls. We knew from research that if girls saw positive role models on screen, it could have an incredible impact. But no matter how hard we worked, we couldn’t control what happened after they saw a program. We knew that the impact would be higher if the ideas in the shows were talked about at home. And even higher if a parent watched with them.

As a parent, I want great role models too. Like most parents,  I feel a lot of pressure to try to make all the right choices. It can be a lot. So, I think it’s time to make a switch and take the pressure off.

I say let’s have fun with empowering the girls (and boys!) in our lives. Instead of trying to find all the right everything to introduce them to, let’s make it an adventure together.

With your own kids, try to think outside of the box to find awesome role models on your screen, and in your own neighbourhood or town. Make it a quest. A Mission. Make a chart. Or just do it for fun. Find what works with your family dynamic but make the goal finding awesome women near where you live. Here are some suggestions:

1/ Make it a challenge to see who can find the coolest girl character in a tv show. And then watch it together.

2/ Go to the library and see if any women authors are speaking. Or reading from their picture or chapter books.

3/ Check out cool women running for office where you live and go and hear them speak. Even if your kids are too young to understand the issues, all the clapping and sign waiving will make it fun. And they get to see women being supported by other women and men.

4/ In your play- whether it’s with stuffed animals, dolls or action characters- make the role playing about inventing or leading (hey let’s find a way to invent a colour changing t-shirt or create a cardboard starship to fly us to the stars!). Remember that young kids imaginations are way better than ours as adults, so let them run with it.

5/ Celebrate the women in your extended family who have interesting jobs- in science, architecture, a small startup- and have them tell your kids about it

6/ Go old school. Kids still love to play board games. Print off pictures of powerful women- from politicians to pilots- that you can glue to cardboard and use as pieces in any of your favourite family games instead of the regular pieces.

And remember moms, research shows that this isn’t just about our kids. A study in the journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that working women who viewed images of powerful women succeeded in stressful leadership tasks. So have fun with it!

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

Dreams of a Six Year Old Girl

Have you ever spoken to a six year old girl? Seemingly the epitome of confidence,the world is her oyster, and she believes she can be anything:

  • An astronaut;

  • A ballet dancer;

  • The President;

  • All at the SAME TIME.

Moreover, young girls frequently do better than boys in elementary school, where their abilities to sit still and follow rules often makes their teachers give them plenty of gold stars.

The traditional thinking is that young girls’ confidence doesn’t drop until they hit puberty. But something else is happening during the ages of five to seven, as children develop cognitively, becoming aware that others are evaluating their behavior.

As a well designed experiment found, at five years of age, girls say that both genders are smart, but by six years old, they classify boys as belonging to the “really really smart” category at a higher rate. Thus, what children see and hear during this developmental stage shapes thinking in ways that adults may not always see or recognize.

In fact, even at younger ages, children quickly absorb the stereotypes we communicate about activities and skills associated with each gender. Children learn in the context of their social and cultural milieu and the messages they are given (from parents, media, teachers and other socialization agents) promote gender identities, sometimes with stereotypes attached to them.

The good news is that in the US, things may be starting to change.  One study found that when asked to draw a scientist, kids in the United States increasingly draw women. Back in the sixties and seventies, when asked the same question, less than one percent of children drew a female scientist. Today the average is twenty eight percent. But still, as kids get older, they begin to draw more men in this role. At five or six girls draw the same number of men and women, but by seven and eight they begin to draw more men.

So there is still plenty of work to do. Luckily research has helped us become more aware of these biases. Moreover, companies who create media and product for kids are helping change entrenched patterns. Many companies are focusing on creating strong female characters, and their audience is responding – even boys!  

What can you do to help encourage your child to dream big and help your girl recognize that boys and girls are equally “really really smart?  One answer: Play! Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models. And young kids like to play with the objects that will teach them the most.

Here are a few ways caregivers can support their children so they start to internalize gender equality:

  1. Choose media that highlight strong female role models.

Why? Because research shows that representation shapes the way we think.

  1. Highlight real life female role models, including yourself if you are a woman.

Why? Because connecting to the real world helps make children understand what’s truly possible. And young girls focus on what their female caregiver is doing.

  1. Encourage boys to diversify their play patterns. Support their play with dolls, and help them recognize that women are equally brilliant to men.

Why? Because until we recognize that boys can enjoy more “feminine” pursuits, masculine stereotypes of strength and brilliance will persist and undermine progress for women.

Yalda Uhls, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

Creating an App that is both entertaining and educational!

Young Children Can Learn Social-Emotional Skills from an App!

Daniel Tiger Feelings

I consider myself a pretty good parent. I don’t let my kids eat dirt. They know how to call 911. And due to the nature of my job as a media researcher, I think I’m pretty well-attuned to what my kids should and shouldn’t do with media. But that doesn’t seem to keep my kids from finding and playing with app games that I’ve never heard of.

In discussions with researchers around the country and with those here at Texas Tech University, it became apparent that far too little research looks at the value of “educational” apps that our kids sometimes get their hands on. If we, as media researchers, can’t identify a worthwhile app for our kids, how are parents supposed to do so? So, we did what researchers do—we designed a study to test the educational value of a popular children’s app.

Together with researchers at Texas Tech University, University of South Dakota, and Vanderbilt University, and in cooperation with Fred Rogers Productions, we invited 121 children ages 3-6 to play with the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app (or with a ‘control’ app) for about two weeks.

In the study, published in the Journal of Media Psychology, we found that children who played with the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app were significantly better at managing negative emotions, such as feeling mad, sad, and disappointed (a skill that scholars call “emotion regulation”) than those who didn’t play with the app. For example, kids who played with the Daniel Tiger app were more likely to take a deep breath and count to four when they felt mad, just as Daniel Tiger instructs. This was also true for kids who played with the app and watched episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

Alone, these results are pretty astounding—kids can learn to manage their emotions by playing with an app! But our research team was even more amazed by what we found next. We met with families about a month after the conclusion of the study and found that the skills kids had learned had persisted. Finding short-term effects of media use is pretty common in media research, but such long-term effects are much more rare. In other words, there is something about playing with the Daniel Tiger app that teaches emotional skills to children that sticks with them long-term.

As a parent myself, the implications for this study are clear—it’s okay to let my kids play with the “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings” app. Among the thousands of apps that claim to be “educational,” we now have an option that research shows is truly educational.

I encourage content creators to take a close look at the ways in which the intended lesson was incorporated into the app and its features. While this study did not look at specific components of the app or its content, we know from past research that educational content for kids tends to have better results when it includes features such as:

  • The inclusion of relatable (and known) characters: Daniel Tiger is the age of the kids for whom the app is intended.

  • Memorable songs: Once you hear Daniel Tiger jingles, they’re hard to get out of your head—just ask any parent of a child who spends time with Daniel Tiger content.

  • Simple & repetitive: Kids both crave and learn well from repetition!

  • Tightly-designed games: Kids learn better when the task or plot is highly intertwined with the lesson being taught.

I work hard at being a good researcher. I work even harder at being a good parent. Being a parent is tough, and in today’s world, I’ll use anything that helps me teach my kids the skills they’ll need as they grow up. And if an app my kids want to play with will do just that, I’ll take it.

Eric Rasmussen, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Citation: Rasmussen, E. E., Strouse, G. A., Colwell, M. J., Russo Johnson, C., Holiday, S., Brady, K., … & Norman, M. S. (2018). Promoting preschoolers’ emotional competence through prosocial TV and mobile app use. Media Psychology, 1-22.

Led by Dr. Eric Rasmussen, this research, was conducted at Texas Tech University, Vanderbilt University, and University of South Dakota, and the research team included CCS’ co-director Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson as well as CSS collaborators Dr. Gabrielle Strouse and Dr. Georgene Troseth.

(Photo courtesy of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood ©2012, The Fred Rogers Company)

From Beer to Big Bird to Blue’s Clues: Research has Impact


What do selling beer and selling the alphabet have in common? They are forever tied together by the simple genius of Joan Ganz Cooney. Given the challenge to try to make something good out of television that could positively impact young lives, she first made one clear insight- kids loved to watch commercials. “Children all over the country were learning beer commercials so they were learning something, but could it teach something of potential use to children?” asked Cooney. Clearly, the songs, jingles, and production of the commercials kids were seeing were attracting a young audience, but Cooney didn’t stop there. She did what would lay the foundation for perhaps the most important kids show of all time. She did research.

In the summer of 1967 Cooney took a leave of absence from her job at WNDT and, funded by Carnegie Corporation, traveled the U.S. and Canada interviewing experts in child development, education, and television. At the end she had a document to work from:  “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education” and from that sprouted not only the show, “Sesame Street” but also the Children’s Television Workshop, a model for working and creating.

Research had impact.

Her research and work continues to impact children not only in America but worldwide. Doing research and really understanding her audience and their needs also ended up being great for business because the show really worked for kids. They were selling the alphabet and kids were buying in.

Fast forward a few decades to “Blue’s Clues,” another show that revolutionized television for kids. And like Sesame Street, the creators of Blue Clues also spent time before the creation of the show thinking about child development and how it plays into making content for kids. They did research.

Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson—the trio that developed Blue’s Clues—wanted the show to be entertaining as well as educational. Santomero held a master’s degree in child developmental psychology from Columbia University but the novice team also enlisted the help of educators and consultants to craft a format that reflected the latest research in early childhood development.

Integrating this research into every episode, the show emphasized problem solving skills and audience participation in a way no other children’s program has before. While “Sesame Street” used bite sized content to connect with the audience, “Blues’s Clues” used a narrative, and empowered preschoolers to help the host, Steve, figure out clues. Not surprising, Blues Clues was also a runaway success, both with kids and from a business view. .

So the next time you watch one of those catchy beer jingles online or on TV, we hope you think of Joan Ganz Cooney and her desire to “sell the alphabet to preschoolers” or think of the amazing creators of Blues Clues who changed the model for getting preschoolers to interact with the screen. Because for both, research had impact.

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

What’s the Best Way to Tell a Story that Teaches Kids to Tell the Truth?

Child Lying

‘It wasn’t about politics. It was the underlying values’

Joe Biden about John McCain

In 2018, it feels like the values of integrity and honesty are further away from our national character than ever before.  We try to teach our children to be honest, but it’s challenging when they see grown-ups lying everyday.

The good news is stories can help inspire honest upstanding behavior. But do the stories we tell our kids to teach them not to lie work? Surprisingly counter-intuitive research demonstrates that for young kids, we may not be getting across the right message.

Researchers from the University of Toronto read children, ages 3 to 7, three stories: George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Pinocchio or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Only one of these stopped kids from telling a lie.

The story about George Washington telling the truth to his father about chopping down the tree, and the pride he felt that when his father praised his honesty, was the only effective story. Why did the researchers believe this worked? Because this story, unlike the others which feature high stakes and scary outcomes, featured positive consequences. In other words, instead of being scared, the kids focused on the lesson at hand. Learning not to lie.

And while the researchers didn’t point to realism, decades of research demonstrates that for young kids, realistic, relatable stories are more effective (cough, can you say Mr Rogers Neighborhood?).  So perhaps the fact that nearly any child can relate to wanting their father to be proud of them, rather than an obscure story about a wolf eating them, was a reason they actually got the point of the fable.

How can you make sure younger kids will get the message you intend to get across? See below for some basics.

Child Psychology Insight

Flip the Script: Reducing Unconscious Race Bias

Reducing Racial Bias

You can’t solve a problem unless you talk about.” Beverly Daniel Tatum

Unconscious biases develop our first year of life. These biases affect how we act in ways we may not always understand and recognize. Until we start acknowledging these biases and discussing them without blame, shame OR guilt, they will persist and shape our behavior and culture.

surprising study found that black boys as young as 10 are seen as less innocent than white boys. Race identification, and the pride or shame associated with it, begins as young as 4-5 years of age. Representation affects our biases and also our own self-concepts in positive and negative ways. For example,

  • A study of nearly 400 children found that the more TV white boys watch, the higher their self esteem. The opposite was true for white and black girls and black boys.

In fact, just watching a racist scene on video increases blood pressure, long after the scene is over. Fortunately, storytellers can do something about this:

  1. Show characters that identify discrimination and talk about it openly.

  2. Portray positive role models from a variety of backgrounds.

  3. Showing a narrative that is the opposite of what is expected (for example, black heroes and white villains) has been shown to decrease unconscious bias by 40%.

It’s time to flip the script.

For a tip sheet with more research and insights, click here.

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D.