children

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.

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

Beer

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
 
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