In collaboration with Chandler Wilson and Matthew Zimmer, Spring 2016
In our always-on world of rapidly advancing technologies, the broad concern of television viewing effects has yielded much ambitious research. Television viewing remains a large part of media consumption by children of all ages across the nation. According to The Nielsen Company, kids ages 2 to 11 are watching about 30 hours of television every week, which averages to 4 to 5 hours per day (McDonough, 2009). This striking statistic shows the heavy impact television makes on children who are developmentally vulnerable to imitation and learning. However, the number of hours that children watch television are overshadowed by the importance of the effects television content has on their cognitive development. Content matters, and the child’s developmental stage also matters (K. Drogos, lecture, April 27, 2016).
This report will investigate previous research that provides a theoretical framework for what is known to enhance a child’s learning process based on the timeline of their cognitive development. We aim to explore the ways in which education/informational shows present educational content and make recommendations on how they can improve their content in respect to their target age group. This report will detail our analyses of two E/I programs, Clangers and Cyberchase, which were coded for quality of content. After establishing strength and weaknesses of each episode, we made proposals for ways to improve the delivery of lessons. The research presented in this report may prove to be beneficial for television producers, provide them with the means to greater enhance the effectiveness of teaching educational content on television, and allow them to achieve this with minimal change in efforts.
A Review of Research Literature
Prosocial messages and educational media has been proven through many studies to have both immediate and lasting positive effects on children in school. Sprafkin, Liebert, & Poulos (1975) studied children’s willingness to perform prosocial behavior that is seen on television. Their research claim that exposing a child to scenes that display helping encourages a child to actually help in real life significantly more times than a child who had not been exposed to helping scenes. Other benefits of early viewing of E/I programming includes more reading, higher perceived competence in school, less aggression, more receptive vocabulary skills, and overall readiness for Kindergarten (Huston et al., 2001). One study by Linebarger and Walker (2005) illustrated how viewing some programs with strong narrative focus, like Clifford and Dragon Tales, led to better language outcomes for infants and toddlers who viewed them. Prosocial content within these programs have proven to have a positive effect on behavior and school readiness. More frequent viewing of prosocial content has also increased the acceptance of others (Ball & Bogatz, 1971). A meta-analysis that included 34 studies by Mares & Woodard (2005) supports this claim even further. They stated that “when looking at positive interaction, altruism, and stereotype reduction, their results yielded a medium effect size (.27). They discovered that both in experimental settings and at home, children who watched prosocial content behaved significantly more positively or held significantly more positive attitudes than others” (Mares & Woodard, 2009).
We can certainly declare that these prosocial programs are having a positive effect on young viewers, but it is important that the program obtains and maintains the attention of its targeted audience. Understanding how a program would be watched through the eyes of a child is helpful in determining what strategies should be used in programs for different age ranges. A Swiss psychologist by the name of Jean Piaget sets the foundation for this. He defines four distinct stages through which all children experience as they grow. The programs we analyzed allowed us to focus on two of these stages: the preoperational stage for children aged approximately 2 to 7 years old and the concrete operational stage attributed to children aged about 8 to 12 years old. The preoperational stage is characterized by the development of using language symbols and perceptual dependence, knowing how things look and sound (K. Drogos, lecture, January 25, 2016). During the concrete operational stage, children begin to understand how to think conceptually based on actions, as well as role-taking, which is the concept of understanding perspectives other than their own (K. Drogos, lecture, January 25, 2016). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development assumes that all stages are quantitatively different from each other, go in order, and are universal and unchanged by other factors (K. Drogos, lecture, January 25, 2016).
There are a few ways a program can grasp the initial attention, one of which are the use of formal features. Specifically for toddlers, salient and content features are known to get their attention (K. Drogos, lecture, February 27, 2016). Formal features are only one part of attention. In order to maintain it, the content must be comprehensible for its intended age group. To determine the optimal comprehension level, we rely on the moderate-discrepancy hypothesis. The moderate-discrepancy hypothesis predicts that at any given age, a moderate level of stimulus complexity is preferred and that this level increases as the child matures (K. Drogos, lecture, February 27, 2016). Visually, this concept predicts an inverted U-shaped relationship between program comprehensibility and attention. The observational study done by Valkenburg & Vroone (2004) backs this hypothesis by investigating how young children’s attention is determined by auditory, visual, and content features presented and by the program complexity. Their sample included fifty 6 to 58 month-olds that viewed a variety of content such as news segments, Sesame Street, Teletubbies, and The Lion King. They divided the results into four age groups, and were able to see how attention levels related to respective program segments. Results showed that there was an attentional shift from salient to both non salient and salient features at around 1.5 – 2.5 years of age (Valkenburg & Vroone, 2004). Knowing that different age groups require different features and complex content in order to ensure the maintaining of attention, producers of E/I content must create programs that adjust accordingly for its target audience.
In addressing where the programs we watched both succeeded and fell short, we partially relied on the social learning theory as a basis for judging how well kids would learn from the programs. The social learning theory asserts that observational learning occurs through three steps. First, the viewer watches a model perform a behavior, second, the viewer watches how that model’s behavior is reinforced, and third the viewer acquires and performs the learned behavior. We began with Bandura and the evidence for the beneficial effects of portraying positive reinforcement for performed behavior. Bandura created the iconic Bobo doll experiment in which children watched a video of a person doing violent things to a doll and observed to see if the children who viewed the video imitated the behavior. The results showed that when the actor was positively reinforced in the video after doing violent things to the doll, the viewer was more likely to imitate this behavior (K. Drogos, lecture, February 10, 2016). These experiments backed Bandura’s claim that “knowing that a given model’s behavior is effective in producing valued rewards or averting negative consequences can enhance observational learning by increasing observers’ attentiveness to the modeled actions. Moreover, anticipated reinforcement can strengthen retention of what has been learned observationally by motivating people to code and rehearse modeled responses that have high value” (Bandura, 1976). We, therefore, concluded that the presence of positive reinforcement would be an important factor in the effectiveness of any prosocial message we had encountered in the content of the programs.
We also used the Social Cognitive Theory when judging whether what kid’s learned viewing programs was likely to be retained. The social cognitive theory elaborates on the process of learning by outlining what factors determine if viewers pay attention, what has to happen in order for information to be retained, and what factors into how motivated individuals are to learn and perform behaviors.(K. Drogos, lecture, February 10, 2015)This theory was particularly relevant when we questioned whether or not the programs fostered the performing of retention processes such as rehearsal or the use of cognitive skills. A study by Tamborini & Zillmann (1985) provided relevant evidence that the presence of personal questions and pauses in children’s programming may work to enhance learning. Personal questions and pauses can be seen as effective techniques through which children’s programs can enhances viewers use of retention processes.
When watching these programs, we were also concerned with whether these programs contained instances of violence. Given recent reviews from the American Pediatric Association, the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute of Mental Health and other organizations that endorse the validity of concerns that violent media adversely affect public health, we determined that the presence, or lack thereof, of violent content in educational media was relevant to the quality of the programs (K. Drogos, lecture, February 10, 2016). One longitudinal study that found that viewing more violent media over 22 years was predictive of higher levels of aggression and higher rates of criminal acts committed by age 30, provides powerful reason for being concerned about how much violence is present in children’s programming labeled “educational” (Huesmann & Eron et. al. 1984; lecture, February 10, 2016). Therefore, it is arguable that the presence of violent content could counteract any beneficial effects that prosocial lessons may have.
In summary, extensive research has been done on varying aspects of educational content and content made for children. They are all important and should be taken into consideration when analyzing and making improvements.
Content Analysis Data
The first program that was examined is titled Clangers, remade in 2015 from an original that was created in 1969. This show airs primarily on CBeebies, a BBC network for children aged 8 and under. The show is geared towards a preschool audience, ranging from ages 0 to 5. Uniquely, Clangers combines animation and stop-motion, each Clanger a hand-knitted puppet. Individual episodes are around 10 minutes long, and the program is not segmented. The program describes a family of rodent creatures who reside on a fictional moon-like planet. The Clangers speak a gibberish language that sounds like melodic trills. Because of this, a narrator is used to describe the story throughout each episode. The specific episode that was coded is called “Space Tangle.” The Iron Chicken is stuck in a field of scrap metal and is unable to attend a picnic that Small Clanger has invited him to. With the efforts of a few other Clangers, Small collaborates to help the Iron Chicken finally land on the Clanger planet and attend the picnic.
This episode discussed one cognitive lesson, many socio-emotional lessons, and no health lesson. The Clangers eventually solved their problem by figuring out how to attract the scraps of metal away from the Iron Chicken’s vehicle using a magnet. In this scene, the narrator explains what a magnet is and what it does, applying this brief science lesson to how the Clangers help solve the Iron Chicken’s problem. This lesson was presented very clearly, as the narrator spoke at a slow pace and explicitly defined a magnet and explained its functions. The socio-emotional lessons present in the episode included altruism, positive interaction, and the acceptance of others. The Clangers help a friend and work alongside each other while doing so. And, although the Iron Chicken encounters a problem and is not similar to them, the Clangers accept his differences and go out of their way to still include him in their picnic. These socio-emotional lessons were well-integrated into the story and the characters showed a sense of persistence throughout until the problem was finally solved. This episode contained no health lesson.
The primary lesson in “Space Tangle” is socio-emotional. Throughout the episode, the characters are shown persistently helping a friend and working together to solve a problem. The quality of the primary lesson was, in general, well done. We gave the areas of clarity, integration, and importance high ratings and the areas of involvement and applicability medium ratings. The overall converted quality score of the primary lesson was an 8, describing it as moderately educational. Positive reinforcement was rated a 1 since there was some but not a lot. This topic will be discussed later as something that could be improved. Additionally, there were no signs of physical or social aggression.
The Clangers episode that was analyzed contained both strengths and weaknesses, as the overall quality of primary lesson content was ranked moderate. As stated before, the characters in Clangers spoke in a melodic gibberish language, which Fisch et al. (2001) found does not predict significant improvements in children’s ability to comprehend storylines, especially for younger children. In order to overcome this, the program made use of narration to aid in the control of pacing, as well as increasing comprehension for the targeted audience, instead of relying on concrete visual cues. The narrator had a pleasant voice that did not distract from the events in the story, and the sounds focused on auditory formal features, such as metal clanging from the Iron Chicken’s predicament in space. Other salient features that are especially important for preschool children’s cognitive capacity to grasp educational lessons included bright colors and various shapes. The intended audience of Clangers primarily fall into Piaget’s preoperational stage of development, in which children understand symbolic language and how things look and sound (K. Drogos, lecture, January 25, 2016). Very young children may not be able to follow the abstract elements of a story, but they are able to recognize faces and are sensitive to social cues, which helps them understand what to take away from the primary message in the program (Grossman & Johnson, 2007). The use of salient features allows children of this age range to maintain attentive to the program based on comprehensibility. If the information presented is too hard or too easy, the viewer will detract attention away from the program (K. Drogos, lecture, February 1, 2016).
While coding, we noticed that “Space Tangle” lacked in strong positive reinforcement that could encourage greater learning of the socio-emotional primary lesson. Especially since the primary lesson focused on helping and accepting others, cooperation, and working together, more emphasis on positively reinforcing this prosocial behavior will help children understand the benefits of helping others and be able to learn how to apply it in real life.
Improvements and Recommendations
The Clangers episode, “Space Tangle,” does many things well. However, in order to maximize the effectiveness of its primary lesson, we recommend that the show include more positive reinforcement throughout the episode, in the form of rewards, and especially at the end, after their problem has been solved. This could easily be done by showing the Clangers and the Iron Chicken having fun the picnic that the narrator said was the purpose of rescuing the chicken in the first place. To further reinforce the benefits of altruism and positive interaction, the characters could all receive something tangible, like a piece of candy or a ball to play with. It would also help to include a scene that shows the value of their friendship and time they spend playing together. Concrete visual cues like these would attract a child to try to imitate or learn prosocial behavior.
Another recommendation could be the combined use of repetition and asking questions by the narrator. Research on the effects of pacing is inconclusive, so assertions cannot be made that slow pacing of programming is necessarily more effective than fast pacing. However, the use of repetition is shown to more effectively teach children educational content (Crawley & Anderson, 1999). The benefits that may be reaped from helping others and friendship, as described above, should be shown explicitly and concretely throughout the episode, possibly luring the Iron Chicken to a prize or encountering immediate rewards after each attempt at getting the Iron Chicken’s vehicle to their planet. Additionally, the narrator could ask the viewer questions to involve them in the story and further help them retain information that is taught (Tamborini & Zillmann, 1985). In this context, questions, such as, “What’s in this scene could Small use to help the Iron Chicken get out?” or “What does the magnet do again?” can help the child watching insert themselves in the Clangers’ problem-solving process. The program can end with a question like,“What did we learn today?” with a confirming response stating the primary lesson message.
Content Analysis Data
The second program we analyzed was an episode of the PBS series Cyberchase which began airing in 2002. The premise of the show is that three kids from earth and their friend Digit explore Cyberspace, a digital universe, and work to protect it from the schemes of Hacker, an evil character. Cyberchase is an animated series that tends to focus on mathematics and general problem solving skills to drive the plot of the episodes. The show is targeted at the 6-11 age range but is specifically created for kids aged 8-11. The episodes run around 23 minutes a piece. The episode of Cyberchase that was coded was “Parks and Recreation” in which the gang must convince the city council to build a park on an empty lot for the local kids in the area. They must gather evidence to come up with persuasive arguments for why the lot is better suited for a park than it is for a broadcast tower that the Hacker wants to build there.
The lessons present in this episode span all three categories. In the cognitive category, there were three discernable lessons present. The first of which was in the “social studies” category as the episode clearly promotes good citizenship by portraying how the character’s participation in a public discussion held by the city government was able to produce a positive outcome for the kids that live in the area around the park that they get built. Secondly, there is a Math lesson in the episode during the scenes were the kid’s were preparing the argument. They try to create a map that illustrates how many kids live around the different areas of the city and are able to come up with the idea of using single red dots to represent five kids a piece in order to make the map less cluttered and more easy to understand. Finally, there is a cognitive lesson in that, through the kids actions, teaches the viewer the basics of how to construct a persuasive argument. They must gather facts and use them in order to illustrate why they believe that building a park for kids in the area is clearly the best potential use of the empty lot. There were also three socio-emotional lessons present in the episode. Altruism is a present theme in the plot in that the characters of the show were doing work to help the kids in the community they were trying to get a park built in. Positive interaction was also a clear theme in the episode as the main characters and the kids they meet in the episode must cooperate and work together amongst themselves throughout the episode, and ultimately with the city council, to solve the problem they are facing. Lastly, there is an implicit lesson present in the episode regarding the acceptance of others. This is because the primary cast of earth kids is diverse and the characters of cyberspace are all very different in both appearance and behavior; these differences and quirks are accepted by others. Finally, there is a health lesson in the episode about physical activity. Central to the argument the they make in favor of the park is the importance of a place to play for the wellbeing of the kid’s in the community, as opposed to Hacker’s proposal for television broadcast tower that would allow kids to “sit around” and watch television. Also, there were minor instances of social aggression that occurred between Hacker and his assistants.
While there were many lessons presented in this episode, the quality of each lesson varied greatly with some lessons receiving more care than others. There was minimal time or attention given to the mathematics lesson, or the implicit theme of acceptance of others. The lessons regarding cognitive skills, good citizenship, altruism, and positive interaction were the ones that were most emphasized over the course of the program.
Overall, we came to fairly positive conclusions about the quality of the program. We determined that the primary lesson of the episode was positive interaction. We ranked the primary lesson a 10 making it moderately educational. One place where we felt that Cyberchase was weak in their portrayal of the primary lesson was how little they encouraged the viewer to involve themselves in the lesson. The show did little to encourage viewer participation in the problem solving which drove the characters in the episode. There weren’t significant pauses and the characters didn’t ask the viewers questions which would have allowed the viewers to make sense of the information they were receiving to encode it to their long term memory as the information processing model proposes meaningful learning takes place (K. Drogos, lecture, January 27, 2016). We also concluded that the sheer number of lessons that the episode tried to teach may end up leading to decreased levels of attention paid to the program. As previously discussed, there was a total of seven lessons present in this 23 minute episode of Cyberchase. The moderate-discrepancy hypothesis posits that “…children’s attention should be highest for television content that departs only slightly from what they know or are capable of.” (Valkenburg & Vroone, 2004) So when the show attempts to integrate so many different lessons into such a short period of time, it is arguable that it may be leading kids to tune out.
There were several aspects of Cyberchase which were very worthy of praise. One of which is the fact that there were no instances of physical violence in the show. This is a significant way in which Cyberchase stands out given that in a content analysis performed from 1994 to 1997 the NTVS found that around 69% of children’s television programs contained violence at an average of 14.1 violent acts per hour (K. Drogos, lecture, February 8, 2016). Furthermore, the primary lesson was ranked high (coded 3) on level of importance. Teaching kids about how positive interaction can be used to achieve a beneficial outcome for a community is certainly an important thing to learn about. These skills taught about positive interaction are important for kids to learn as they will need to cooperate with friends, family members, and classmates on a regular basis. Also, the lesson was pretty seamlessly integrated into the storyline of the show.
Improvements and Recommendations
A solution that would be a potential remedy for the difficulty processing so many lessons would be to present the program in segments. “In segmenting, the presentation is broken down into bite-size segments. The learner is able to select words and select images from the segment; the learner also has time and capacity to organize and integrate the selected words and images. Then, the learner is ready for the next segment, and so on. In contrast, when the narrated animation is presented continuously-without time breaks between segments-the learner can select words or images from the first segment; but before the learner is able to complete additional processes of organizing and integration, the next segment is presented, which demands the learner’s attention for selecting words or images” (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). It could be practically feasible to add three two minute intermissions in the episode in order to give viewers more time to process the information they’ve been presented. The first pause could take place after the problem has been presented (that the kid’s don’t have a good place to play near where they live and Hacker wants to build broadcast tower on a lot that would be a great place for a park). The second pause could come after the kids tally information on how many kids live in the different parts of the city and create a map displaying the information they found. The final pause could be inserted before they present their case to the city council. This segmentation of the episode could serve the dual purpose of both increasing involvement by encouraging viewers to take time and integrate the lessons presented and increase lesson clarity by allowing the viewers to better organize the information they absorb.
There were plenty of praiseworthy elements in both of the shows we coded but we still felt that there were some improvements that could be made to them. Namely, in Clangers we asserted that more positive reinforcement portrayed could potentially greatly increase the extent to which young viewers would learn the socio-emotional lesson presented. For Cyberchase we felt that implementing segmentation would be an effective way to bolster lesson involvement and clarity. Given the vast body of evidence which illustrates the high level of influence educational media may have on children’s development and school performance, it is important to analyze and speculate on the quality level of media created to educate children. Wilson, Kunkel, & Drogos (2008) performed a content analysis on a larger scale, of 90 different E/I labeled shows. Their findings conclude that 67% of educational shows teach socio-emotional lessons, leaving cognitive and intellectual lessons at 30% and health at only 3%. Furthermore, 86% of these supposedly educational shows are only minimally or moderately educational, in terms of quality scores. We reflect from these statistics that Clangers and Cyberchase fall into the majority categories. This calls for a greater need for improving currently existing educational television programs, encouraging producers to focus on quality of content, and helping them understand the importance of how powerful television content may be for impacting children’s cognitive development.
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