If commercial success and global presence are valid indicators of acceptance, then it can be said that children around the world have embraced educational television programming. In 2006, the educational program Sesame Street was broadcast in 120 countries. This included 20 international co-productions to utilize local expertise and accommodate for varying educational and cultural goals. Viacom’s educational and entertainment network for children, Nickelodeon, continued to experience subscriber increases between 2005 and 2006 in Africa, the Asian Pacific rim, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America, and Russia.
Although variations exist between the different international versions of educational programming, observable similarities in children’s responses to educational television exist. Researchers have found common patterns of cognitive behavior when children view educational programming in areas such as attention, comprehension, interactive learning, and altered attitudes. The focus of a large portion of the research has been limited by the means of measurement available to examine children’s responses, although researchers have examined many other areas also.
One of the most immediate ways children can respond to educational programming is simply by choosing to watch a particular program rather than all others available, a process typically referred to as selective exposure. A question that has arisen is to what degree children are deliberately selecting what they are attending to when watching television.
Other popular measures of attention involve assessing “eyes off ” or “eyes on” the television screen, or visual attention. Researchers have long debated whether this aspect of television viewing by children is primarily active or passive in nature. Not surprisingly, the levels of activity and passivity appear to be dependent on the age of the child and developmental status.
Young children, such as preschoolers, tend to focus their attention on shows that contain frequent changes in visual and auditory stimuli in brief segments presented at a rapid pace. Programs that rely on sequences of relatively independent short segments, often called “magazine format” programs, were pioneered by Sesame Street, which later came under attack for allegedly making educational television too passive and/or too frenetic. Critics charged that the format was overly stimulus driven and that children were only responding with reflexive attention, rather than mental engagement. Although still somewhat debated, the majority of studies support the notion that young children are cognitively active while watching magazine-format shows (Anderson 1998).
As children age, they attend to slower-paced programming that is more plot driven than stimulus driven. This shift is believed to reflect the increasing cognitive sophistication of older children, which allows for more goal-oriented viewing. Although younger and older children alike are passively affected by television stimuli, both appear to be cognitively engaged, only in different ways.
A commonality in how older and younger children respond to educational television relates to how comprehensible they subsequently find the programming. If a child determines that the content is beyond what they can comprehend, he or she may well divert attention away from the program. This comprehensibility assessment is typically made at first exposure to content and can be repeated frequently, depending on the level of exposure. A child may make repeated attempts to reassess whether the content is at a level he or she can understand and then adjust attention accordingly.
As with attention, developmental factors play a crucial role in the comprehension process. A key factor in comprehension is the level of prior salient knowledge the child brings to the content. Increased knowledge of language, social norms, and information about the physical world allows the child to make more sense of the programming. This suggests that comprehension is not solely a function of age, but also of environmental factors that impact development (e.g., educational emphasis in the home, school curricula, level of interaction with the environment). Therefore, by providing novel information that can be assimilated as new knowledge, educational programming can increase comprehension for future educational program viewing.
Similarly, as children develop cognitively and expand the pool of experiences and memories they can draw upon, there is an increased ability to make inferences. The ability to make inferences can help children make sense of situations where necessary information may not be explicit. For example, if one character refuses to help another character who is in need, more cognitively sophisticated children should be able to infer that this is undesired behavior that may be the reason for subsequent actions by the characters. Likewise, children’s comprehension also increases as they develop the cognitive ability to understand antecedents. With little understanding of cause and effect, younger children may view acts as random and confusing, leading to the assessment that the content is not comprehensible, which in turn further diverts attention. This provides another illustration of how attention and comprehension play a dynamic and interrelated role in children’s response to educational programming.
Another aspect of comprehension is automaticity. Over time, learned behavior becomes automatic, requiring less conscious effort, and allowing more mental energy and attention to be spent on information processing and assimilation. For very young children, understanding language may not yet be automated and may require significant effort. In addition, the formal features of a program may require significant concentration on the part of younger children, making it difficult to comprehend the content. For example, when a character’s mouth is not moving, but words are heard in the character’s voice, older children will have automated the process of determining that thoughts are being expressed, whereas younger children may be working to understand the convention and miss the content. As children develop, more complicated features and story structures can be employed, allowing for the aforementioned shift from stimulus-driven to plot-driven content.
If the primary goal of educational television is to educate, then a reasonable question is: how do children respond to programs that attempt to teach? More directly, do children engage in the learning process? For learning to take place, many programs require active participation on the part of the viewer. This cognitive engagement is built upon attention and comprehension, but extends beyond them. The decision must be made on the part of the viewer to accept the challenge of active learning. Some shows ask viewers to read text (which may be laborious for younger children), answer riddles, engage in solving complicated social dilemmas, perform mathematical equations, seek hidden objects, and make comparisons.
An excellent example of this type of programming is a show called Blue’s Clues. Developed by Nickelodeon, one of the many goals of the program was to teach preschoolers flexible learning skills that were adaptive and helpful in problem solving. Some of the formal features used to facilitate participation by the viewers were: a pause typically followed questions directed at the audience as if the characters were waiting for a response; then viewers were asked to find, point to, and call out objects found on the screen; and, finally, clues were accumulated throughout each show that were required to solve a problem. Episodes were repeated five days in a row, allowing younger children to become familiar with the formal features of the show, to utilize prior knowledge, and feel a sense of mastery over the problems.
Early Blue’s Clues research is unique in that it specifically measured viewer interaction in a natural environment (Anderson et al. 2000). Over two years of collecting data, researchers found that children did actively participate in the show and that the majority of children reported having helped the main character solve problems. Results showed that children were more likely to interact with the program the more they watched a particular episode. Cognitive participation was also evidenced by improved scores on problem-solving and creative-thinking tests compared to nonviewers. For older children, the show Ghostwriter asked viewers to read on-screen text during the show, which 83 percent of children reported doing. In an effort to improve literary skills, the program also asked viewers to compete in mail-in contests that involved elaborate writing tasks, such as creating songs and writing stories. Some 450,000 children sent in letters during the first two seasons.
Numerous other studies of children who view educational television have revealed that they show increased abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and knowing current events (Fisch 2002). One recurring theme throughout the research is that children can learn from age-appropriate educational television. Once children advance beyond the target age audience for most programs, the benefits of viewing quickly diminish.
Frequent goals of educational programs have been to present positive social lessons and promote pro-social attitudes and behavior in children. Internationally popular shows like Barney and Friends and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood aimed to teach children the value of behaviors like sharing, kindness, and friendship. Research has shown that many of these programs were successful in cultivating an appreciation for these positive characteristics. The pro-social benefits for children often increased when educational messages were accompanied by similar activities separate from television viewing.
A related goal often is to reduce antisocial attitudes and behaviors. Research has shown that children classified as having behavior disorders with tendencies toward violence actually increased in their concern for others after having watched pro-social programming. In contrast, many critics have argued that children reinforce gender and racial stereotypes in response to viewing non-educational television. A recurring focus of research has been how to prevent, limit, or diminish many negative effects media can have on children. Areas such as stereotyping, fright responses, the impact of exposure to violence, and advertising to children have received a great deal of research attention. Some of the means of mediating children’s response to media, both positive and negative, are limiting exposure, providing supplemental content apart from television, and reinforcing positive messages with dialogue after viewing. One of the most effective means of mediating effects is interactive co-viewing, in which an adult watches the content with the child and asks critical and observational questions. Research has shown that adult co-viewing is capable of assisting children to learn facts, acquire positive attitudes, and integrate social norms into behavior. Significant evidence supports the active involvement of adults in enhancing a child’s response to educational television.
One shortcoming in the body of research available is that it is often difficult to compare findings due to a lack of standardization in measurements. Fields like developmental psychology, educational psychology, and child development typically rely on refined scales and standard batteries of tests. Many of the scales and tests used have been repeatedly verified in the crucible of research and can provide quantifiable values for concepts such as self-esteem, language development, and cognitive skill. A uniformity in agreed-upon measures would allow for direct comparisons between study results and pave the way for future meta-analyses.
- Anderson, D. R. (1998). Educational television is not an oxymoron. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 557, 24 –38.
- Anderson, D. R., Bryant, J., Wilder, A., Santomero, A., Williams, M., & Crawley, A. M. (2000). Researching Blue’s Clues: Viewing behavior and impact. Media Psychology, 2, 179 –194.
- Fisch, S. M. (2002). Vast wasteland or vast opportunity? Effects of educational television on children’s academic knowledge, skills, and attitudes. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 397– 426.
- Palmer, E. L., & Young, B. M. (2003). The faces of televisual media: Teaching, violence, selling to children, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Singer, D. G., & Singer, J. L. (2001). Handbook of children and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Van Evra, J. P. (2004). Television and child development, 3rd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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