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Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008

Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson

Media and Emotional Development

Children need emotional skills to form relationships with others. Indeed, the capacity to recognize and interpret emotions in others is a fundamental building block of social competence.2 Developmental psychologists and media scholars alike have argued that screen media play a crucial role in children's emotional development.3 Yet few studies address this larger issue, in part because researchers have given so much empirical attention instead to media's impact on maladaptive or antisocial behaviors.

Learning about Emotions
One of the first skills of emotional competence is the ability to recognize emotions in others. Research indicates that preschoolers are able to identify and differentiate basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear experienced by television characters.4 Very young children, however, struggle to recognize more complex emotions. They tend to remember emotions experienced by people better than those experienced by Muppets or animated characters, and they do not necessarily focus on emotions of the characters when retelling the narrative of a television program.5 By the time they reach age eight, however, children, especially girls, are more likely to mention characters' affective states when retelling a televised story.6 Older children also begin to understand television characters' more complex emotions, such as jealousy.7 Like their younger counterparts, older children's recall of affect is higher if they perceive the program as realistic.8

But do emotional portrayals teach children about emotions? Surprisingly little evidence on this subject exists. One early study found that regular viewing of Sesame Street helped preschoolers learn to recognize emotions and emotional situations, though the preschoolers learned more about traditional school-based content than they did about emotional content.9 In recent years, Sesame Street has incorporated emotions and emotional coping into its curricular goals. Several storylines during the 1980s, for example, focused on birth, death, and marriage. In 2001, a series of episodes focused on a hurricane that hit New York City and destroyed Big Bird's home. Big Bird and his friends spent considerable time dealing with this emotional issue and rebuilding his nest. Later that year, Sesame Street tried to help preschoolers cope with the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington by featuring a story about a grease fire in Hooper's Store, which required the help of brave firefighters to save people. Scholars have conducted no programmatic research, however, to ascertain the long-term effects of watching such content on preschoolers' emotional development.

Researchers have found that older children can learn about emotions from television content. In a series of studies, Sandra Calvert and Jennifer Kotler explored how second through sixth graders' acquired different types of information from their favorite programs.10 Samples of children recruited from schools across the country were invited to visit a specially designed website to report on what they had learned from particular television episodes they had recently viewed. The researchers found that children do remember lessons and that they can clearly articulate them. When asked about programs rated as educational/informative (E/I), children reported learning socio-emotional lessons more often than informational or cognitive lessons. In other words, the educational programs taught them more about emotions, such as overcoming fears and labeling different feelings, and about interpersonal skills, such as respect, sharing, and loyalty, than about science, history, or culture. Girls learned more from these programs than boys did. This gender difference was attributed to the fact that girls reported liking such programs more and feeling more involved while viewing them. Finally, children learned more of these socio-emotional lessons from their favorite educational (E/I rated) than from their favorite entertainment-based programs. Because the researchers did not disentangle emotional from social lessons, it is difficult to ascertain which is more prominently featured in E/I programming and, in turn, in children's subsequent memories. Nor did the study assess whether this learning persisted over time and more crucially, whether the lessons carried over into real life in some way.

One piece of experimental evidence—research involving a randomly assigned control group— demonstrates that children can transfer to real life the emotional lessons they learn from TV.11 In the study, elementary school children from two age groups (kinder-garten through second grade and third through fifth grade) watched a popular family sitcom whose main plot featured one of two negative emotions: the fear felt by a young character about earthquakes or the anger felt by a young character who fell while trying to learn how to ride a bicycle. Half the children in the study (the control group) watched the main plot only, and half watched a version where the main plot was accompanied by a humorous subplot. The presence of the subplot interfered with the ability of younger children to understand the emotional event in the main plot, but not with the ability of older children. This finding is consistent with other researchers' insights into developmental differences in children's ability to draw inferences across scenes that are disconnected in time.12

No matter what their age, children who viewed the humorous subplot tended to minimize the seriousness of the negative emotion. It may be, then, that the humor in situation comedies impairs children's ability to learn about negative emotional issues from such content. The humorous subplot also affected the children's perceptions of emotion in real life. Children who viewed the earthquake episode with the humorous subplot judged earthquakes in real life as less severe than did those who viewed the episode without the subplot. This pattern was particularly strong among those who perceived the family sitcom as highly realistic.

The study demonstrates that a single exposure to a television episode can alter children's ideas about emotions in real life and is consistent with the idea that media portrayals can influence a child's mental representation, or schema, for emotional events. (A schema is an organized structure of knowledge about a topic or event that is stored in memory and helps a person assimilate new information.13) Scholars have theorized that people's schemata for emotions include information about expressive cues, situational causes, and rules about how to display each emotion.14 Research indicates that children use schemata to help them interpret what they encounter in the media.15 In turn, media content can contribute to a child's schemata. As an example of this interplay, one study found that children who perceived television as highly realistic had mental schemata for real-world occupations such as nursing and policing that were similar to TV portrayals of such jobs.16

In summary, there is surprisingly little evidence that electronic media affect emotional development. Early work demonstrates that regular viewing of Sesame Street can help preschoolers develop a fuller understanding of emotions and their causes. More recent research indicates that elementary school children, especially girls, can learn social-emotional lessons from television. The type of content viewed makes a difference. Programs rated as E/I teach emotional lessons more effectively than do entertainment-based programs. Some experimental evidence suggests that children can transfer what they learn from emotional portrayals on television to their beliefs about emotional events in real life. This type of learning is greatest among those who perceive television as highly realistic. Once again, the content of the program matters. In one experiment, the simple insertion of a humorous subplot distorted children's perceptions of a negative emotional event in a program and also caused children to minimize the seriousness of a similar event in real life. No research as yet addresses the long-term consequences of repeated exposure to electronic media on emotional development. It may be that children who are heavy viewers of, say, situation comedies develop a distorted perception of emotional problems as trivial and easily solved in thirty minutes or less. On the other hand, regular viewers of E/I programs may learn more about the intricacies of different types of emotional experiences because such portrayals are not routinely clouded in humor. Longitudinal studies—those that follow a cohort of individuals over a long period—are required to fully explore these issues.

Emotional Empathy
Learning to feel empathy or share emotions with others is part of what makes children effective social agents. Empathic children are more sensitive to others and are more likely to engage in socially desirable behavior in groups.17 Empathy is typically construed as a developmentally acquired skill, dependent on a child's ability to recognize what emotion the other person is feeling and to role-take, or imagine the self in that person's place.18 Infants often respond to the crying of other babies by crying themselves.19 But this emotional contagion is different from empathy, though it may be a precursor to it.

Although children clearly share experiences with media characters, few researchers have studied this phenomenon. One early experiment confirms that empathy is a developmental skill.20 In the study, children from two age groups (three through five and nine through eleven) watched a movie clip of either a threatening stimulus or a character's fear in response to a threatening stimulus that was not shown directly. Younger children were less physiologically aroused and less frightened by the character's fear than by the fear- provoking stimulus. The older children, however, responded emotionally to both versions of the movie. The preschoolers did not lack empathy because they failed to recognize the nature of the character's emotion—the vast majority did recognize the character's fear. But they were less likely than the older children to engage in role-taking with the character, a skill that other studies have found to emerge around age eight and increase during the elementary school years.21

Besides their developmental stage, other characteristics of children seem to encourage empathy with media portrayals. Children, for example, are more likely to share the emotions of a same-sex than an opposite-sex character.22 They are also more likely to experience empathy if they perceive the media content as realistic.23

To summarize, a few experimental studies show that children engage in emotional sharing with well-liked characters. Because empathy requires the ability to identify others' emotions and to role-take, older children are more likely to share the emotional experiences of on-screen characters than younger children are. Once again, content matters. Children are more likely to experience empathy with plot lines and characters that they perceive as realistic. They are also more likely to share the emotions of characters similar to themselves, presumably because it is easier to role-take with such characters. Thus, movies or television programs that feature younger characters in emotional situations that are familiar and seem authentic should produce the strongest empathy in youth. But all of these insights are derived from short-term studies. No longitudinal studies of children's media exposure over time address its effect on empathy. Nevertheless, a recent survey of adults' lifetime media habits is suggestive. In the study, adults reported on their exposure to various types of fiction (romance, suspense novels, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, domestic and foreign fiction) and nonfiction (science, political commentary, business, philosophy, psychology, self-help) print media.24 They also filled out a questionnaire measuring social skills and various facets of empathy, including perspective-taking. Even after controlling for age, IQ, and English fluency, researchers found that readers who were more exposed to narrative fiction were more empathic and had higher general social abilities. Furthermore, readers of more fiction became more deeply absorbed in stories. In contrast, readers who were more exposed to nonfiction were less empathic. In order to untangle definitively whether empathic people seek out fiction, or whether fictional stories help teach empathy, or whether both are true, researchers will have to track children's media habits over time.