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Can TV Promote Kids’ Social-Emotional Skills?

Help your child or student learn positive social-emotional lessons from TV.

By Claire G. Christensen and Kate Zinsser, University of Illinois at Chicago

As a parent or educator, you’ve heard it before: violent TV creates violent children. But, what about TV shows that depict getting along with others, solving problems, or handling emotions constructively? If kids can learn to fight from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, can they also learn to share from Daniel Striped Tiger? Researchers have explored whether TV can promote social-emotional skills like cooperating and self-regulation—skills that support children’s academic and social success. Based on their work, here are some key facts about the effects of positive social-emotional content in kids’ TV:

Positive TV content can help. When TV characters demonstrate social-emotional skills, children can learn from them. Television shows that depict sharing, getting along with others, or rejecting stereotypes can improve those skills in children (Mares & Woodard, 2005). Children may also benefit from TV shows that encourage emotion regulation, befriending diverse children, and solving problems responsibly, although this research is less conclusive (Christensen, 2013).

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Content matters. Some children’s TV programs improve social-emotional skills; others don’t. Even among educational TV shows, some series and episodes have more positive social and emotional content than others (Christensen & Myford, in press). Here are two guidelines that may help you pick TV shows with strong social-emotional content. 

  • Look for cooperation and helping. The evidence is strongest for positive effects of televised altruism—behaviors like sharing and helping (Christensen, 2013; Mares & Woodard, 2005). Educational kids’ programs usually emphasize these altruistic behaviors (Christensen & Myford, in press), and children tend to get the message. If you’re looking for a safe bet to improve your child’s social skills, pick a show that includes lots of cooperating and helping.

  • Look for positive behavior throughout the episode. Children are more likely to understand a TV episode’s positive message if it isn’t mixed with negative behavior. For example, sometimes TV characters use violence to achieve a positive goal—like fighting a villain to save a friend—or exhibit a prejudice until they learn it’s incorrect. Those kinds of episodes, which often include a lot of negative behavior in order to “teach” a positive lesson, are less likely to have positive effects on child viewers (Mares & Acosta, 2008).

Consider your child’s age. TV with positive social-emotional content is more likely to improve social-emotional skills in elementary-school-aged children. It has less of an effect on toddlers and adolescents (Christensen, 2013; Mares & Woodard, 2005). Trying to improve your two-year-old’s social and emotional skills? TV may not be your best option. Instead, try talking and reading stories about feelings.

Get involved. Help your child learn by talking about positive behaviors in his or her favorite TV show. Children are more likely to learn social-emotional skills from TV when their parents and teachers get involved (Christensen, 2013). Not sure how to get the conversation going? Here are two ideas:

  • Point out characters’ positive behavior and discuss why it’s helpful. Characters in educational TV shows often use social-emotional skills, but they rarely talk about them (Christensen & Myford, in press). You can fill in the gaps to help your child learn. For example, “Did you see Dora cooperate with Boots? Why did she do that? How did it make Boots feel?”

  • Encourage your child to use new skills. Kids may see social-emotional skills on TV, but they also need opportunities to practice those skills in real life. So, remind your child to try skills he has seen on TV. For example: “You look nervous. Do you want to try taking deep breaths like Rabbit did?”  

Social-emotional skills promote positive behavior and academic success. Many factors encourage these skills—especially warm, supportive relationships with parents and teachers. Television programs which depict these skills, if chosen carefully and followed with discussion, can help to reinforce kids’ budding social-emotional competencies.   

 

References

Christensen, C. G. (May, 2013). Effects of prosocial television on children’s social and emotional competencies: A systematic review. Paper presentation in a symposium at the annual meeting of the Midwest Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

Christensen, C. G., & Myford, C. M. (in press). Measuring social and emotional content in children’s television: An instrument development study. Journal of Broadcsting & Electronic Media, 58. 

Mares, M.-L., & Acosta, E. E. (2008). Be kind to three-legged dogs: Children’s literal interpretations of TV’s moral lessons. Media Psychology, 11, 377-399. 

Mares, M.-L., & Woodard, E. (2005). Positive effects of television on children’s social interactions: A meta-analysis. Media Psychology, 7, 301–322.

Wade George is the Director of Communications for the American Psychological Association, Division of Educational Psychology.

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