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Taking the Measure of Children’s TV
Today’s television programs for kids range from the adorable to the vile. What is their impact, for good or ill? A team of Yale psychologists has put Bert, Ernie, Barney, and the Power Rangers to the test.

“I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…”

Those lyrics, sung sweetly—maybe a little too sweetly—by the lead character of the television program Barney and Friends, have become something of an anthem for the nation’s preschool set, millions of whom can be found on any given day of the week riveted to the screen and swaying to the music. But increasingly, parents who see their children falling under the spell of a plump purple dinosaur are voicing concern over his influence. And for scores of high-minded TV critics, “Barney” has become an irresistible example of what they see as yet more airwave mindlessness.

They should relax, say psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer, codirectors of Yale’s Family Television Research and Consultation Center. Barney—in moderation, of course—is actually good for youngsters.

“Parents need all the help they can get in readying preschoolers for effective learning, and we’ve found that the Barney program offers children many opportunities for learning cognitive and social skills,” says Jerome Singer, a professor of psychology and the editor of the scientific journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. But there’s a catch. The Singers’ research demonstrates that Barney—along with such other programs on the educational circuit as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Square One TV, and DeGrassi Junior High—works best when parents watch along with their kids. Asking parents to stay tuned to the antics of Barney and company in the name of education and socialization could be construed by some as beyond the call, but the Singers are convinced that it will pay rich dividends. Besides, note the researchers, a surprising number of adults who have watched Barney and Friends say they have actually come to love the show. Unhappily, however, Barney is an exception.

“Most of TV is a wasteland,” insist the Singers, who have been monitoring the best and worst the tube has to offer for the past 20 years. “We believe in media literacy, and there’s probably nothing wrong with having kids watch an hour or so of TV a day.” But there is plenty wrong, they continue, with the all-too-common practice of using the set as an “electronic babysitting service”—regardless of what’s on. The problem is not simply a matter of being exposed to inanity and violence; it is more that the mere fact of heavy TV viewing (which the Singers define as spending four or more hours in front of the set each day) has a numbing effect on a child’s developing brain. “When we studied heavy viewers at play, we found that they were not using their imaginations as much as lighter viewers,” says Dorothy Singer.

The Singers’ conclusions about the impact of television on today’s children have their roots in the early 1970s. At the time, the researchers were studying the development of creativity, and were concentrating on behavior exhibited by preschoolers during their play sessions. Over a period of time, the Singers noticed that themes and characters from TV programs were creeping into the sessions with increasing regularity, and with disturbing effects. “The children would play the TV story, but they wouldn’t go beyond it,” said Jerome Singer, who joined the Yale faculty in 1972, after working at the City University of New York. (His wife, Dorothy, a professor at Manhattanville College and the University of Bridgeport, also came to Yale in 1972.) What emerged was a pattern according to which the more time children spent watching the screen, the less time they spent using their imaginations. And imagination, the Singers argue, is like a muscle that can turn flabby with lack of use. “TV is so easy to watch that youngsters basically become acclimated to someone else doing things for them,” says Dorothy Singer.

She, like her husband, grew up in the radio age, and they have found the comparisons of the pre- and post-TV experiences instructive. “I once got together with my brothers, and we talked about the main character in the radio version of Buck Rogers. While each of us had powerful images of him, they were all different,” she recalls. She contrasts that experience with one she had watching an MTV music video of a popular song called “Dancing.” Singer had heard the tune earlier on the radio, and, she says, “I just let my imagination go with it.” The MTV interpretation, however, presented a completely different set of images than the ones she’d created, and after viewing the video, she says, “I couldn’t get the MTV scenario out of my mind—it forced my own imagination away.”

The same phenomenon occurred among the children the Singers observed in their studies. Jerome Singer feels that television’s power to overwhelm the capacity for imaginative play could have “serious consequences” for youngsters. The data tend to bear out that fear. In research done by numerous other authorities in the field, children who consistently flexed their imaginative muscles were compared with those who were less inclined to engage in such activities. The verdict: Imaginative play leads to an increased vocabulary, an increased use of imagery, greater flexibility, an enhanced ability to tolerate delayed gratification, a decrease in impulsive and demanding behavior, more empathy, and less overt aggression. “These kids actually make better distinctions between reality and fantasy than those who don’t use their imaginations very much,” says Jerome Singer.

Given the preponderance of violence on TV these days, this clouding of reality and fantasy is especially troublesome. The Singers have conducted extensive research on the connection between watching violent shows and behaving violently. Their studies—which were among the first to examine the “natural viewing tendencies” of children over time rather than their behavior after watching just one violent program—showed that as exposure to violent and action-oriented material increased, so did aggression. These findings have since been corroborated many times. “The epidemic of violence in America is not just due to television,” Jerome Singer says, “but television certainly contributes significantly to this serious public health problem by increasing the likelihood that youngsters will engage in aggressive behavior.” Moreover, adds his wife, by detracting from imaginative play activities, television actually “limits a child’s coping skills.” The result is that an impulse is often translated into action with no appreciation of the consequences.

Eliminating the television set is a tempting solution in some households. “If you came home and found a stranger who was teaching your children how to deal out karate chops and selling them all kinds of stuff—in other words, presenting moral values at odds with your own—you’d probably kick that person out of your house,” says Jerome Singer. However, even if a household went TV-free, the medium is so much a part of American society that, as an advertising slogan of fairly recent vintage had it, “you can turn off the TV, but you can’t turn off its influence.” For better or worse in the foreseeable future, television will remain part of the cultural scene, so rather than tilt at electronic windmills, the Singers have looked for ways to use the medium to fulfill some of its educational promise.

One early stage in that quest brought them to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The researchers were interested in the development of a child’s imagination, and each show devoted time to taking children into the “land of make-believe.” In 1974, the Singers began watching youngsters watch the program, and they quickly learned, said Dorothy, that “Fred Rogers can really enhance a child’s creativity.”

Perhaps more important was a finding that they’ve since corroborated time and time again: mediation—be it from a teacher working with a lesson plan or a parent talking to a child about some aspect of a show—makes a good program that much better (and, it turns out, a terrible show less bad).

The results of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood project led to a three-year, $312,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for further research and the establishment of the television study center at Yale. Armed with funds from the NSF and numerous foundations, the Singers have examined the effects of dozens of shows, including Sesame Street, the icon of educational television. “Bert,” “Ernie,” “Big Bird,” and the rest of the cast certainly help children “learn numbers and letters,” and the show presents youngsters with “positive social influences,” notes Dorothy Singer, who adds that the program may be paced too fast and present too many segments for the younger members of its target audience to follow. The frenetic action does, however, keep parents interested, and the more a family watches, and interacts, with a program, the more young viewers can benefit.

“If you use TV intelligently, it’s amazing how much children can learn from it,” explains Dorothy Singer.

Barney and Friends is an excellent case study. It was introduced to the nation by Connecticut Public Tele-vision in 1992, and at that time, the Singers were also involved in updating “Creating Critical Viewers,” a curriculum they’d developed for the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to help teachers and parents improve the viewing skills of middle and high school students. In addition, the researchers had been asked by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to report on how public TV could help the country’s toddlers prepare for school.

Their study, which has since been adopted and implemented by CPB, involves setting up workshops for parents and teachers to make television programs interactive, instead of passive, experiences for children. Barney and Friends, which had become a runaway success, looked like the ideal testing ground.

The Singers’ first job was to determine if there was anything in the programs that was worth interacting with. During the summer of 1993, the researchers and a team of adult viewers, all of whom had been trained in developmental psychology, studied each episode of the series—there were then 48 of them—and gave them an educational seal of approval. “Each show,” said Jerome Singer, “contained an average of 100 teaching elements in such areas as cognition, good manners, understanding emotions, health and safety, music, and multiculturalism. So a half hour spent with Barney looked like a good idea.”

To see if a good idea could be made better, the researchers prepared lesson plans to go with each show and then ran an experiment with New Haven-area three and four year olds. One group of preschoolers simply watched the shows, while another group, without having seen Barney and Friends, worked with lesson plans designed for the program. A final group of youngsters watched Barney segments and, with their adult caregivers, immediately worked though the lessons that the Singers had devised. The researchers and their colleagues then tested each group. “We looked at 12 different measures and found that in 11 of 12, there were significant gains in the children who had watched the show and had the lesson plan,” said the Singers, noting these youngsters made strong gains, particularly in the vocabulary skills that educators have identified as critical to success in school. Equally important, nursery and daycare teachers involved in the study told the researchers that children in the Barney and lesson plan group were less aggres-sive toward their classmates, which meant that children spent less time in the “time out” corner and more time in productive work and play.

This experiment has since been repeated with preschoolers from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Tucson, Columbus, and New Haven. The results, say the researchers, have been similar. “By itself, Barney can’t do the whole job,” says Dorothy Singer. “The educational experience is so much richer when a parent or a teacher is there to work with the program.”

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is currently implementing a variety of interactive programming options—messages on the shows, activity books, and training sessions—that have been inspired by the Singers’ research. The hope is to make Barney and other PBS programs better at preparing young students for classroom learning.

“PBS is full of riches for children,” the Singers note, “but unfortunately, by the time kids get to be 6 or 7, many of them have stopped watching public television.”

What they do watch, according to various media surveys, are situation comedies, animated cartoons, and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, a fast-paced action show whose success upsets the researchers. The program features a bizarre array of martial arts specialists, and one immediate problem with the characters, says Jerome Singer, is their method of conflict resolution. “They win by kicking the hell out of their foes,” he notes, “and, as a result kids are imitating the fighting and kicking.”

Most of the time, the real-life scuffles end with little more than scrapes, bruises, and bloody noses. But children said to have copied their heroes may also have inadvertently harmed other youngsters, prompting calls to ban the show and prompting its creators to tone down the fighting and add morals to the plot line. “I’d like to see pressure on the industry to change things,” Jerome Singer explains. “We’re not giving the next generation effective models for solving conflicts.”

But neither researcher is calling for censorship. Indeed, Dorothy Singer says that the Power Rangers program, simpleminded though it might be, does fit into a remarkably old tradition stretching back to Greek mythology and the adventures of Hercules. “Kids—who are, after all, dependent on big people—are always trying to break away and gain a sense of independence,” she notes. “In my day, we did that with Buck Rogers; in this day, it’s the Power Rangers who help children pretend to be all-powerful.”

That they get carried away is predictable. And preventable, say the Singers, whose research underscores the critical importance of parents—no matter what the show may be. To them, the Singers’ message is: Get involved with your child’s television viewing, watch shows together, and discuss what you’ve seen. The same strategy that makes Barney and Friends better can transform any program into a kind of educational experience. “We as a nation tend to put down TV,” Dorothy Singer says. “But we’ve found that you can use most shows for beneficial purposes. It’s what you put into watching them that counts.”  the end


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