Would it be overly dramatic to compare working in children’s media to having a superpower? Well, when you create content for kids (be it shows, apps, marketing), it’s like being able to get into their houses, sometimes all at once. That is a power and, as Spider-Man says, with great power comes great responsibility.
Last weekend, the 8th international Consuming Kids Summit was held in Boston and Erin McNeill has posted some of the important takeaways from that here. Especially interesting to me is the comparison to the tobacco industry. Firstly, because it comes from Alex Bogusky, a modern day Don Draper who famously quit and said that it was immoral to advertise to children and, secondly, because who wants to wake up and realise they are today’s tobacco industry?
Another point well worth considering is the last one on the page, about responsibility. We can try and try to shift responsibility to the parents and, sure, parents are responsible for what they do. But, as a parent myself even being very aware of media messages, it is so hard to compete with the millions spent on marketing, whether targeting my children or not (my kids know all the TV heroes ‘ Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, Cilit Bang’s Barry Scott).
Ultimately, we are responsible for what we create. We are responsible for the choices we give to parents and their children.
So where does that leave us as content creators, writers or producers?
We want children to watch our shows, don’t we? Of course we do. I know I do. So am I marketing to children? I guess with promos for my shows going out, I am. Would I love it if a Planet Cosmo toy hit the shelves and children wanted it? Yes, I would. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t.
But that’s where that Spider-Man quote comes into play.
We can also do a lot of good with media. As I have said so often in this business ‘ children are going to watch television. They are going to play games. They are going to play with toys. So we may as well make sure they’re getting good television, good games, good toys. Content that enriches, educates and, yes, entertains too. Content that works with parents.
Not everyone is going to agree on what good content is and so we need to draw our own lines. To do so, I think it’s important to keep up with things like the Consuming Kids Summit. Hearing the criticism is key. Listening. We may not always like what we hear but that means we need to listen even more. And then we can create better content or, if one day we find we don’t like where we are, choose not to make it at all.
For those possibly thinking this is all very idealistic, I’ll leave you with this thought ‘ more and more parents are becoming aware about the media their children are consuming. Parents want their kids to do well. They want their children to grow up strong, confident, able to think independently, girls and boys alike. Good content for children is good business. You only have to look at Dora to see that ‘ a show with educational content, positivity and a very strong active female main character.
Many broadcasters and parents are pretty savvy when it comes to violence on children’s television, some areas of Europe in particular being very strongly against it.
And it’s fantastic to see so much positive preschool content on children’s television out there at the moment ‘ there are many shows that I’m very happy for my girls to watch and quite a few I enjoy myself (for research purposes obviously).
But there’s much more to it than violence.
Everything in a child’s environment contributes to their newly-forming world view, a sense of self and our perception of others. Television and other media exposure is a big part of that. That is something parents and anyone involved in children’s entertainment need to be very aware of. When children are learning at such an accelerated rate, everything they are exposed to teaches them something. All content is educational, whether intentional or not, and we are not always going to agree on what should be taught. So it’s important that parents know what their children are watching or playing and important for us as content creators to give children and parents the absolute best to choose from, always trying to keep in mind just what contribution our content is making to the lives of our audience.
What type of adult will watching Planet Cosmo contribute towards? Or Fluffy Gardens? Or Batman? Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? Bratz?
If we can offer children and parents a positive experience, enriching content, messages that build up a child’s sense of self and confidence, all while making children laugh and smile, we’re doing something wonderful. We’re giving gifts through our content that could turn today’s children into tomorrow’s happier adults. Isn’t that something worth striving for?
We really aren’t ever just entertaining, we’re contributing to a whole world view.
One little extra on today’s post…
I’d like to thank everyone who has got in touch about Planet Cosmo (which is airing here in Ireland on RTE right now). The reaction has been absolutely fantastic. Children are singing along to the songs, dancing, shouting out at the television screen and, best of all, laughing. More than that, all the feedback I have been getting tells me that this show works – children are learning about the planets and they’re asking more and more questions. I couldn’t possibly be happier about that. So thank you so much to everyone who is watching the show and especially to those of you who spread the word. You’re all awesome!
If we present our children with sweet sugary preschool worlds where everyone is lovely to one another, is real life just going to be a real kick in the crotch? Worse still, are they going to be totally unprepared to deal with tough situations?
Could heaping the sugar on actually be really damaging to children?
The reality is, life is not sugary sweet. Children can be mean. That’s just children finding out who they are, reacting with instinct and learning how to be among other children.
And the world can get much worse going into adulthood.
So is there a good case to be made for presenting children with fictional demons, wicked witches or bullies in order to prepare them for life? That young children actually need to see the darker side of life?
Possibly. As a parent I find that, at the right time, certain stories can really help children understand with or deal with why things happen (like when I had to explain why my scooter was stolen). Or at the right time they can even help children find the strength to overcome their own problems (like when I invented ass-kicking fairies to help my girls beat their bad dreams). Useful.
At the right time. Like medicine, to be taken when prescribed.
And yet all the research I have read indicates that violent television leads to increased aggression. Heavy viewing can scare children, leading to a paranoid world view which then leads, yet again, to increased aggression under the guise of self-defense. And some studies seem to indicate that children who have been watching more age-appropriate content rather than content outside their age range are actually better equipped to deal with life’s problems as they get older.
It seems to me that, while television isn’t to blame for children being who they are, for people being who they are, presenting the darker side of life too early will actually compound problems. In telling children that there are demons, wicked witches or bullies out there, we’re not just preparing them for the worst. We’re presenting the worst as normal. We can make them fearful, more likely to strike first or, worse still, have some aspire to be that which we’re desperately trying to defeat in our fictional worlds – certain preschool demographics were shown to aspire to being Swiper the Fox, for example, and who didn’t want to be Darth Vader?
I think, no matter which way I look at it, by presenting those tales of demons, wicked witches and bullies, we are more likely simply to end up with more demons.
In one of my articles from last year on Dad.ie, I mentioned one of the problems even the most responsible parent has with TV shows that may not be age-appropriate (or even appropriate in any way ever) – we can pick and choose what our children watch but we can’t really shield them from what other children are watching.
Since writing that article, my once-little Daisy has moved up to ‘big school’ and when that happened there was a pretty big explosion in violent expression. Not actions for the most part, but definitely words. Now kids are kids and they aren’t always nice to other kids. But you know the way big content producers make sure children know the brand and the elements unique to their product? Well, the side effect of that is that it often makes violent influences pretty easy to track.
Like the lightsaber example in my article, this isn’t just kids exploring violence as part of being kids. There are often sources, influences, inspirations. A huge amount of action shows for kids older than my girls, for example, don’t just show violence as an acceptable solution, they make it the solution of heroes. The way of champions.
It’s what the good guys do.
But I guess I do need to face one thing: TV didn’t invent violence. It’s obvious, I know, but important to point out. Just because studies show a relationship between viewing violent television and aggression (and they do), that doesn’t mean television can be a scapegoat for all the evils of the world. Same with music, or videogames or Ozzy or Lionel Ritchie or anything else.
The Vikings didn’t watch Power Rangers.
The Spanish Inquisition didn’t listen to Judas Priest.
The Huns didn’t play Grand Theft Auto.
They discovered violence all by themselves.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t aim for better, right?
That our biggest threat is still ourselves, that people inflict pain and death on other people around the world all the time bugs the hell out of me. It is not something we should just take for granted. Not something we should accept. Look at the amazing things we can do and how far we have come already. We’re pretty fantastic in so many ways, and can do so much better.
Unfortunately, as the Vikings, Spanish Inquisition and Huns have shown us, removing television violence isn’t going to solve the world’s ills. I wish it were that simple. But we do know people learn from the television they watch as children. So, as an idea, how about this – let’s not make it worse. Positive messages, showing alternatives to violence, reinforcing how amazing we all are and that, as it happens, not everyone is out to get you, may go some way (even a very tiny way) to eventually leading to a time when we’re all just good to each other.
One thing that I love about the Internet is that it allows voices to be heard in a way never possible before. If a product or service completely misses the mark, it will be all over the ‘net the very day it launches. If a customer service rep sends insulting emails to a customer, we’ll hear about it. If an effort to boost sales from girls results in more gender limitations, well, you get where I’m going. And, for those of us creating or making anything at all, it makes it much easier to get a sense of how we’re doing. It gives us information which can inform all our future decisions.
Feedback is fast and loud on the Internet.
It’s very powerful. It’s democracy.
But it can also be like picking up your pitchforks and torches and storming a castle.
Last week, CBeebies launched a new format for Waybuloo, the meditating children’s show, during its bedtime hour. They cut it down to about ten minutes and added a narrator. The Internet did not like it. No sir, the Internet didn’t like it one bit. An outcry made its way around Twitter, with mail addresses to those in CBeebies being distributed so those voices could be heard.
And those voices were heard.
CBeebies made the decision to revert to the older format of Waybuloo. All was back to normality, the CBeebies bedtime hour was restored to its former glory and we could all sleep peacefully again.
I don’t see much of Waybuloo and I didn’t catch the new version. From what I read, the narrator went against its peaceful, gentle feel. So that could have been a bad move and, if so, it’s easy to see why it might upset fans of the show. And I give credit to CBeebies for listening to their audience and being willing to drop the new version even if that meant letting go of many decisions and a lot of work. But then I think about how many episodes of that new format aired…
When a show is well-established, and Waybuloo is, change will always be difficult to its fans. We fear change. That’s our thing, it’s what we do. But give something a chance and maybe, just maybe, some merit will be revealed. I can’t think of the amount of comedy shows, for example, that I dismissed after one episode only to find them grow on me and find myself really clicking with the humour. Sometimes it takes a while for us to get past simply the notion that this is new.
I remember some years ago Sesame Street aired a few episodes without the Elmo’s World sequences. Apparently they didn’t go down well and children were asking, ‘Where’s Elmo’s World?!’ So they put it back. But I couldn’t help think, you have aired this show with Elmo’s World for the entire lifetime of that audience. Of course they’re going to ask where it is if you take it out. I could throw a rotten fish head at a child for a year and then, one day, walk by without doing it and the child would shout, ‘Hey! Where’s my fish head?!’ The first reaction will always be, hey, this is different!
It’s what happens when we get over that that counts.
So I don’t know about Waybuloo and what way that should have gone. But I do know that feedback on the Internet is fast and loud and, very often, we react to change simply for being change. Feedback is immensely valuable. But mob rule..? How can we tell one from the other? Perhaps there are times we should take a moment to consider before reaching for our pitchforks and torches, just to let things settle. And, if we’re the one in that castle being stormed, yes we need to do what is best for our audience but maybe, just maybe, we need to build better defenses to give ourselves time to work out exactly what ‘best’ is.
I have been thinking about the push on media literacy, which I believe to be important. Several studies on children and advertising have recommended that scepticism (which children only seem to pick up as they get older) isn’t enough. Children need to be educated on the nature of advertising, its intent and then given counter-arguments. Some have suggested warnings and announcements to alert children before ads are aired.
Not bad defence tactics.
But… if we were shooting at our children, would we be recommending they wear flak jackets? Or would we, like, just, you know… stop shooting them?
During the week, there was a story about a study that linked psychological problems with screen time. Check it out HERE. Or HERE, for another article on it.
The study reckoned that over 2 hours a day could cause problems. Now I wouldn’t be all that happy if my girls watched more than 2 hours of television a day. But… the reports of this study don’t say ‘television’. They say ‘screen time’. It’s not the same thing.
In many modern studies, television, gaming and even internet are all lumped in together as ‘screen time’.
That makes no sense to me. Gaming is not the same as television. The co-ordination required in a game has got to be utilising whole different sections of the brain than those active while watching television. Not only is the internet not the same as television, but one site is not remotely like another site. One might simply be read, like a book. One might be closer to a game. One might be factual. One might be complete nonsense.
The same is also true within the category of television itself. Often the content is not considered. It’s certainly not mentioned in the articles on this, though it could be in the study itself (I’ll see if I can track it down and find out). Three hours of Saw films is going to have a vastly different effect to three hours of Sesame Street.
All screen time is not equal.
This has been shown many times in research, with some of the most notable studies being conducted by Daniel R. Anderson (University of Massachusetts) and his peers. One particular study of theirs, which followed teenagers long after their preschool viewing habits had been studied, found that viewing educational shows as preschoolers was associated with better grades, better concentration and more interest in books. It’s a really interesting read and available here on Amazon (at a rather high price): Early Childhood Television Viewing and Adolescent Behavior: Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development.
As they said themselves, ‘the medium is not the message, the message is.’
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the ‘bad news’ studies.
Yes, flawed some of them may be. But there have studies on the effects of television since the introduction of the medium and a large chunk of the results have not been positive. Even more important, then, to understand that all screen time is not equal. If we are filling this amorphous screen time, whether by creating content or simply by sitting our children in front of it, it’s important that the time spent is spent positively.
After all, Dead Rising 2 is not the same as Dickens on a Kindle. One enhances hand/eye coordination and teaches skills for surviving the zombie apocalypse for starters…