Research is taken as a given in some types of stories. We wouldn’t write a novel about life in 15th century France without doing some reading into what life was like in 15th century France. We wouldn’t write a sci-fi story about the ISS without finding out what it looks like and what astronauts actually do up there. We wouldn’t write a show about lawyers without doing some research on the law and how that works, right?
Except that some people try exactly that. They see law shows on television and so assume that they know all they need to know to write a story about lawyers. It’s not really a true understanding, will likely lead to mistakes and lawyers who actually live that life will rightly tear your work to shreds when you make those mistakes. You’ve got to do your homework and look up the information.
Children’s media is different though. Especially in preschool. Stories can be about going to the supermarket and we all know what going to a supermarket is like. Or a story might be based around getting on a train. We know how trains work. They might just be about falling out with friends and that’s pretty easy because there isn’t even a picture we’d have to google for that one.
NO! This is wrong! Because what you know is what it is like to experience those things as an adult. The life of a child is VERY different. They will see things you don’t. What is mundane for you to the point where you don’t notice things is still new and exciting to children. How they react to their world and each other will be very different to you.
It can be incredibly beneficial to look stuff up that you take for granted. Firstly, knowing about kids is crucial. Those ‘Secret Life of 4 (and 5) Year Olds’ and similar shows are fantastic for getting a glimpse into how they interact. If you haven’t watched any, do so. But also look up what people are telling children about the mundane things you think you know everything about. What are educators telling kids about supermarkets? What things to their early reading books point out? A lot of these will have been refined over years with research and they might suggest something you never thought of. Look it up and see what you can find out.
And when you can, ask children. No matter how good you are at this, sometimes their answers are going to surprise you. They are the real experts in their own lives.
The title of this post might not give you the correct impression of what this post is about, although having a dog is generally wonderful and I can recommend it to anyone. But really, this comes from something I thought to myself when I watched Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time. There is one shot where Rocket wakes up and the fur on one side of his face is all flat, just like a hairy dog’s face would be. It’s a really funny detail and I thought: whoever did that must own a dog.
Maybe they did. But it’s quite possible they didn’t. It could also be a result of research, doing their homework. They knew they were animating a furry animal and got all the research they could about furry animals, watched videos, talked to people who know about these things and then also put a lot of thought into each moment.
There is an old expression: write what you know. I don’t fully buy into it because it feels somewhat restrictive. Maybe it should be better expressed like this: get to know what you write. It’s not just writing either. Like the little animation touch above, it can run across the whole process. You’ll see this in something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A chimp person will tell you that the people making that movie knew their chimps. And similarly they would have rolled their eyes hard if it had all been based on pure speculation with no research behind it.
Even if you’re writing or making content on a subject you haven’t personally experienced, you can do the research. You can get to know it so that, when you create, it’s like you have that personal experience. It’s like you have that dog. Even if you don’t.
Show, don’t tell – a storytelling guideline so often repeated. Rather than have someone tell us what a character is like, for example, show us a situation that illustrates that. Let the audience put it together themselves from the story you give them. It is an important guideline because, for good storytelling, it’s often right.
But is it right for young children? Not quite.
To be sure important information is coming across, you’ve really got to tell. State that important line, that key plot point, that crucial lesson. Research into educational media and children found very early on that young children will often miss inferences or more abstract thought processes required to put pieces together if the lesson is not directly stated. It has shown that you have to be far more explicit about your educational material to be sure children take it in. And if it works for educational material, it works for plot points, character traits and so on – it just happens that people have far more reason to study this in an educational context.
In short, the research says: tell.
From my own experience, it seems the difficulty is not that children don’t take in more subtle information or that they can’t put two and two together. It is that they are taking in so much information that we as content creators lose control over just exactly what parts they are retaining and processing. I have long maintained that everything a young child sees or hears goes towards forming their world view. The difficulty is that different children in different situations are taking in different things and applying them in different ways. So to control that, to make that key information clear, we must follow the guideline offered by the research: tell.
The ideal is to achieve both. Show first. This establishes context, which is so important for understanding. It allows for the possibility of some children putting the information together themselves. Then tell. Hit the information home by telling, as clearly as possible. Those children who were a step ahead of you will feel really good about that (give them a chance to get there first) and it will solidify the information for them. Those kids who weren’t quite there yet will already have the context so that, when you state the information, it makes perfect sense and falls into place instantly.
This way you are now in control of the information, be it an educational lesson or a key plot point. So show… but also tell.
The rules are different in cartoons. Nobody really gets hurt. They can’t get hurt. They’re not even real and have little or no bearing to anything in the real world.
But when it comes to how they affect children, that doesn’t seem to really matter.
Studies have indicated that children are emotionally responsive to cartoons (no surprise to parents there) and cartoon violence and exposure to violent cartoons are associated with increased aggression in kids*.
Now I watched a lot of Road Runner and I haven’t once blown anyone up with dynamite or caused them to run off a cliff and fall until they were a mere puff of dust so we have to be careful about overhyping the ‘dangers’. But I guess the thing with our own experiences is that we don’t have a proper test scenario. We don’t have a control. We can’t fall back on the “well, it didn’t do me any harm” thing because we can’t possibly know just what parts of our personality, reactions or world view were affected (even if in a very small way) by what we’ve watched.
That is, unless you’re a twin and you watched violent cartoons and your twin didn’t.
I don’t have a twin.
The good news in that is that, just as some cartoons can have a negative effect, we can (and do) work to make a positive contribution. Good content is key.
But it seems the old ‘only a cartoon’ thing isn’t backed up in tests.
So much of the violence in the world seems to come from the idea of the pre-emptive strike. It’s about being ruled by fear. The fear that someone wants to harm you makes you want to harm them first. And then they feel threatened and aggressive. And sure enough it looks like they do want to harm you. Your initial fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
And so people die and everything goes to shit. Countries level other countries.
On a far smaller scale, children punch other children in playgrounds.
Part of this is massively reinforced by entertainment that existed long before television – stories of good guys versus bad guys. Absolutely naive and yet still a staple of stories today. Makes for a very easy watch in movies or television. Were the cowboys the good guys and the Indians the bad guys? Every side ultimately sees themselves as the good guy, and so any aggression aimed at someone with opposing views is justified. We kill the bad guys and that makes us good. Hmmm…
But there is more to it when it comes to television.
In studies that began in the ’60s*, researchers gauged the perception of the world and how it relates to television viewing. What they found was a ‘mean world syndrome’ effect. Basically, those who watched much more television were found to be far more afraid of the world around them. To the point where many heavy viewers of television would seriously overestimate crime figures and the risk of them becoming a victim of violence or crime. Not really surprising with all the Criminal Minds, CSIs and so on, is it?
Television viewing can lead to the perception that we live in a more dangerous and mean world (hence ‘mean world syndrome’) in which people can not be trusted, we are in constant danger and we need to take steps to defend ourselves.
And so children punch other children in playgrounds or countries level other countries.
This is one reason I adore preschool television over other areas of entertainment. So much preschool television reinforces the idea that people can be good to each other, that people aren’t out to get you, that we can help and be helped and that the world can be a wonderful place to live.
I remember reading about a TV conference where someone said that we shouldn’t be sugaring up our children’s television because the world isn’t actually all that nice. Sure, that’s true. And it never will be unless we start believing that it can be and work towards that rather than reinforcing the bitchy, cruel world often depicted in shows for the older kids. Preschool television shows a caring, nurturing, helpful, inspiring, playful, gentle, fun, whimsical, creative and peaceful world. No mean world syndrome. A beautiful world. One I think we’re capable of. Eventually.
Isn’t that something to aim for?
*(Gerbner, 1970; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1994)
My latest article with Ireland’s parenting site for fathers, dad.ie, is up here. It’s about princesses, pink and role models for our little girls.
I created and wrote the first series of Fluffy Gardens before I became a parent. I was asked recently if there is anything I would have done differently had I already been a parent, having more first-hand experience with children.
The truth is, yes, I would have done some things differently.
Even though I aimed for a completely safe, warm, good show built on positive values, and I totally understood that children learn from television, seeing that direct effect every day over a long period of time does make a difference. It changes things when you can’t give the children back!
I’m not saying it’s essential. But, for me, it made a difference.
And one thing having my girls really brought home is how much children can model their behaviour, mannerisms, speech patterns and more on what they see on television. Some of their understanding of what they can and can’t do in life comes from entertainment. Sure, it comes from many other places too but that’s where it gets difficult. That’s where people think, well, television didn’t affect me. But is it more just that the influences are so mixed that it’s hard to pick out exactly what effect TV actually had?
Every character in a show, mine or anyone else’s, can be a role model.
Now, I’m not saying every character should be a role model. That would likely make for some very dull television. But, still, it is important to understand that every character can be a role model, whether we like it or not. Some of Dora the Explorer’s research revealed that a sub-section of their male audience wanted to be Swiper the Fox when they grow up. You can be sure his creators didn’t intend that. But it happens.
Every character can be a role model.
And that’s something we have to accept and take on. We are responsible for what we create.
While I don’t think that should stifle our creativity, I think it’s always something worth keeping in mind. There’s some really good news here for show creators and writers – there are some voids in our modern role models. Some places where we could do with more positive role models for different sections of our community. Why is this good news? Because looking to fill those voids can lead to whole new fresh and interesting characters.
After all, if there’s no void there, someone else is already doing it.
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…