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Complex Moral Lessons in Kids’ TV Shows May Require Extra Explanations

Young children appear to benefit from straight-forward explanations of the more subtle or complex moral lessons often presented in animated television programs, according to new research from the University of California (UC), Davis.

In two separate studies, researchers monitored more than 100 children (ages 4 to 6) of various ethnicities from urban and rural areas in the United States and the Netherlands as they watched popular children’s television shows.

They found that in some instances, watching a TV show positively influenced children’s sense of fairness and right and wrong, such as with theft or interpersonal violence. More complex or nuanced ideas, however, proved difficult for them to comprehend. In many cases, the lessons even backfired, causing children to behave poorly in their own lives because they didn’t understand the nuanced solutions being presented in the show.

For this reason, researchers recommend that children’s programs contain inserts with brief but explicit explanations or discussions of the lessons presented in the program, such as inclusion. When researchers experimented with inserted explanations, children’s responses improved.

“Just putting 30 seconds of explanation in the program helped the children to understand what the lessons were in a 12-minute segment,” said Drew P. Cingel, UC Davis assistant professor of communication and the lead author of the two recent studies.

He explained that the researchers’ inserts were simple, but presented messages literally rather than metaphorically, which promoted prosocial intentions and decreased stigmatization of others.

“This could make a big difference and has such practical implications. I just think of what a significant role media could have in child development — among children that need the most help — with this one improvement.”

Most of the children who did not see the explicit insert expressed more exclusionary attitudes toward other children. For example, in one of the study scenarios, a child was using crutches, another used a wheelchair, and yet another was obese. One child appeared to have an “average body type” without disabilities.

Most children who answered questions about these characters with disabilities said they were not as smart as others, and they expressed other negative feelings about the characters’ differences, suggesting that lessons of inclusivity may be difficult for many children to grasp.

Cingel said these misunderstandings made sense when one considers that in 12 minutes of content, children often see nine minutes of exclusionary behavior or a problem being presented with only three minutes or less of a solution.

This can lead to the child not resonating with the final solution in a positive way. For example, in most cases, the program reinforced or suggested stereotypes and increased stigmatization, rather than educating children to behave otherwise, especially when they viewed the show with other children.

Cingel hopes the research prompts changes in children’s programming. “I want this to matter in the lives of kids, not just academics,” he said.

The findings are published in the journal Communication Research.

Source: University of California- Davis

Complex Moral Lessons in Kids’ TV Shows May Require Extra Explanations

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Complex Moral Lessons in Kids’ TV Shows May Require Extra Explanations. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Jul 2019 (Originally: 5 Jul 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Jul 2019
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