Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008

Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson

Media and Prosocial Behavior

So much public attention has been paid to potential negative effects of the media on children that parents and researchers alike have scarcely acknowledged the positive. Yet if television and movies can teach children antisocial behaviors such as aggression, then it makes sense that these same media can teach beneficial behaviors as well. The challenge is to differentiate the media messages that are potentially harmful from those that are positive or prosocial in nature.

Prosocial behavior can be broadly defined as any voluntary behavior intended to benefit another person.99 Altruism is the most common example of prosocial behavior. Others are friendliness, sharing, cooperation, sympathy, and even acceptance of others from different groups.

Clearly children are exposed to a great deal of violence in the media. But how often do they witness prosocial behavior? One recent, large-scale study examined a randomly selected week of television programming across eighteen channels.100 The total sample included more than 2,000 entertainment shows. Nearly three-fourths of the programs (73 percent) featured at least one act of altruism, defined as helping, sharing, giving, or donating. On average, viewers of these programs saw about three acts of altruism an hour. Human characters rather than anthropomorphized ones enacted most of the altruism, and about one-third of the behaviors were explicitly rewarded in the plot. Altruism was more common in situation comedies and children's shows than in other types of programs. It was also more common on children's cable networks such as Disney and Nickelodeon than on general audience cable such as A&E or TNT or on the broadcast networks. Thus, programs targeted to younger viewers often portray helping behavior. As examples, Sesame Street (PBS), Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon), and Dragon Tales (PBS) are popular prosocial and educational programs for preschoolers. Arthur (PBS) and The Wild Thornberrys (Nickelodeon) are prosocial shows that are well liked by younger elementary school children, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (Disney) and Drake and Josh (Nickelodeon) are prosocial shows popular among older elementary school children.

Comparing the findings on prosocial TV content with those of the National Television Violence Study reveals much about the landscape of television.101 Children are more likely to encounter depictions of altruism (in three out of four programs) than of physical aggression (in two out of three programs) when they watch television. But the concentration of altruistic behaviors is lower (three incidents an hour) than that of violence (six incidents an hour). In children's programming itself, altruism occurs about four times an hour, but violence occurs roughly fourteen times an hour. Thus, an American child who watches an average of three hours a day of children's television programming will see 4,380 acts of altruism and 15,330 acts of violence each year.

But children and adults do not watch television indiscriminately. They are generally selective and gravitate toward their favorite programs. An examination of the top-rated programs on cable television is revealing (see table 1).

In a typical week in 2007, most of the top cable shows were targeted to children and were featured on children's networks such as Nickelodeon. Most were also situation comedies about young people in social situations. Zoey 101, for example, features a teenage character named Zoey who is one of the first girls to attend an all-boys boarding school. She is described as “a quick thinker who is constantly saving the day with her smarts and problem- solving skills.” Other child-oriented programs on this list such as Drake and Josh are similarly prosocial in nature. Nevertheless, the top two programs that same week were two episodes of WWE Entertainment Raw, which features professional TV wrestling. Because these ratings are not calibrated by age, it may be tempting to conclude that children are watching the Nickelodeon and Disney shows, whereas adults are watching the violent wrestling shows. Yet 15 percent of the audience for wrestling shows consists of children under the age of twelve.102

The TV ratings data highlight both the variety of programming available to youth and the challenge of guiding youthful preferences in a prosocial direction. In the next sections, I will explore the impact of the media on three types of prosocial children's behaviors: altruism, positive social interaction, and acceptance of others.

Altruism
Most of the research on prosocial effects of the media focuses on children's altruism or helping behavior. Early studies had children watch a television clip that featured a character engaging in helping behavior and then placed the children is a similar situation to see if they would imitate the behavior. In one experiment, first graders who viewed an episode of Lassie in which the main character saved a puppy were subsequently more helpful toward distressed puppies than were first graders who saw a neutral Lassie episode with no prosocial behavior or a Brady Bunch episode with no prosocial displays or dogs.103

Of course, one question is whether such short-term imitation can persist beyond the viewing situation. Field experiments that control children's viewing over time in naturalistic settings can shed light on this issue. In one such study, kindergartners were assigned to watch either Mister Rogers' Neighborhood or neutral programming that did not feature prosocial behavior, over the course of four sessions.104 In addition, some of the children watching the prosocial Mister Rogers received puppet role-play training that re- enacted the main events and dialogue in each episode they had seen. Two to three days later, all the children were given the opportunity either to work on an art project or to help another child who was struggling with the project. The children who had viewed the prosocial programs were more helpful than those who had seen the neutral programs were, especially if the prosocial programming had been reinforced by role-playing.

Other studies have found that training or follow-up lessons can enhance the effects of prosocial television.105 One reason why such guidance may be beneficial is that prosocial morals on television can be difficult for children to extract. Compared with violent programming, prosocial shows typically have less action and more dialogue, which makes their plots and subplots more challenging to follow and comprehend, especially for younger children. In one study, four- to ten-year-olds watched an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and were asked about possible lessons in the program. 106 Most of the children agreed that there was a “moral” to the show, yet only the eight- to ten-year-olds were able to identify the lesson—in this case, that work should come before play. The younger children focused instead on the fighting in the program. Other research demonstrates that moral lessons on television that are conveyed in the context of violence are often misunderstood by children under the age of eight.107

Social Interaction
Another concern often voiced about screen media is that they may interfere with children's social interaction. Indeed, preschoolers and their parents spend less time talking with and looking at each other when the television set is turned on than when it is off.108 Moreover, families that eat dinner in front of the television converse less and talk about fewer topics than do families that turn the television off before they sit down to dinner.109 On the positive side, families engage in more physical contact and cuddling when they watch television together than when they are doing other activities.110

Although the sheer amount of time spent in front of a TV or computer screen may have detrimental effects on social interaction, viewing particular types of programs can teach children social skills. One early study found that second and third graders who watched a single episode of The Waltons displayed more cooperative behavior in a prisoner's dilemma game than did students in a control group who had not seen the program.111 A single episode of prosocial television, however, may not be sufficient for teaching cooperation among younger, preschool-aged children.112 Part of the difficulty here is that cooperation is more difficult to model behaviorally than helping is. Also, good drama often features cooperation after a period of interpersonal conflict, and this type of mixed message is likely to be particularly confusing for younger viewers.

Even though a single program may do little, repeated exposure to prosocial television can affect preschoolers' social behavior. In one study, three- to five-year-olds watched fifteen minutes a day of either Sesame Street or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in their preschool. 113 The study observed the children's social behaviors before, during, and one week after the treatment. Exposure to Mister Rogers increased the sheer amount of social contact preschoolers had in the classroom and increased their giving of positive attention such as praise and physical affection to others. Sesame Street had a similar positive effect, but only for those who were low in social skills at the baseline. Because the study did not include a no-exposure control group, it does not permit firm causal conclusions. Nevertheless, it suggests that regular viewing of particular TV series may have a lasting impact on children's social behavior.

Acceptance of Others
The casts of prosocial and educational programs for children, such as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer, are typically more diverse than those of adult or general audience television.114 Such programming also portrays children from different racial and ethnic groups interacting with one another. Early research on Sesame Street found that over time, preschoolers who watched the program extensively developed more positive attitudes toward people of different groups.115 More recently, Children's Television Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street, has developed content that explicitly tries to teach tolerance and respect for others. One such effort is Rechov Sumsum/Shara'a Simsim, a series broadcast throughout Israel and Palestine. Like Sesame Street, the program teaches basic educational lessons to preschoolers, but it also features characters who live on an Israeli street (Rechov Sumsum) and visit their friends who live on a Palestinian street (Shara'a Simsim). One research study compared the social attitudes of Israeli-Jewish, Palestinian-Israeli, and Palestinian preschoolers before the series debut in 1998 and four months later.116 Before the show began airing, children as young as four held negative stereotypes about people from the other culture, reflecting the political turmoil in this region. Four months after the series had been regularly aired on TV, the two groups of Israeli children showed more positive attitudes toward Arabs. Unexpectedly, the Palestinian children's attitudes toward Jews became more negative, suggesting a boomerang effect of sorts. The study did not, however, measure individual children's exposure to the program, so it could be that other factors contributed to this negative effect. The study illustrates how challenging it can be to alter stereotypes, even among young children.

Summary of Prosocial Evidence
To sum up all of this research, Marie-Louise Mares and Emory Woodard conducted a meta- analysis in 2005.117 Their analysis of thirty-four studies of the prosocial effects of television involving more than 5,000 children found an overall effect of .27 (a medium size effect), indicating that viewing prosocial programming does in fact enhance children's prosocial behavior. The strongest effects of prosocial content were on altruism (.37); the effects on positive interaction (.24) and on tolerance for others (.20) were slightly weaker. This finding is consistent with the idea that it is easier for television characters to demonstrate behaviorally how to help someone than how to be cooperative or tolerant of others. In general, effects were also stronger when the television content mirrored the behavior that children were to imitate afterward. Finally, the effect of prosocial content varied by children's age and socioeconomic status, but not by gender. Effects increased sharply between the ages of three and seven and then declined until age sixteen. That effects peak at age seven is consistent with the notion that prosocial lessons may be difficult for very young children to understand, especially lessons conveyed with words instead of action. Prosocial television had a greater effect on children from middle- to upper-class families than on children from lower-class families. The authors speculated that the relatively happy world depicted in most prosocial programming might resonate best with children from more affluent backgrounds.