Why Are Children’s TV Shows So Strange?

Linda Geddes

 

Most people have a favorite TV show from childhood. If you’re a parent, there’s also probably a show that your children adored but you found strange, or even a bit creepy. Right now, for many parents, that show is Moon and Me. It follows the nighttime exploits of a mismatched set of dolls – including Pepi Nana, a soft pink onion called Mr Onion, and the milky, clownlike Colly Wobble – who come to life whenever the Moon shines.

 

My 1.5-year-old nephew doesn’t share this skepticism. As the episode we’re watching unfolds, he moves closer and closer to the screen, smiling, cooing, pointing and saying, “Wow.” My 8-year-old daughter stares in slack-jawed wonder at it all.

 

What is it about these pre-school TV shows that makes them so captivating for young viewers, but so strange to adult eyes? As a mother, I’ve worried whether watching television at a young age is a healthy childhood experience or a mind-rotting activity stunting my children’s development. The fact that I don’t understand these shows hasn’t helped.

 

Young children’s minds process information differently from adults’; what’s weird for us is often highly engaging for them. A better understanding of these differences could help create healthier, more engaging television programs, boosting children’s understanding of the world as well as keeping them entertained. And it could also help parents and caregivers like me to make better decisions about the type of television we let our children watch.

 

Moon and Me, it turns out, is a product of research, informed by a collaboration between the co-creator of the hit show Teletubbies – Andrew Davenport – and Dylan Yamada-Rice, a researcher specializing in children’s education and storytelling, to study how children interact with toy houses.

 

Such direct collaborations between academics and children’s TV are not new. Sesame Street, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, employed developmental psychologists and education experts as part of the production team from the outset. Co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney thought television might be used as an educational tool to better prepare kids for kindergarten.

 

By January 1970, just a few months after it first aired, roughly a third of 2-to-5-year-olds in the USA regularly watched the show, with estimates of 2 million households and upwards of 5 million children tuning in to each episode. And although it was entertaining, every episode was – and still is – planned with specific learning objectives in mind: “The Sesame mission is to help children grow smarter, stronger and kinder,” says Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop and a developmental psychologist.

 

 

Has it succeeded? More to the point, how do you design a study to reliably test whether it succeeds? “The question you really want to ask is: If you had the equivalent of kids who were randomly assigned to watch television and another group that didn’t, would it change the outcomes?” says Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. As it turns out, the rollout of Sesame Street in 1969 did almost exactly that.

 

By the late 1960s, most U.S. households owned a television set, but whether they could watch Sesame Street depended on where they lived, because in some areas, it was broadcast on Very High Frequency (VHF) channels, in others on Ultra High Frequency (UHF) channels. UHF signals were weaker, and some TV sets couldn’t receive them, which meant only around two-thirds of Americans had access to Sesame Street.

 

“Just the act of being exposed to the show and watching it routinely increased school performance among the children who were able to view it,” Levine says, citing the results of a study he and Melissa Kearney at the University of Maryland published. Yet the study found that children who watched Sesame Street were more likely to be academically on track, and less likely to be held back, than those who didn’t. Crucially, access to a VHF signal wasn’t contingent on parents’ wealth or education – factors which might have affected children’s later school performance. In fact, the study showed that children growing up in “economically disadvantaged” communities benefited the most from watching Sesame Street.

 

Not all television is as concerned with children’s education, though.

 

In the late 2000s, Angeline Lillard, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was looking at how children’s behavior might be affected by the ways television characters behaved. Her team had been watching a lot of SpongeBob SquarePants – an American cartoon about a talking yellow sea sponge living in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea. The show is eclectic, to say the least, something that has helped it attain a cult following with children and adults alike.

 

“We were watching a whole lot of SpongeBob in lab meetings, and I felt I just couldn’t get any work done afterwards,” Lillard recalls. “I thought: ‘If that happens to me after watching it, I wonder what happens to 4-year-olds.’”

 

This prompted her to start a new study, looking at the impact of television-viewing on children’s executive function – a set of cognitive abilities that include focusing attention, planning, deferring gratification and managing emotions. Compared to watching a different children’s cartoon, called Caillou (about the everyday life of a 4-year-old), or simply doodling on paper with crayons, watching SpongeBob impaired 4-year-olds’ performance on various tests, including reciting a list of numbers in reverse, and learning to touch their toes when being instructed to touch their head.

 

At the time, Lillard thought it might have been the fast-paced editing that was to blame. In the SpongeBob clip they used, the scene changed roughly every 11 seconds, whereas in Caillou it was every 34 seconds.

 

 

Four years later, she published the results of a more thorough follow-up study. It wasn’t the speed of cuts that was problematic, but how much fantastical, physics-defying content they contained.

 

“Very early in life, if not innately, babies have a folk understanding of having things fall, or that if something pushes against something else, it is going to fall down,” Lillard explains. But what happens is that a car flies through the air, then it winds up in outer space, then suddenly they’re skiing down a slope, they’re under the sea, they pour cat food out of a box and what comes out is far more than could possibly have fitted inside the box… It’s just one thing after another that can’t possibly happen in the real world. “Our brains aren’t set up to process all of that,” says Lillard. “My inkling is that the prefrontal cortex is working hard to figure all that out and then POOF! It can’t do it. It’s just not realistic.”

 

Lillard stresses that they have only observed a short-term effect – there’s no direct evidence to suggest that watching highly fantastical content will harm your child in the long run – but children as old as 6 were affected (they haven’t studied older children).

 

And it wasn’t just SpongeBob. Martha Speaks – a program about a dog who gains the ability to speak English after drinking some alphabet soup, intended to teach children vocabulary – had a similar effect, as did a relatively slow-paced cartoon called Little Einsteins, about four pre-schoolers helping a fairy put the Northern Lights back in the sky. Even well-intentioned educational programs can backfire if their content isn’t age-appropriate.

 

A series of photographs appear on the screen: two yellow wooden ducks against a white background; two turtles swimming underwater; two lion cubs in the African savanna. Soothing classical music plays in the background.

 

This is a short clip from a DVD called Baby Einstein: Numbers Nursery, which aims to introduce infants to the numbers one to five, and I’m watching it with Tim Smith, a developmental psychologist at Birkbeck Babylab in London.

 

Smith tells me his colleague showed this video to 6- and 12-month-olds, tracking their gaze to gauge their interest in the images and whether they were looking at both objects, which is obviously important if you’re trying to teach the concept of ‘two.’ After watching the clips, they would ask the parents what they thought of them.

 

The parents would say, “I really liked the bits with those lion cubs and the turtles; those were really cute. My little one adored those bits as well.” But the researchers noticed that the children seemed uninterested in these scenes.

 

 

Smith thinks this is because toddlers’ immature visual systems struggle to pick out the creatures from their backgrounds. He shows me a second sequence developed by another colleague, who worked with a television company called Abbey Home Media.

 

A 2D cutout of a lamb spins down onto a plain green screen while the narrator says: “It’s a lamb.” The same thing happens twice more. Then the whole sequence repeats again, only this time, the narrator says “One, two, three,” as each lamb lands. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. But when the same babies who watched Baby Einstein were shown this, their eyes tracked the arrival of each lamb, suggesting that they were engaged and following it.

 

A memory floods back to me: sitting on the sofa, trying to get my own young kids to watch the BBC nature documentary Blue Planet. At the time, it seemed relaxing, educational – surely real porpoises and polar bears are far better than endless repeats of Peppa Pig? But they seemed completely uninterested. Now I know why.

 

Smith pulls up a different video. A 3-year-old girl in a pink patterned cardigan sits on her mum’s lap watching TV. Another window shows what she’s looking at: Waybuloo – a British-Canadian children’s TV series, featuring four CGI animated characters with unnaturally large heads and eyes, floating around a fantastical land called Nara.

 

The girl is hooked up to eye-tracking equipment, and, as the freakishly cute ‘Piplings’ float around, her eyes precisely track their movements, confirming that it’s these creatures, rather than the mountains or trees in the background, that have engaged her interest. Smith tells me Waybuloo is so effective that Babylabs around the world now use a clip from it, or similar children’s cartoons, whenever they need to draw the attention of a child back to what they want them to look at on the screen.

 

The TV screen flickers. Now the little girl is watching a film of three women spaced out in a line, each holding a brightly colored ball. Smith points out the girl’s eye movements. To start with, she looks at each of their faces in turn. Now, as the women begin to dance on the spot, her attention switches between them. Next, the women take it in turns to throw their ball in the air or shake it from side to side, the girl’s attention drawn to these bright, moving objects.

 

I watch footage of the same girl when she was just a year old. Her enormous brown eyes show a gaze that is more sluggish, less coordinated, drawn less to faces and more towards any movement on the screen – and to those brightly colored balls.

 

It’s a subtle difference, but if you want to attract a young child’s attention towards an object or character, you have to point all the visual information in a scene towards it or they will struggle to follow the story. That’s why children’s TV shows have big caricatured faces, often with things sticking out of their heads. “So when they move their heads, there’s a lot of peripheral motion,” says Smith. “There’s also lots of luminance and color contrast that guides their attention to it. You’re helping them to find the thing they’re interested in.”

 

 

In 2014, he published a study showing how closely attention-grabbing features, such as color, brightness and movement, matched the location of the main speaking character in frames from children’s TV shows, compared with six adult shows. “We wanted to see whether the producers of these children’s shows have, through trial and error, developed techniques that effectively help infants to understand and process information,” Smith is quoted in a press release at the time.

 

They had. Paring down the action enables infants’ sluggish attentional and visual systems to keep up. And characters’ eyes tend to be very clearly marked, the outlines of their faces often set against white, or uniform-colored backgrounds, making them stand out even more.

 

It means that even with a very primitive visual system, you’re still able to quickly identify that main speaking character. This makes it easier for children to follow the story and potentially learn from it.

 

Andrew Davenport – the producer of Teletubbies and Moon and Me – studied speech therapy at university, but his real passion was drama.

 

Upon graduating, he and a friend set up a theatre production company, and it was through this that he landed a job as a writer and puppeteer on a Ragdoll Productions show called Tots TV. The show, which featured three ragdoll friends, their pet donkey and a mischievous dog, won two BAFTA awards, finding audiences in the U.K., U.S., Central and South America. But it was nothing compared to what Davenport did next.

 

1997’s Teletubbies was the TV equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, going on to air in over 120 territories in 45 different languages. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po were inspired by a trip to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington with Anne Wood, founder and creative director at Ragdoll. They wandered into an exhibition about space and Davenport said, “Isn’t it weird how they put all this technology into the spacesuits, and when you see them walking about in them, they look as much like babies in nappies as anything.”

 

The Teletubbies were conceived as technological babies, set in a technological superdome. Even the windmill on the hill is a nod to one of the first pieces of technology children encounter: a pinwheel on their pram. Their bodies were painted bright fluorescent colors, because that seemed to fit with the technology theme, as did putting the TV screens on their stomachs – TVs that showed videos of children doing simple activities in the real world.

 

“For me, Teletubbies is entirely around that early stage of life when the child is coming to grips with their own body and their own physicality: walking, talking, running, falling over – all of the things that the Teletubbies did,” says Davenport. The green-hilled set was designed to accentuate the depth of the physical space they inhabited, and much of the show simply involved the Teletubbies coming and going and popping up and down, playing with those physical concepts.

 

Some adults, however, didn’t get it. The show was accused of “dumbing down” children’s TV and criticized for its constant repetition, poor plots, and lack of sense of place. But that was exactly the point. Teletubbies was perhaps the first TV show specifically designed for 1-to-2-year-olds. One Norwegian TV executive has described it as “the most market-oriented children’s program I’ve ever seen”.

 

Davenport and Wood had learned the visual equivalent of babytalk. If the Teletubbies are weird, it’s because – visually and developmentally – so are infants.

 

For Wood, the design of shows like Teletubbies is intuition combined with years of trial and error. “I think the only skill I have, if I have one, is being able to watch a screen like a 3-year-old might. It is about knowing when to pause, how long to pause for, how to make that comic, how to use anticipation.”

 

This is an excerpt from an article written by Linda Geddes and originally published in Mosaic under a Creative Commons license. Read the rest of the article here.

 

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