Children could be getting the wrong messages from television programming designed with the best of intentions, according to research highlighted in On Wisconsin. An associate professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marie-Louise Mares has been studying children’s comprehension of “prosocial” programming, shows that are intended to teach good behavior, morals, and ethics. She is especially interested in storylines intended to foster inclusiveness.
“Children’s interpretations of what a show is about are very different from what an adult thinks,” Mares tells the Wisconsin alumni association publication. In one episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog that Mares uses in her research, Clifford and other dogs meet a dog with three legs. The four-legged dogs initially react poorly, one of them even expressing fear of “catching” three legs. In the end, the dogs overcome their anxiety, and learn an important lesson about accepting peers with disabilities.
Young human viewers, however, do not. “Many of them interpreted the lesson of the episode along the lines of this child’s comment: ‘You should be careful . . . not to get sick, not to get germs,’ ” On Wisconsin reports. Since a lot of prosocial programming relies on showing bad behavior and then learning a lesson about it, Mares’ research has the potential to dramatically transform the plotlines of children’s programming. One solution she’s investigating is “scaffolding,” the practice of characters interrupting the storyline to lay out the plot’s intended message.