Research Focuses on the Promise and Peril of Television for Children
Children and television. It’s a hot topic across the nation. How does television affect children? Is it bad? Is it good? How do programming, amount of viewing time, surround sound and other technological “advances” affect behavior, play, parent-child interactions, and attention span? In the UMass Amherst College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ psychology department, Daniel R. Anderson has made it his life’s work to answer such questions as they relate to infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers. “My research,” he says, “focuses particularly on the cognitive and educational aspects of children and television. My past research focused on older preschool children and guided my advice on a generation of television programs on PBS, Nickelodeon and Disney. These days, besides studying toddler understanding of television, I also am looking at the effects of adult background television on infant and toddler behavior, brain activation during TV viewing, and the relationship between watching television and diet.”
Widely published, Anderson receives significant grants from government research agencies, private foundations, and industry every year. In 2005 alone he has received $300,000 from the National Science Foundation for the impact of television on very young children and $88,000 from the Sesame Workshop for the impact of baby videos on parent-child interactions. Anderson frequently consults on the development of children’s television programs and other electronic media, including videos and websites, offering expertise on program design, research and strategic planning. His cutting edge investigations bring to the fore information that impacts households across America.
“I think I’ve contributed to a set of basic discoveries as to how and why young children watch TV,” Anderson says. “These discoveries led to a reconceptualization of how educational TV programs can be made for them.” Shows like Captain Kangaroo, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, Sesame Street, Fimbles (BBC), Go Diego Go, and It’s a Big Big World benefited from Anderson’s advice. His name appears in the creative credits of Blue’s Clues, Allegra’s Window, Gullah Gullah Island, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Dora the Explorer. The bestselling book, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 2000), devotes a chapter to why they do what they’re supposed to. Said Gladwell in a recent interview, “[Sesame Street and Blues Clues] started learning epidemics in preschoolers, that turned kids onto reading and ‘infected’ them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But the truth is that it is carefully and painstaking engineered, down to the smallest details. There’s a [very funny] story, in fact, about the particular scientific reason for the creation of Big Bird.…But I won’t spoil it for you.”
Anderson came to UMass Amherst in 1970. “It was a dynamic, rapidly growing university with seemingly limitless possibilities,” he says. “Over 35 years I have experienced lots of highs and lows, crossroad moments, and interactions with mentors. Overall, I have enjoyed the freedom to pursue my interests as they developed and refocused.” Anderson, who sits on various advisory boards and national committees, notes that today’s psychology students at UMass Amherst take courses from professors who are leaders in the field. “I’ve sponsored many undergraduates for honors theses or internships in the television industry that led to graduate study and careers in the media industry. This semester I’m teaching two graduate seminars of about a dozen students each. Next semester I’ll be teaching an undergraduate developmental psychology lecture course with about 500 students.” Undergraduate, as well as graduate, research assistants—6 to 10 at a time—are involved in Anderson’s active research program which gives them considerable experience in research and cross-university collaborations. As a teacher, Anderson is tops, as evidenced by his 2004 Academic Outreach Award.
Anderson’s work definitely connects to the world. As he puts it, “Contemporary children are growing up in homes saturated with electronic media different both in kind and amount than ever before. As a society, we are engaged in a vast, uncontrolled experiment with our children’s environment. And yet, few researchers are studying the processes or the consequences. I hope the broader impact of my research will increase awareness at many levels so that we can be cognizant of both the promise and the peril of what we are doing.”
November 14, 2005