A study finds prosocial television and mobile apps to be an effective supportive tool for developing emotional competence in young children.

Emotions can be overwhelming and confusing for young children. And until they learn how to express and regulate them, making sense of intense emotions can be a frustrating experience. An important way children learn to develop emotional competence is by observing and modelling the emotional behaviour of the people around them, such as their parents and teachers. In a study, researchers shed light on the supporting role prosocial educational media can play in this socialization process and the positive impact of these media on the emotional development of young children.

There are many ways parents can join their children in actively engaging with educational media. “Instead of passively observing, parents can actively participate by engaging in interactive discussions about the content with their children. They can ask questions and point out the good behavior of the characters,” says Eric Rasmussen, the study’s lead researcher.

‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ is an effective prosocial educational mobile app

 The study began by randomly assigning 121 children between the ages of three and four years from three US metro areas to one of three possible combinations of media:

  1. Prosocial television programme ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ and its mobile app
  2. Commercial television programme ‘Bubble Guppies’ (which teaches science, math, and reading) and its mobile app
  3. Commercial television programme ‘Bubble Guppies’ and the ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ mobile app

With the support of their parents, the children were tasked to watch one episode of a selected television programme and play with a selected mobile app for at least ten minutes every day, over the course of two weeks. They were tested on their emotion knowledge and use of emotion regulation strategies at the beginning of the study, after two weeks, and after six weeks. Researchers also recorded the frequency of active mediation by the parents during the study.

“Instead of passively observing, parents can actively participate by engaging in interactive discussions about the content of educational media with their children.”

Promisingly, the researchers found that pre-schoolers between the ages of 3 and 4 who were exposed to the prosocial educational app ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ were better able to regulate emotions such as sadness, anger, and disappointment, using the strategies taught in the app, than children who were exposed to a more conventional educational app. However, this difference did not emerge until approximately one month after the media use portion of the study was completed, which suggests that children may need more time to process what they learn from media before they are able to put it into practice.

The study also found that the children were able to understand the app’s emotion-related content when they interacted with it on their own; parental guidance was not necessarily required.

Improving educational mobile apps

High-quality prosocial educational apps like ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ are not easy to find, however. “Very few apps available today have undergone rigorous empirical research to evaluate their educational value,” explains Rasmussen. That’s why insights from the study’s research on the ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ app could prove useful in improving the design of prosocial educational apps.

For example, the study found that when the non-human characters in an app like ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ are engaged in socially meaningful interactions, children are better able to relate to them. “The character Daniel Tiger is socially meaningful to pre-schoolers because he goes through experiences that are similar to those they would expect to go through, and experiences the emotions they would expect to feel. He is also placed in social situations that young children typically find themselves in, like going to the doctor’s office or a birthday party,” Rasmussen points out.

“Very few apps available today have undergone rigorous empirical research to evaluate their educational value.”

Educational media cannot replace social interaction

While prosocial educational media like ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ have proved to be effective tools that parents can employ to support the emotional development of their young children, such media cannot replace the learning experience of real-life social interaction. “For kids to develop emotional competence, it is important that they are able to identify, model, and practice appropriate emotional behaviors regularly,” Rasmussen explains.


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